[Editor’s Note--While this interview was conducted several weeks ago, we decided to align its publishing with B. Merwan & Co.’s final hours as a personified fragment of our city’s soul. As we prepare to greet its ghost, at least its memories have been preserved for posterity by these two young photographers’ attempt to chronicle its existence in retrospect. For that, we both salute them as well as encourage all our readers to become a part of their ‘Tales From Merwan.’]
The rumours started towards the end of last year. Ones that insisted the 100-year-old historic landmark of B. Merwan & Co, an Irani café, will be shutting down on the 31st of March. While there is an air of ambiguity over the exact reasons and consequences of the shutdown, the thought led Raj Lalwani and Kashish Parpiani, two young photographers, to create an array of images & stories about the place that has played such an important role in Bombay’s socio-cultural history. The idea was to remember, recall, make a social comment about change, and of course--to create a loving tribute. For this, they started a Facebook page called Tales from Merwan’s, on which they now regularly upload photographs and stories from the last days of this indelible Irani café.
According to them, “It could have been a personal project where one of us could have photographed it, but we were excited by the idea of collaboration. Not only does it allow multiple styles to come through, the idea of engagement through Facebook is fascinating. We want to tell each person who cares, to come by here, join us for a chai, before it shuts down, before it becomes one of those city stories that you hear of, but aren’t able to experience.”
As Raj put it, “I always found the concept of photographing Irani cafés as one of the typical Bombay photographic clichés. But this is personal. I first visited Merwan’s around eight years ago. It was some time in the middle of my college years, when a person I was really close to at that point of time, told me that it’s a place I would like. Mava cake and khari biscuit were chai accompaniments that I had grown up with, but I had never really liked them too much until I came here on my friend’s insistence. When I read that it is due to shut down, it was a rush of memories that sprung back. Memories of those times, of those people, of those cakes and that chai. And thus was born the tale to tell the tale.”
But while the project has been a lot about nostalgia for Raj—“photography is a lot about nostalgia for me,” - he interrupts, Kashish comes from a rather different chain of thought. He loves exploring new subjects rather than photographing the familiar and Kashish is extremely interested in the politics, its history, in international relations and how the past relates to the present. In this particular case, his interest was piqued by the history behind the café. “One of the things that struck me about this place was that it was established in 1914. This was the same year that World War I began. Now, just imagine, there must have been someone discussing Hitler marching into Poland, over endless cups of chai. And here I am, in 2014, sitting in that same corner where that conversation may have happened. This is very intriguing for me.”
The page has seen collaborations from others too. Kashish and Raj have invited other photographers such as Ketaki Sheth, Prashant Godbole, Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Amit Chakravarty, each of which have visited the café in this past month, and have made guest uploads on the page. There has even been a video that was shot by one of the waiters working at Merwan’s! Renowned playwright, Rahul da Cunha (who is also behind the innovative Amul ad) also visited and, in fact, wrote a commentary about Merwan’s and the changing face of the city in a newspaper column. Merwan’s is as much about the aficionados that throng it every morning, making sure that the café runs out of its famous mava cake by 9am, as it is about the artisans that have made sure the place has thrived. From the owners, whose shrill but commanding voices make sure that each day functions smoothly to the man responsible for wrapping the cakes, a number of stories are gently woven around the existence of this place.
Kashish elaborates, “I am usually a very restless photographer, but here, the most challenging thing for me is to sit in one place, and look at the entire place from one chair. Here there is no approach and I’m not scouting for a story. The intimacy has grown to an extent where the waiters come and talk to us. That is when I try not to think of a photograph. I may get a great moment, but I would lose that personal connection.” After multiple cups of chai, the conversation veers to the future of this project, on whether the same idea could be used for some other place, in some other city. They ponder a bit and say, “What we are doing is nothing new. The more that people do it, the better it is. And frankly, we have no idea about what lies ahead. All we know is that we want to make some prints and gift it to these fantastic people who work at the place. There are a few obvious paths as to how this can be taken further, but at this point in time, we’d rather concentrate on the photography and on living, reliving and feeling all that there is, to this silent goodbye.”
Words: Meher Manda Image Credit: Raj Lalwani & Kashish Parpiani