Farokh Shokri: keeping alive the joy of Irani cafés

Irani restaurants democratised eating out for hopeful migrants in Mumbai. A 62-year-old man carries forth the legacy with Kyani & Co.

Updated - September 21, 2023 07:31 pm IST

Published - September 21, 2023 11:31 am IST

Farokh Shokri at Kyani & Co.

Farokh Shokri at Kyani & Co. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Raj Kapoor sat at one of the tables at the back, anxiously awaiting the box office verdict. It was 1973, Bobby had just been released at the Art Deco Metro Cinema diagonally across the busy intersection; Kapoor was eager to see the public’s response. Film historians say the director was debt-ridden and couldn’t afford big stars. That’s why he had cast his son Rishi Kapoor.

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Fifty years later, Farokh Shokri sits at the boss’ table sipping sugarless tea and keeping a watchful eye on the goings on inside the café. He, in turn, is eyed benevolently by portraits of Sufi saint Shirdi Sai Baba, Jesus, Zoroaster, Shokri’s deceased parents and Khodram Marezban, who travelled from Iran and founded Kyani & Co. in 1904. Kyani is one of Mumbai’s earliest Irani cafés, older than Parsi Dairy Farm that started down the road a few years later. By the 1970s, Mumbai had 350 Irani cafés; today their number has dwindled to less than 10%.

Shokri, 62, a partner, runs this café, where everything is exactly how it was a century ago — if you don’t count the gleaming steel refrigerators. The centenarian Polish bentwood chairs have seen several falls but they soldier on. “They tend to lose their balance and when that happens, I call the carpenter and fix them,” Shokri says. He is soft-spoken and extremely polite and apologises for his staff’s ‘rough’ behaviour. Unlike the gruff stereotype of the Irani café owner, Shokri smiles often.

Bollywood and the common man

His father, Aflatoon Shokri, came to Bombay from Arestan in Iran via Karachi. He was a history major at the nearby St. Xavier’s College and fell in love with the café. When the ‘legendary Irani restaurant’ as its sign declares — located on the ground floor of the sprawling Jer Mahal in a Mumbai neighbourhood chock-a-block with heritage structures — came up for sale in 1960, his family bought it. Aflatoon came to work every day until the day he died at 80.

In a city where restaurants are sharply divided along monetary fault lines, the Irani café is, still, everyone’s favourite

In a city where restaurants are sharply divided along monetary fault lines, the Irani café is, still, everyone’s favourite | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Irani cafés were important because they democratised eating out for Mumbai’s migrant population. “Our pricing has always been down-to-earth,” says Shokri. “From a Bollywood star to a politician or a common man, our doors are open to everyone.” In a city where restaurants are sharply divided along monetary fault lines, the Irani café is, still, everyone’s favourite.

The price of tea starts at ₹24 and the five types of kheema on the menu are all under ₹200. Shokri’s business philosophy is simple: “I don’t comprise on quality and I give a competitive price,” he says. “I do this by reducing my margins, taking a little less home.” Kyani was briefly on Zomato but Shokri says “their way of doing business is not feasible”. After the lockdown, he replaced the crockery with paper plates and cups to cut breakage costs. The mezzanine ‘family section’ is closed these days and, like all Irani restaurants, the customer must adhere to quirky instructions. “A firm request. Take your time, decide, and place your entire order at one time,” a sign reads.

Witness to a changing megapolis

Shokri began working here as a teenager, but only got serious about the business after he completed his postgraduate degree, followed by law and marketing management degrees; he worked for 15 years in the private sector. “I experimented with a lot of things before I joined the family business,” says Shokri, who has been here since 1995, when he expanded the menu to include Parsi dishes such as salli boti and dhansak. Later, with the help of his daughter, he added to the bakery menu and introduced eggless varieties of mava cakes. Like his father, he has diabetes and stays away from the cakes and other sugary goodies. He travels on his Activa scooter from home to work and back, a distance of two stops on the railway line that runs parallel to the cafe.

Shokri has had a ringside view of a rapidly changing megapolis. “It used to be a two-way street. There were double-decker buses and cranky Fiats that used to emit black smoke,” he says, gesticulating at the road outside. “It’s all gone. It’s all history, only the memories are left.”

Shokri says the area has gone from being residential to commercial. “Earlier there were many Kudds or residential clubs for Goans who were visiting town. Now business is dependent on a floating crowd and not neighbourhood residents.” Students from St. Xavier’s College, and lawyers from the magistrate’s courts (both built in the 1800s) are constants. Those who flock from the suburbs to make Instagram reels while they are dipping bun maska in their Irani chai or eating kheema pav come mostly on the weekends.

Shokri did try to experiment with Chinese food but it was a “big hotchpotch”, he says. “Life is nothing but trial and error. I understood that the concept of an Irani café means you must have Parsi and Irani dishes, you can’t have Chinese and Mughlai.”

Life has come full circle again. The descendants of those immigrants, who travelled thousands of kilometres east for a better life, now find their destiny in the West, rather than staying put to run their dwindling family businesses. “I feel very sad that our forefathers came here, they worked hard, they established a business and now the young generation doesn’t want to follow,” says Shokri. “Most have migrated. They are qualified and prefer a life overseas.” Shokri continues to stay put at the table reserved for him.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.

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