INTERVIEW

We’re not really secular, the constitution just says we are: Mehdi Niroomand and Prithvi Chitnis

In this week's special interview, Teesta Setalvad speaks to the duo, Mehdi Niroomand, third generation Indian Iranian and his friend and partner, Prithvi Chirnis who  jointly run Pune's Shisha Cafe an iconic name for music accompanied by delicious cuisine.
 

Mehdi Niroomand and PrithviChitnis, lifelong friends and co-founders of Sheesha Jazz café in Pune shared, in an interview, what it means to run a business as members of different faiths and the challenges that communalism has presented them with in their years in the business.

They both also look back on witnessing rioters setting fire to the iconic Sunrise café,  Pune, which Mehdi owned. But this did not deter Medhi, as he recalls “When we re-opened, it was like never before, it was a great success. People came up there. That was so gratifying.”

Sheesha has risen to prominence as a landmark in pune and a site for pioneering efforts towards establishing a culture of jazz music in India. Set up in a matter of weeks with help from friends and family, the café has expanded over its twelve years until it now seats two hundred and forty people as opposed to the initial seventy and welcomes patrons from across the globe.

Niroomand and Chitnis see their restaurant as a truly secular space. Their over forty employees belong to varied faiths and they believe that this difference has never been a concern. Challenging or undervaluing somebody else’s religion is not part of the ethos at Shisha.

The two friends are passionate about expanding the understanding of jazz in India to include work that lies outside the mainstream. Their restaurant hosts live music performances by local and international musicians every Thursday and for the past twelve years they have hosted an annual Jazz festival that seeks to emulate the jazz yatras of the late seventies and eighties.

As a member of a minority faith, Mehdi Niroomand has personally suffered losses in communal attacks. His other restaurant, Sunrise Café, was burned to the ground by fundamentalists. “They came and burned down my earlier restaurant while there were still people sitting inside it. I couldn’t believe what was happening”, Niroomand recalled. “We were sitting there watching it burn, it was one of those things where you can’t do anything” Chitnis, a witness to the attack, added.

Niroomand responded to the attack with resilience and Sunrise was reopened shortly; people visited in large numbers with an overwhelming sense of solidarity. The perpetrators were never held accountable, however, and even returned as patrons to the newly resurrected Sunrise Café.

Niroomand and Chitnis expressed a lack of faith in the reality of secularism in India. “Inter-community relations are fine but I wouldn’t say we’re really secular; it’s just the constitution that says we are.” Fundamentalists, they believe, exist on both sides of the divide and until society is free of their presence, peaceful coexistence is impossible.