Iran doesn’t seem so far away from this Mumbai locality. Taran N Khan takes the tour, fuelled by baklava and black tea
In the thirty years he has spent in India, writer and translator Reza Qasem Nejad has developed an immunity to spicy food and a taste for meetha paan. “But I only chew paan when there are no Iranians around,” says the grizzled fifty-year-old, “Otherwise they laugh at my Indian tastes.” Nejad came to Mumbai from his hometown of Teheran, led by a sense of adventure as well as family connections through his Indian-born wife. “Now I suffer from an identity crisis,” he says. “In India, I am known as an Irani. But back in Tehran, I am called a Bombay-wala.”
This sense of hyphenated identity runs deep in the narrow bylanes of Dongri, a south-central locality near Bhendi Bazar and a centre of the “Iranian-Indian” community. The Irani presence here dates back over two centuries, but the present community are “mostly second or third generation migrants, whose forefathers escaped the drought in Iran seventy-odd years ago,” says Dr SJ Najafi, a professor at St Xavier’s College. “Most of them came from the city of Yazd and set up ‘Irani’ hotels. The migrants included both Zoroastrians and Shia Muslims, but it was the latter that gravitated towards Dongri”.
What is less well known is that even today, the Iran-Dongri connection, though ebbing, is still alive. Conversations here abound with references to sisters married in Iran coming “home” for their deliveries or relatives selling their hotels and going “home” to Iran. “We keep going back and forth,” says Hasan Saifi, manager. “One generation may stay put in a country but then the next decides to leave and so on.” Saifi grew up in Mumbai but worked for twenty years in Iran. Despite his happy experiences there (“Even when Iranians curse, they do it nicely”) he was drawn back to Mumbai by family obligations. “I have 37 cousins in Iran with whom I have kept my connection alive,” says Najafi. “But I am born and brought up in Mumbai and consider myself an Indian.” Like many of his contemporaries, he has moved out of Dongri to the suburbs, but returns to the old ‘hood for special events.
In Dongri, the community’s life revolves around the Anjuman-e-Fotowwate Isna Asheri, the building of a religious trust established in 1925. Most activities take place in the imambara (prayer hall), while the top floors function as living quarters for resident clergy and lodgings for visitors from Iran. Its present occupants are two mild mannered Tehrani youth on an extended ‘cultural tour’ of Mumbai, who confess to being terrified of the traffic. The walls are covered with pictures of former trustees; many visitors here claim a relationship with at least one of them. “We all went to the Irani school in the building next door, which was English medium but had Persian classes,” recalls Saifi. “Most events happened in its compound — parties, weddings, funerals or prayers.
Houses in the buildings around the area were rented out to Iranians.” Now, the neighborhood has a broader character and the school has been converted into an imambara, which comes alive during moharram. “Iranis who have moved to bigger houses in the suburbs come back here for the majlis (gatherings),” says Ahte Rezai, college student. “Some families even come from Iran since they feel this is their home.” The biggest moharram processions in the area revolve around the beautiful Moghul Masjid on Imamwada Street, built around 130 years ago by an Iranian merchant.
Recently renovated with blue tiles from Isfahan (Iran), the mosque is a Persian fantasy in the heart of Dongri. Inside its walls, old men talk in wheezy Farsi on stone benches set besides bubbling fountains, and some of the faithful catch forty winks on the lawns. “You forget you are in the din and bustle of Mumbai,” says Mustafa Nazarian. “It is like walking into a Moghul garden.”
Nazarian is the manager at the Café Khushali , located near the mosque, which claims to have served authentic Irani chai for over a century. “As a child, I remember watching the Arabs come here to drink kahwa while their ships were in the docks,” says Nazarian. The café also stocks sweets imported from Iran, but locals swear by the baklava at Hasan Hajati’s Iranian Sweet Palace. Currently, however, the shop has downed shutters, since Hajati is on an extended visit to Iran.
“Now he only opens for a few days around navroze (the Persian new year). With the community dissolving, there isn’t enough business to sustain him here,” says Nejad.
“Many people left during the riots of ’92-93”, says Tehmineh Rezai, counting off the reasons on her frail fingers. “When the children of hotel owners grew up, they preferred to work in better jobs in Iran or abroad.” Rezai herself migrated briefly to Iran as a young woman, only to run smack into the Islamic revolution. She still has an Iranian passport, but insists she has no intention of returning. “Even in Iran, I found myself hanging out with Indians, talking about having chana-batata on chowpatty,” she says. “I can do that right here.”