Zoroastrian relics: Bombay’s Irani Cafés

You will notice that in this piece I use “Bombay” rather than “Mumbai”. Somehow it seems more appropriate to the subject matter.

The Zoroastrian community is one of the things that makes Bombay special. The fact that the dominant religion of the ancient Persian empire should now survive in a handful of tiny communities, mostly in India, is bizarre in itself. But that the biggest of these communities, in Bombay, has acquired a legendary status for its levels of education, wealth and philanthropic contribution to the public good is truly remarkable.

Those wanting an introduction to the Parsi community should look elsewhere (this documentary, for example [start at 2:20] or Tanya Lurhmann’s ethnography The Good Parsi). As a barebones summary, Parsi is the name given to the descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Islamic persecution in Persia between the 8th and 10th centuries. They initially settled in Gujarat but many later shifted to Bombay, partly at the behest of the British East India Company which regarded them as skilled and reliable allies. Parsis who thrived in Bombay included noted industrialists and philanthropists such as the Tata family and political heavyweights like Dadabhai Naoroji who co-founded the Indian National Congress and also became Britain’s first Asian MP.

But what does any of this have to do with cafés? Well, my first sentence, where I talk about the Zoroastrian “community”, is a little misleading. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a second wave of Zoroastrians left Iran, notably Yazd and Kerman province, for India (whether this was a response to persecution or famine is a debate I won’t enter into). While this community, referred to as Irani, boasts its fair share of actors, journalists and even a famous mystic (Meher Baba), the most visible contribution it has made to Indian life, especially in Bombay, is the Irani café.

Cashing in on an apparent reluctance of Hindus to open businesses on corners (at least this is what I’ve been told, although I suspect this is a slightly simplistic reading of the vastu shastra, or ancient Hindu science of architecture) enterprising Iranis began to set up little corner cafes in the early 20th century. These joints became a staple of street life in cities like Pune, Hyderabad, Karachi and, above all, South Bombay.

I first became aware of Iranis in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, where he describes them as places with “the simplest of menus” that “serve time and shade”. Since reading that in 2005, I have made a point of seeking Iranis whenever I am in Bombay and making tentative forays into their “simple” menus. In fact I rarely get beyond the delicious bun maska, a soft bun generously slathered with butter and sliced, which I prefer to the harder “brun” variant. The best example I’ve so far found is at the Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery, an unassuming place dating from the 1950s in the Fort area. I must admit, however, that I haven’t really developed a taste for Irani chai, which is even sweeter than its Indian counterpart and has, for me, an overpowering cardamom flavour.

Kyani and co

Bentwood chairs and chequered tablecoths at Kyani & Co (credit: localpress.co.in)

Another Irani staple is that highly flavoursome family of rice dishes, pulao (see my post on rice for an etymological diversion). I recently sampled a delicious, saffron-laced kheema pulao, made with minced mutton, at one of the oldest surviving Iranis, Kyani & Co (since 1904), in Kalbadevi. With glass-topped chequered tablecloths, bentwood chairs, mirrored columns and ancient ceiling fans, Kyani & Co fulfils most Irani stereotypes. More of these include large jars of biscuits, trays of eggs, old adverts for multigrain biscuits, a beautiful tiled floor, and some discrete Zoroastrian iconography on the walls.

About 30 minutes walk up the same road, passing a magnificent agiary (Parsi fire temple), is the smaller, shabbier Café de la Paix (named after its Paris counterpart). This one has the feel of a tiny refuge for its elderly Parsi and Irani clientele. One of these, a magnificent eccentric, talked to me for nearly an hour in delightfully eloquent English in which he referred to trains “disgorging” passengers, quoted Larkin’s “This be the Verse” and treated me to all manner of largely unrepeatable quips, such as “The two problems with this country are elections and erections”. He zigzagged between Richard Burton and Richard Dawkins, Tennyson and Trump, and told me that he grew up speaking Gujarati but also Dari, the distinctive form of Farsi spoken by the Zoroastrians of Yazd.

Arguably two of the most well-known Iranis have strayed furthest from their roots. No discussion of the topic would be complete without a reference to the world-famous Britannia, popular with Bollywood stars and British Royals. I have no doubt that the food deserves every bit of the praise lavished on it, but I’m afraid my only visit lasted about two minutes until I discovered they served neither chai nor bun maska (which was all I was looking for at the time). Equally famous Leopold Cafe, on Colaba Causeway, has long since become a bar, hugely popular with tourists and office workers but with very few obvious Irani resonances. I can recommend the chicken wings, but there are cheaper and more interesting places to drink in the vicinity.

