We need to talk History at Café de la Paix

By Kausar Madhyia

One of Bombay’s oldest localities witnessed a throwback to the 50’s cultural movement last night, when the city folks were trying to rediscover what it meant to be a Bambaiya post-independence. Similarly, a group of like-minded people gathered, physically distanced and equipped with their masks, at Charni Road’s Café de la Paix to ground themselves in the roots of their city.

Historian and poet Anushka Gupta, who is known to share her love for the heritage of the city via her stories and gatherings, was the captain of the ship that sailed the patrons gathered at the 85 year old café back in time with her meeting on the ‘Histories of Bombay’. Time travel hits different when it is taking place in a setting that has hosted history in its vintage bentwood chairs enclosed by walls adorned with classic typographies. The purpose of this trans-temporal excursion was to save the crown jewel of Bombay from being lost to the catastrophe that was the pandemic. It was a minimally ticketed event to raise funds and awareness for the café.

Photos of historic places exhibited during the event

Mr. Gustad Dinshaw Irani is the third generation owner of the Irani café. His grandfather bought a piece of land in the Bellevue Building to realise his dream of owning a café. However, the landlord of the building had but one condition, the kind that is half expected of the owner of an establishment called ‘Bellevue’; in tandem with his love for all things French, he wanted the café to be named Café de la Paix which translates to the ‘Café of Peace’. Those who know Bombay know that the café neighbours the esteemed Royal Opera House and those who know France know that the same is the case with the original Café de la Paix in Paris which, interestingly, also shares it’s locale with the Parisian Royal Opera House.

Interiors of Cafe de la Paix

The benefit was a two hour affair filled with interactive discussions on the historic cafés, libraries and cinema halls across the city. The already cosy and rustic café was done up with 20-inch big Polaroids of the aforementioned historic spots, scented candles, white roses and instrumental music for the merriment of the crowd. In addition to the aesthetically and intellectually stimulating welcome, the patrons were also served the establishment’s renowned classic; bun-maska and Irani mint chai.

Bombay Bustle, in conversation with Gustad Ji, found out many interesting stories about the café. The café is home to two very fascinating articles. The first one is termed the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ by Anushka Gupta; it is a wooden glass-paned cabinet filled with toiletries from the era gone by. As Bombay was the gateway to India, the harbour docked many merchant ships from the west that brought in imported goods that were sold by the café. The utility of the contents may have been lost to their expiry dates but the set up still continues to peak nostalgia of things never seen. The second article is the iconic custom-made clock (ideated by Mr. Dinshaw Irani, father of Mr. Gustad Irani) resting with pride on the wall opposite the counter. Instead of numerals of any kind, the time on the clock is measured by the letters in the name of the café; ‘C A F E  D E  L A  P A I XII’.

Anushka Gupta (left) and Gustad Irani (right)

 Gustad Ji has thrown open the doors of his beloved establishment to anyone and everyone who wish to spend time reading from his mini library, writing their own stories or simply writing poetry for leisure. He also welcomes small events and gatherings in his café.

Gustad Ji is a simple man, with heart-warming hospitality and love for his family’s legacy. When asked about the hardships of the pandemic, he says, “God has been kind” and expresses his desire to host more patrons. Wrapping up the essence of his establishment he says, “History abhi banani hain……..yeh zameen kitna bolna chahti hain” (“History is yet to be made, this land has a lot to say”).

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