SEVEN years ago, lawyer Niranjan Mundargi walked out of the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, tasked with resolving the domestic discord between a married couple. The three then walked into the Army Restaurant next door.
The judge had advised the couple to have a dialogue and arrive at an amicable solution. “We ordered chai. By the end of the talk, they had resolved most of their differences and were willing to settle the case,” Mundargi says. The Irani café’s proximity to the sessions court and the Bombay High Court has seen it being privy to many such stories.
Lawyers, some defending notorious gangsters, found it convenient to meet their clients to discuss case strategies across its square bare-wooden tables. Veteran criminal lawyer Shyam Keswani, who has represented the likes of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Iqbal Kaskar, and their late sister Haseena Parkar, says it was the only place for lawyers to meet clients in the immediate vicinity of the court until a café opened nearby a decade ago.
“Lawyers quickly met clients for tea to discuss the proceedings and ran back to the court for their next hearing. Many small-time criminals and gang members would meet lawyers here and pack lunch for those in prisons,” says Keswani.
A few months ago, the café was refurbished. Red seats replaced the black Irani chairs and framed Persian carpets adorn the walls of Sabalan, the restaurant’s brand new, fine-dining avatar. Besides the Irani-café staples like bun maska, chai, kheema pao and omelettes, Chinese, continental and Indian dishes have crept into the menu. The Irani fare is saved for the night, when the area is emptied of the office crowd.
Among the regulars was lawyer Shahid Azmi, who defended many implicated in terror cases and was shot dead in 2010 (and whose role won actor Rajkummar Rao the national award in 2014). Azmi met clients at Army Restaurant, a floor below his office. “His office was on the first floor but it barely had space for three-four persons to sit at a time,” says lawyer Khalid Azmi, Shahid’s younger brother.
The nearly 150-year-old building in which the restaurant stands — the now-decrepit Esplanade Mansion — was once Watson’s Hotel, named after owner John Watson, and a cultural landmark in 1860s Bombay. With its creaky staircases and stilts, the building is one of the oldest surviving cast-iron buildings in India. Its repair is under contest before the Bombay High Court and the decision was sub judice at the time of going to press. Permissions for renovating the restaurant were taken, citing only internal repairs, keeping the pillars intact.
“It is a landmark place and the fact that they are continuing the old tradition instead of shutting shop is to be commended. The building, however, is in urgent need of repair and the challenges to do that are to be looked at holistically,” says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, adding that piecemeal repair won’t solve the problem.
In July, a part of the Esplanade Mansion crashed on a stationary taxi parked on the road below. In 2015, Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) had issued eviction notices to the tenants, most of whom are advocates with 100-250 sq. ft office blocks. While the court granted a stay, it stated that the tenants were occupying the space at their own risk.
Ali Mohammed Chaospur, 68, a partner at Army Restaurant, is a tenant. His father and uncle had leased the place for Rs 1,000 from a Marwari man in 1936. They named it the Army Restaurant because British army personnel would stay at Watson’s Hotel. His father often told him how the restaurant did not allow entry to Indians, including Jamsetji Tata. Legend has it that the snub to Tata led him to build the Taj Mahal Hotel at Apollo Bunder in 1903.
Chaospur says the restaurant earlier stocked essentials like toothpaste, soap, hair oil, bottled water for the undertrials on their way back to prison, but “now, the rules have become strict and prisoners are not permitted to take anything inside.”
“Like many Irani cafés in the city, I was planning to shut shop owing to mounting losses. My business partners suggested to revamp it,” Chaospur says. “Many lawyers, who could not afford to rent office spaces in this area, would order one chai, spread their litigation papers on the table, and hold meetings,” Chaospur says.
The idea to refurbish the place, however, came from an interview with Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, who missed Iranian food in Mumbai during the shoot of his 2017 film Beyond the Clouds, says Reza Najmi, co-partner at the restaurant. Three Irani chefs have been flown in to dish specialities, including soup-e morgh-e-jo (made with barley, carrot, tomato juice and garnished with zereshk or barberries), Iranian butter rice called zereshk polo, ghima polo, and six varieties of kebabs, including chelo, joojeha, Kebab Gafgazi, and the showstopper — the 1m- and 1.5m-long Sabalan’s Special Metre Kebab, priced at Rs 3,500 and 5,000, respectively.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘While the Court is in Session’.