Not all Irani restaurants, I understand, are run by Zoroastrians. I’ve been reliably informed that some are run by Iranian Muslims, which is also the case for the famous Irani cafes of Hyderabad. I’ve even heard tantalising rumours of some Baha’i-run cafes, both in Mumbai and Karachi, but haven’t yet had a chance to investigate this intriguing possibility further (more, perhaps, to follow).

Bastani and coThe much lamented Bastani & Co

Sadly, the Irani restaurants are a dying breed. Many have already closed down, like Bastani and Co, pictured above, whose infamous list of prohibitions, such as “No talking to cashier”, “No sitting long”, “No match sticks” and “No leg on chair” inspired a verse from Bombay poet Nissim Ezekiel. Others have been turned into bars, or have lost out to competition from chains such as Café Coffee Day and Barista, or simply suffered from the next generation’s lack of interest. An unlikely reincarnation exists in the UK chain Dishoom, that has managed to create an intoxicatingly glamorous approximation of an Irani restaurant at each of its outlets. Academic and blogger Simin Patel (see Bombaywalla), who acts as a historical consultant for Dishoom, is also working with Hashim Badani on a book about Irani Cafes which promises to be a worthy tribute to a glorious and zany tradition. For now, if you’re in Bombay and you haven’t been to an Irani, please get a move on!

Sustainable futures? Election time in the world’s biggest democracy

For the 16th time in its history the world’s largest democracy is going to the polls. Social cohesion, economic growth and the fight against corruption dominate the headlines but what about the implications for the environment? This article was also posted online by Asian Global Impact at www.agimag.co.uk/sustainable-futures-election-time-in-the-worlds-biggest-democracy/

It has been called ‘jaw-droppingly enormous’ (Washington Post) and the ‘greatest show on earth’ (The Economist). As far as the exercise of the democratic process is concerned, this is no hyperbole. By sheer numbers, India’s 16th general election lords it over the democratic world – an electorate of over 800 million (compare the US’ 200 million in 2012) are choosing from an estimated 15,000 candidates at nearly a million polling stations over the course of five weeks. At the national level, two giant coalitions – the United Progressive Alliance (starring the incumbent Congress Party) and the National Democratic Alliance (dominated by the socially conservative Bharatiya Janata Party) slug it out, joined by a fresh new voice in politics, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, or Party of the Common Man.

Big, chunky issues – the economy, corruption, employment, secularism – are under debate, and for many, climate change and sustainable development are way down the list of concerns. While this is understandable, it is also true that India’s cities are polluted, its roads congested and its waterways filthy conduits of disease. Alongside its rise to global prominence the country has become the world’s third biggest carbon emitter but this is rarely mentioned. Here I take a look at the three biggest contestants – the BJP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party – in an attempt to understand this neglected issue.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

With origins in Hindu nationalism, the BJP rose to prominence in the 1980s and has so far produced one Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004). Chosen candidate Narendra Modi, a self-described Hindu nationalist and current Chief Minister of Gujarat, has only recently shaken off over years of boycotts by the US and UK following his alleged failure to curb anti-Muslim violence in his state in 2002. Now, with a superstar status and widely tipped to be India’s next PM, “NaMo” is equally famousfor the economic growth model he pioneered in Gujarat – a business-friendly small government which welcomes multi-nationals with a warm neo-liberal handshake and reduced taxes – dubbed “Modinomics”.

Some suggest that a Modinomic government would be bad news for the environment – a recent Hindustan Times article described the prospect as a “development disaster” with growth coming at the expense of air quality, water security and rural livelihoods. Others point to the BJP’s investment in renewable energy, especially in Gujarat, as evidence that Modi’s red-tape-slashing dynamism is just what India needs.

The party’s manifesto lists “Inclusive and Sustainable Development” within their Ek Bharat – Shrestha Bharat (“One India, Best India”) pledge. A more detailed reading reveals a focus on energy security by maximising the potential of coal and oil as well as cleaner fuel sources. It is stated that the “BJP considers energy efficiency and conservation crucial to energy security” and that climate change mitigation will be taken seriously, although according to environmental activist Rishi Aggarwal this means “absolutely nothing” if the track record of the BJP in its existing power bases is anything to go by.

