Buttered buns in Bombay

LOOKING A BIT LIKE A GRUBBY SWISS chalet, Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery is in a busy lane within a stone’s throw of Bombay’s elegantly designed Horniman Circle. Named after the Persian city of Yazd, where one of the nine Athash Behrams (the highest grade of Zoroastrian fire temples) still stands, this establishment was founded by a Parsi family in the very early 1950s. It has been suggested that the premises occupied by Yazdani were previously occupied by a Japanese bank.

Yazdani, which looks as if it has not been redecorated for many decades is one of Bombay’s many ‘Irani cafés’, which were founded by Iranian zoroastrian refugees, who had fled to India (in the early 20th century) from other parts of Asia to escape religious persecution. Irani cafés, like Yazdani, retain a nostalgic charm, providing an atmosphere that transports the customer’s imagination back to a gentler and simpler past. Sadly, the number of Irani cafés in Bombay is diminishing.

It was at Yazdani, when I first visited it a year ago, that I bit into my first bun maska. It was love at first bite. What is it, you may well ask, that gave me so much pleasure? It is simply a round bread bun, often very soft, filled with a generous, if not excessive, amount of butter. Some of the buns available at Yazdani contain bits of raisin and others, the brun maska, have crisp crusty coverings (similar to ‘crusty rolls’ available in England).

Bun maska has become popular outside Bombay.For example, I have discovered good ones in Ahmedabad (at Lucky’s and also at the New Irani Restaurant).

In addition to bun maska and brun maska, Yazdani sells bread, apple pie, and a variety of delicious biscuits. Everything is baked on the premises at Yazdani, which calls itself “La Boulangerie”. Tea is served at simple tables within sight of the aging glass fronted cabinets that are constantly being restocked with freshly baked products. It is common for customers to dip bits of bun maska into the tea.

On one wall, there is a large poster in German advertising Bauernbrot. Apparently, Yazdani is popular with German visitors to Bombay. Portraits of various Parsi personalities also hang on the walls.

Unless you are gluten intolerant or trying to lose weight, a visit to Yazdani is a real treat, and not a costly one.

A few footsteps away from Yazdani, stands another treat. This is the Peoples Book House. It is a small extremely well stocked bookshop which supplies mainly, but not exclusively, left wing books. Whatever your political leaning, you are likely to find fascinating books here (in English, Hindi, and Marathi, mainly). In its window, you can spot, for example, “Das Kapital” and books about Karl Marx translated into Marathi. I bought what promises to be an interesting book about the naval mutiny in Bombay that occurred just after the end of WW2 (early 1946), an event that hastened the British decision to quit India for good.

So, visit Yazdani to fill your stomach and Peoples Book House to feed your brain.

A place of refuge

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.