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Time Travel With Irani Chai

The best way to travel back in time is to step in to any of the Irani cafes in Mumbai. Many have written about their old world charm, the no-frills ambiance, the authenticity and the distinct personality of this vintage generation. Their stoic presence is a pleasant reminder of Bombay that was.


 Koolar & Co. at Matunga circle is one such cafe that has stood the test of time. It was originally known as King George IV. Koolar got its current name in 1932 after it was bought by Mandok Koolarzade who used to wait tables in the same restaurant. I settled on a table by the window, not quite expecting what followed.


Ali, one of the sons of Koolarzadeh who now manages the cafe was at the cash counter. I introduced myself and asked if I could take some pictures. In between yelling orders at his staff, Ali also became the self-appointed director of photography. He dictated all the angles from which I should  photograph his restaurant. He even sent me outside the cafe to take a picture from the street. I obliged. He saw the pictures and said, ‘masst dikhta hai na?‘ (Looks great, right?). Koolar is used to all the attention. It has after all featured in many Bollywood films, the most recent being The Lunchbox.



It’s not just Ali that’s eccentric and full of life. The walls of Koolar mirror the colourful personality of her owner. Take a look at some of the posters that adorn this restaurant:


I sat sipping  my Irani chai and eating the bun maska while Ali shared stories of his many girlfriends across different continents. I wasn’t really expecting the topic to steer around his history with women and I politely asked him if he would like to eat something… partly to change the subject and partly because I almost forgot that it was his own place.


Of all the things that we spoke about, the one that stayed with me was Ali’s unsolicited opinion about my haircut and how it could have been styled better. He then advised me on my nutrition intake – ‘..eat honey, walnuts and red meat to gain some weight and start looking like a true Punjabi!’ He said he got along the best with Punjabi girls and one of his favourite girlfriends was a Punju. I sat there quietly, feeling amused at the strange conversation… hoping that Ali and Koolar never lose their muchness.

Bharti believes that every suitcase tells a story and she likes sharing these stories on her blog ‘Suitcaseofstories.wordpress.com‘. In addition to writing about travel, she also likes taking street photographs with her phone camera. 

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