Surprisingly little is made of Modi’s 2010 book, Convenient Action: Gujarat’s Response To Challenges Of Climate Change. Granted, it has not had the impact of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth but kudos nevertheless to Modi for writing on the subject. Predictably, the book seems to have been met with a mix of sycophancy and derision, and has been accused of simply showcasing pet projects – some of dubious environmental benefit such as the ecologically controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam – rather than presenting a coherent argument.

The verdict? A Modi-led government may create the right conditions for the renewables sector to flourish but this gung-ho approach could also result in energy-intensive, ecologically-detrimental and perhaps socially-inequitable development.

Indian National Congress

Congress has dominated Indian politics since Independence with seven Prime Ministers including the incumbent Manmohan Singh as well as three members of India’s premiere political dynasty – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. The current party chairperson is Rajiv’s widow, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi while the candidate for PM is his son Rahul.

Traditionally left of centre and pro-poor, many view the party as weakened by bureaucracy and corruption today. Where the environment is concerned they have some form, having created the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Jairam Ramesh who led the latter from 2009-2011 was noted for his assertive style which included delaying some major construction projects, speaking out against fuel-guzzling cars and, controversially, suggesting at the Cancun climate talks that India might be open to committing to binding emissions cuts.

That said, an expert I spoke to who asked not to be named described Congress’ recent record on the environment as “abysmal”, pointing to the “emasculation” of the MoEF, now headed by Veerappa Moily who also just happens to be the Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas. Manmohan Singh has made it clear that he feels rich nations are responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions and should therefore shoulder the main burden of climate change mitigation. Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, has stressed the need for women’s voices to be heard in the climate change debate, while her son Rahul is not noted for his public pronouncements on the subject.

Like the BJP, Congress’ manifesto prioritises economic growth and there is promise of regulatory reform including around the issue of environmental clearances for new development projects. The Environment section – more detailed than the BJP’s – pledges to continue implementing the National Action Plan on Climate Change and to introduce a system of “Green National Accounts” whereby the costs of environmental degradation will be reflected in India’s national accounts. While the latter is a laudable aspiration it is not entirely clear how this information will actually be used.

Meanwhile, despite criticism from the BJP that Congress is using environmental clearance regulations to control big business, the evidence on the ground – new airports and coal power stations approved under Congress’ watch – suggests that there is little to choose between the two parties in the way they let economic growth trump environmental protection.

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)

The newest kid on India’s political block, the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party launched in late 2012 following activist Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to step into politics. Having quit his job as a civil servant in 2006, Kejriwal set up an NGO to promote transparency in government and has since made corruption claims against high profile establishment figures including Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law. By late 2013 his AAP took control of Delhi’s legislative assembly, only to resign after 49 days after its failure to pass a bill to appoint an independent body to monitor political corruption. Undeterred, Kejriwal is now running head-to-head against Narendra Modi in Varanasi, India’s holiest city.

As might be expected, the AAP manifesto has a strong focus on managing corruption, arguing that true swaraj (self-rule) will not be achieved until India is ruled by its people not by self-interested bureaucrats. There is also an emphasis on decentralisation of power and, as Kejriwal put it in an interview with AGI late last year, a “bottom to top approach” where village and town councils are given untied funds every year. Where the environment is concerned, it is interesting to note that Economy and Ecology are linked in a single section although a large part of the section is devoted (perhaps understandably) to the rural economy. The single “Environment and Natural Resources Policy” does not mention climate change explicitly but stresses the role of local communities in managing natural resources with the support of a reformed Ministry of Environment and Forests. It also calls for a phased shift towards renewable energy (locally-owned, of course) and a priority focus on local water resource management.

Kejriwal has a history with water – as Chief Minister of Delhi he successfully delivered on a promise of 700 litres per day of free water for Delhi householdswith punitive costs for those exceeding this limit. He later announced reductions in electricity tariffs across Delhi and additional bill waivers as a reward for those who had, under his encouragement, refused to pay their electricity bills in 2012-13 in protest over price hikes. This headline-grabbing approach to fuel poverty might spell a golden opportunity to raise awareness of sustainable resource management but Rishi Aggarwal is sceptical, warning that in the fight for votes the AAP can only promote populist policies which may not be in the best interests of sustainable development. Far more effective, he argues in his recent publication The Futility of Aam Aadmi Party versus the Promise of Active Citizenship, would be for individuals to engage with issues at the grassroots level rather than waiting for the elusive dream of political reform.

