Mohmad Javid Wani – Tao Café


Mohmad Javid Wani is part of that generation that has experienced the winds of change in the Valley of Kashmir. From the days of many Chinars to days of many concrete structures, from the days of clean Jhelum to the days of polluted air. Javid has witnessed too many notches in Kashmir’s history. With few initiatives in life, he gave Kashmir not just its first Open Air & it’s first Chinese Restaurant, but also introduced the culture of eating with etiquettes. Tao Café housed in a wooden structure built in the early 1900 is now 30 years old.

Excerpts from an interaction with Rajesh Prothi.

During the time my generation was growing up, Tao Café was kind of a place we were inspired to go to more often. How did this place come by?
M. J. Wani: There is an interesting but very common phenomenon behind Tao Café. There was a generation gap between me and my father, nothing unusual though. Our approach toward work varied. We had a difference of opinion on ‘how to run a business. In the good old days, my father along with someone is known to him had purchased this area. From Grindlays Bank (Now Jammu and Kashmir Bank) to where we are sitting now (Tao Café). This was the property that was bought from Mr. Dhanji Bhouy, a Parsi. This particular area was lying vacant and I told my father to give me this area for a restaurant.

In those days, in Kashmir, there was not a single restaurant that served Chinese food. At ‘Suffering Moses’ (this was a business headed by my father) I had come across many foreigners talking about the non-presence of good restaurants where they could sit and eat. While there were many restaurants around Srinagar, there was no restaurant with open space. This void was filled by Tao Café.

Which year are we talking about and why Chinese food when Kashmir itself is known for its range of cuisine?
M. J. Wani: We are talking about 1983 when Tao Café became the first open space and the first Chinese food serving restaurant in Srinagar.  Now coming to your question of why Chinese food. Well those days, the foreigners had yet to experiment with their tastes. Their palates were not aligned with Kashmir’s spicy food the way it is now. This was one reason that I choose Chinese cuisine. This became the first Chinese indoor and outdoor restraint in Srinagar. But this does now mean that we were exclusively serving Chinese cuisine only, we had a whole range of Kashmir food also, though a little less spicy.

Our generation was still in high school and about to start their college life. I remember foreigners and locals standing outside Tao Café waiting to get in. Has this continued over time? 
M. J. Wani: Those were good old times, Kashmir used to get a huge number of foreign tourists, and mostly all of them at least for once used to be at Tao Café. This also created a phenomenon wherein, the local elite and the bureaucratic too started coming to Tao Café.

There was an uncertain and chaotic period in Kashmir. How did Tao Café’s business fair? 
M. J. Wani: We were doing fine till 1989. During the 1990s, there was a change in the profile of our customers. We hardly got any foreign tourists, but the flow through could not match the earlier day, but nevertheless, it kept the doors open and the kitchen staff working.

I saw you picking up the cigarette buds from the flower bed. This is despite the fact that each table has an ashtray. Any particular reason? 
M. J. Wani: The foreigners never used to do this (throw cigarette buds). I remember, in the mid-1980s, there was a table in a corner, and some local officials were being served. One of them was smoking. Those days smoking has not been banned the way it is now. That gentleman after smoking threw the cigarette bud in the flowerbed. I went to him and made him pick up the cigarette bud. And told him that don’t come to this Café ever again. “You need to have the decency to sit in a restaurant where people do not do such things.” He appreciated my stand and apologized. He continued coming and never repeated it again.

But now times have changed. Although I do not appreciate this habit, I let it pass thinking that they are customers and maybe someday they will themselves realize it. This is despite the fact that smoking is banned in public places. However, we do not allow smoking inside the Café. In winter die-hard chain smokers have to come outside the Café in the open area to smoke.

Tao Café had by the mid-1980s had a kind of cult following. What kind of cultural impact do you think this restaurant made in Kashmir?
M. J. Wani:  Tao Café became popular because it gave enough open space to the people to talk in an open environment under the Chinar trees, surrounded by flower-beds. It also gave people enough privacy. An ideal place in summer has a cup of tea with beautiful flowers around you, with colorful butterflies gliding across your table.

Between then and now, what kind of change has Kashmir gone through?
M. J. Wani: Kashmir has deteriorated so much, it is different my heart really bleeds. We did not have all these noises, pollution – in short, the level of air and noise pollution has gone up so much. Kashmir was much more peaceful, and cleaner -no smoke, no dust, no noise. Especially, around this area.

I tried to do my bit, I try to keep this area as green as possible. People come and tell me why don’t I build a shopping or office complex here. I tell them are you crazy do you see this kind of a place anywhere in Srinagar and then they start thinking. There are so many Shopping Complexes, which have taken the charm out of Srinagar City. I will hold on to this GREEN piece of nature as long as possible.

During the past few decades, Kashmir has undergone a huge change. How has the culture or the thought process of this place been impacted?
M. J. Wani: With Kashmiri Pandits gone from here, a big cultural gap has been created. They were an important part of our Kashmiri culture. I don’t know what the future has for us, but nothing seems to be improving. It seems that we lost the concept of building a place that is environmentally friendly and in harmony with nature. Let me give you just one example, unlike in other countries, for example, Colorado, USA is a beautiful place with mountains and rivers like we have in Kashmir. The only difference is that they are preserving it and they make sure that the environment is not harmed in any way. Let me be honest, I think Delhi is much greener with lots of positive steps being taken. Back here, that push is just missing.

What do you think, what is the major issue for such a condition in Srinagar City?
M. J. Wani: It is all in your mind and is part of your being. I remember the advice of my School (Tyndale Biscoe) principal Dr. Phil Edmonds, he was from New Zealand and he came here with his family. His wife used to take care of Junior School and he himself looked after the senior school. In March he used to take the whole school to the Hariparvat Fort from the Nagin Lakeside. We used to go in the Dunga (a large boat). Every year in the month of March this used to be the first outgoing for the school. I remember, once while after packing up our bags from that place and loading them in our Dunga we were waiting for Dr. Edmonds and his wife who had gone for a walk. When they came back he whistled and asked us to come out of the boats and asked us to clean the entire place. He said, “Boys remember when you go to a place and when you leave see to it that is in a better position and cleaner than when you found it”. He made us clean that place. That statement, become part of our life, a lesson for me and many of my batch mates from the School. Now whenever we go for a picnic, I tell everyone in our group ‘that we have to leave this place better than it was’.

Those were not just good but very decent times. I remember, when in the 1960s, while studying in the Regional Engineer College, Srinagar (REC), once in a week we used to come to City. While walking we never passed any sort of remarks to the girls from the Women’s College. That was a mark of respect and moreover, we used to walk on the other side of the road. This was our culture, but now all that has gone away. Personally, I believe we need to be Kashmiri at heart – humble, nature-loving, and self-respecting.

What do you wish for Kashmir?
M. J. Wani: I wish we as Kashmiris should have the sense to improve the way civilized countries have. Outside they have a sense of cleanliness and a sense of responsibility, which the new generation of Kashmir lacks. This reminds me of my visit to Harwan. There were small school children with their teachers. I saw bags of chips etc laying around and I could not stop myself from asking one of the teachers “is this what you are teaching the kids in school”. This is basic knowledge that is now not imparted in schools. These days even parents don’t teach their kids all this and this pains me a lot. I wish people realize that God has bestowed this beauty upon us and we are destroying it. This is part of our religion also. I don’t know why they are not taught this? The water is wasted, electricity is wasted, and this is a Sin.