The cafes are slowly vanishing due to urbanization, as people move to 'Cafe Coffee Day' and ‘Barista'

The vanishing Irani cafes of Secunderabad
news Food & Culture Friday, October 23, 2015 - 17:52

As one steps out of the railway station in Secunderabad, among the various sights and smells that greet you, a bakery near the entrance stands out, with a swarm of people sailing in and out, with their chai (tea).

Over half a century old, the Alpha bakery at Secunderabad has pandered to the tastebuds of scores of passengers who make their way to and from train journeys.

"The bakery started in 1957 and we have opened at 5 am and shut at 12 am almost everyday since," says Mohammed Jilani, one of the managers of the hotel, as he deals with customers.

Thirty years later, as the city's population grew, another cafe sprung up around 650 metres away. "We started the cafe in 87' or 88' when there was none of this," says Ali Asgher, whose family owns the Blue Sea cafe at Secunderabad, as he points to the Metro Rail which is currently under construction.

(The Blue Sea Cafe at secunderabad)

A few traffic policemen can be seen taking a break for their tea and are soon joined by a few metro workers, who have taken some time off from working in the sweltering heat.

"No matter how hot it is outside, there is still nothing like a cup of hot 'Irani' chai," one of them remarks.

However, these cafes are still considered infants in comparison to some of the other cafes in the city.

One bus stop away, The Garden Cafe has been in business for over 70 years. Considered a landmark of Secunderabad, it stands opposite the clock tower and was built even before India gained independence.

"I remember coming here during the 1960s. Me and a bunch of friends would order ourselves a tea each, and chat for hours. Things moved much slower back then," says a customer who visited after a long time.

A large portion of the cafe was recently demolished for the construction of the Metro Rail, and a much smaller and renovated cafe opened again in the first week of October.

(The Garden cafe at clock tower)

"It's not like it used to be. Nobody has time anymore. They're always running," the customer adds.

The 17-km stretch between Shah Ali Banda in the Old City and the Clock Tower on SD Road in Secunderabad is home to 29 such Irani cafes, but many of them are disappearing over time

The Irani cafes are slowly vanishing due to urbanization, as people move to 'Cafe Coffee Day' and ‘Barista'.

History

The concept of Irani cafes first reached the country’s shores in Bombay in the late 19th and early 20th century when Persian immigrants moved to India in search of a better livelihood.

Bombay was already a bustling city then and home to a large population who needed a place to eat, on the go. That is how these cafes sprung up.

As far as Hyderabad was concerned, the city always had good relations with Iran during the reign of the Asif Jah dynasty and Iranians who visited the city started settling down in the 20th century.

These settlers brought their tea along with them, which immediately spread to all cafes in the city.

 

(Preparing the tea. Image: Kishor Krishnamoorthi/Concorde)

Though the cafes were doing brisk business, it wasn't until the 60s that it became a melting pot of ideas where artists, authors, poets and activists met and interacted.

One such cafe was the Olympia's cafe in Abids.

The cafes of Hyderabad

"My father set up the cafe in 1954, and we used to have all kinds of people sit and discuss art, religion, politics, democracy and what not with their 'chai-suttas' (tea and cigarettes)," says Jamal Darvesh, who currently runs the Olympia cafe.

"My father was a progressive thinker himself, and even set up a jukebox, with a collection of all kinds of music from sufi to jazz," he adds.

Darvesh adds that the 1970s saw a boom, with hundreds of cafes around the city. "It was the place to be, no matter who you were, you would always hang around such cafes."

However, even these cafes are slowly fading out.

"We do get a lot of customers but it's the essence that's lost," says Darvesh while adding that "Now people will come, order a tea, gulp it down and run again."

(Besides the conventional chai and samosa, cafes have added items to their menu to rope in customers)

"I doubt if it'll ever be the same," he adds.

The true spirit of the cafes is retained to this day only in one place -  on the other side of the Musi river, closer to the heart of the city and the four-minaret Charminar.

While the Irani cafes of Secunderabad may manage to survive and stay in business, their essence is definitely fading away.

 

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