Sustainable futures?

Let’s not beat about the bush. Modi’s book notwithstanding, India has no Green Messiah among its mainstream politicians. Climate change and sustainable growth are not big ticket issues in this election and it is not hard to sympathise with the view that India has many more pressing concerns. Congress appears to have a (marginally) better track record than the others, but recent performance has hardly been inspiring and Rahul Gandhi has not indicated any great passion for the subject. BJP’s Narendra Modi, generally tipped as the next PM, has a can-do approach to development including renewable energy projects in Gujarat, but there is a risk that his enthusiasm for growth will run roughshod over environmental concerns. And the AAP? Who knows what Arvind Kejriwal’s drive for decentralisation and affordable fuel could mean for the bigger picture of India’s sustainable growth? Definitely a space worth watching. In the meantime, important as the next government could be, equally if not more important are the private and not-for-profit sectors and, above all, India’s billion plus population. If a meaningful approach to climate change and sustainable development is to be achieved, India needs active, engaged citizens more than ever.


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact” 

“Pepper it was that brought Vasco da Gama’s tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon’s Tower of Belem to the Malabar Coast.” So wrote Salman Rushdie in his 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, with such insouciance that you could be forgiven for missing the point. Indeed, pepper has an almost bland ubiquity today that belies its superstar status in the history of commodities trading. Long before da Gama and his tall ships, the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder lamented the annual drain on the empire’s economy due to pricey imported pepper from India, while Alaric the Goth who sacked Rome in the 5th century demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as part of his ransom.

When dominance of the spice trade passed from Rome into Arab and Venetian hands, others took to the sea in a bid to break this monopoly. Genoan-born Christopher Columbus, acting for Spain, struck out West in the hope of reaching India and instead found America and a place in history. Da Gama, from Portugal, sailed in the opposite direction, rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach Calicut in 1497, opening up India to European trade and ultimately colonisation.

For the spice that launched so many ships, pepper’s name comes to us via an apparently careless misunderstanding. Two similar species grow native to India: Black pepper (Piper nigrum) in the south and long pepper (Piper longum) further north. Long pepper is now largely restricted to certain Asian and North African cuisines and to the more adventurous patrons of London’s specialist food markets. In ancient times, however, it was traded alongside black pepper and the name given to it in Dravidian (South Indian) languages, pippali, was mistakenly used by the Romans, corrupted to piper, to refer to both types of pepper.

It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to guess that the Latin piper gave rise to the English pepper, alongside similar words across Europe – the French poivre and the German pfeffer, for example. More distant cousins include the Arabic filfil, which travelled to East Africa into Swahili as pili-pili. This name later attached itself to a variety of chilli, which in Portuguese became piri-piri – now immortalised in a popular sauce.

Botanically-speaking, chilli is unrelated to black pepper and grows native to the Americas, taking its name from the Mesoamerican language Nahuatl. The Swahili case, however, is just one of many examples of a word for black pepper being redeployed to describe chilli and its relatives. “Pepper” itself is an obvious example when prefaced with chilli, bell or jalapeño and equivalents can be found in many other languages.  It is ironic that chilli, spread worldwide by Portuguese traders, not only supplanted long pepper as the world’s culinary firecracker of choice but also appropriated its name. Even more ironically, the bona fide Indian word for black pepper (the Sanskrit maricha) in addition to being gazumped elsewhere by pippali, has now been pressed into service in a number of languages (e.g. as mirch in Hindi) to describe chilli! Indeed, to specify black pepper in Hindi, as opposed to red or green chilli, you need to put the qualifying word kali (black) in front of mirch.

Word origins notwithstanding, chilli is now integral to Indian cuisine and India today is one of the world’s foremost chilli producers and consumers. The country that produces the most pepper, on the other hand, is not India but Vietnam, and one can only hope that it proves as powerful an aphrodisiac there as it did for Rushdie’s hero and heroine, who consummated their love atop sacks of “Black Gold” in a Cochin warehouse and called it “pepper love”.

Economic Growth and Sustainable Development – Irreconcilable Opposites?

Those wishing to undermine the UK’s climate change mitigation agenda as useless can do so with just one word: China. Or maybe two: China and India. In this article, which first appeared in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) I probe the assumption that economic growth and sustainable development have to be at loggerheads and introduce a new initiative called India: Innovation Nation.

Is it immoral to expect emerging economies to commit to curbing their environmental impact, potentially stifling growth and trapping billions in poverty? Or is it immoral not to, given ever-bleaker climate change projections and the state of the world’s natural resources? Moral or otherwise, views on this subject are unhelpfully polarised: some argue that urban growth, airport expansion and coal-fired power stations are non-negotiable in improving the quality of life in the developing world; others insist that our only hope of saving the planet rests with stringent carbon emissions reduction targets for growing giants like India and China. Among the latter camp, applause for the existing carbon intensity targets announced by both countries at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit is muted at best. Meanwhile, a new global climate deal will not be struck until 2015, and the contribution of the developing world is far from finalised.

But do economic growth and safeguarding the environment have to be incompatible? The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit – now in its 13th year – is based on the conviction that they don’t. The flagship event of Delhi-based TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), it provides an international platform for a diverse group of state premiers, policy-makers and corporate leaders to debate critical issues relating to energy and the environment. Regular highlights include a special summit for global CEOs and a Sustainable Development Leadership Award (previous recipients have included Ban Ki-moon and Arnold Schwarzenegger). This year’s events are grouped into sub-themes including “Employment and growth potential of a green economy” and “Choices before the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and a new economic construct”. The latter is framed around the search for a new paradigm of growth with low resource requirement and minimal pollution, and takes its rallying cry from Gandhi: speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.

Whatever their value, targets and paradigms can seem offputtingly remote, and practical examples are usually a more inspiring call to action. One new initiative being launched at this year’s summit is dedicated to just that. India: Innovation Nation is a collaboration between TERI and global non-profit Forum for the Future and centres round a special publication celebrating success stories of sustainable innovation in India.

Browsing the publication, it is not difficult to feel enthused by the wealth of examples. Air conditioning, for instance, is responsible for 30-40% of India’s domestic energy consumption, but cooling doesn’t have to be so resource intensive. Technology consultant Infosys’ new Hyderabad campus comprises two identical wings, one with conventional air conditioning, the other with a “radiant cooling” system which draws heat from the room to walls cooled by water. Not only does the wing with radiant cooling consume 38% less energy than its air conditioned neighbour, but its capital spend was fractionally lower and, according to occupant surveys, it is a much more comfortable place to work. Meanwhile, microgrids – local electricity networks powered by renewable sources such as solar and biomass – are springing up over India, providing power cheaply and reliably for the first time to remote communities and casting doubt on the paradigm that fossil-fuels are a pre-requisite for modernizing societies.

India: Innovation Nation tells an inspiring story, but I can’t help wondering how widespread such examples really are across India. Martin Wright, spearheading the initiative from Forum for the Future, stresses its role as a blueprint in demonstrating persuasively that there are practical and profitable alternatives to the dominant model of high-carbon, resource intensive growth. He argues that India is an intrinsically innovative culture and has pedigree in spreading new technologies and ideas. Mobile phones are a classic case, with many remote Indian villages now supporting better networks than parts of rural England! Moreover, so much of what we would label “green living” in the West – recycling, low energy consumption and low car ownership – is commonplace in India, a country well-versed in the art of jugaad, variously translatable as “muddling through”, “quick-fix” or the rather more respectable “frugal innovation”. Unfortunately, the trend among the mushrooming middle class is to move away from this low-impact lifestyle towards more conspicuous patterns of consumption. Part of India’s challenge will be to make sustainable living desirable while putting measures in place to reduce the damage that inevitable new waves of consumerism will cause.

Targets, paradigms, blueprints and a deeply-ingrained flair for jugaad – all of these will be necessary if India is going to embrace a new model of economic growth that doesn’t help destroy the planet. Endeavours like the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit and India: Innovation Nation aren’t the whole solution – especially when we broaden the debate to China, Brazil and other emerging economies – but they provide a vital shred hope that such a model is possible.

The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit was held between January 31st and February 2nd 2013 at Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi. For more information about Forum for the Future’s work in India, visit: www.forumforthefuture.org/india and www.greenfutures.org.uk/innovationnation