This Restaurant Wants You to Dine with the Dead
Inside a dimly lit restaurant situated near the Sidi Saiyad mosque in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, it is hard to escape a glaring fact: the tables and booths are arranged around large, casket-like tombs. At New Lucky, the customers are dining with the...
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.
With its beautifully carved stone windows, the Sidi Saiyad mosque offers a taste of the 16th century in the middle of Ahmedabad, a busy city that is the largest in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Almost melted by the midday heat, I leave the mosque in haste after having pictures taken with my peers and am ready to get some refreshment. Our guide takes us to a cool, shady restaurant with a tree breaking through its roof.
The restaurant is called New Lucky and sits across road from the famous mosque. With motorcycles and rickshaws hustling on the street and huge Coca-Cola ads hovering over the entrance, New Lucky looks like just any other restaurant in today's Ahmedabad. Even its simple English name would easily get skipped over in a Google search.
But once we walk into the dimly lit restaurant, it is hard to escape a glaring fact: the tables and booths are arranged around large, casket-like tombs. At New Lucky, the customers are dining with the dead.
My friends, still defeated by the heat, show no interest of getting refreshed in a cemetery, so we retracted after a brief look at the place.
However, I am so haunted by the existence of this cemetery restaurant that a few days later I take a 40-minute rickshaw ride across the city alone to seek it out.
Building a restaurant on top of a cemetery is not a modern marketing stunt. New Lucky Restaurant was opened by two young men in the 1950s, not long after India gained independence in 1947. It expanded from a tea stall on the corner to today's restaurant-café compound that takes up approximately 3,000 square feet in the busy neighborhood occupied by offices and school.
Inside, the waiters don't speak English and have no idea where to seat me. For a minute, I feel like I'm back in my high school cafeteria, having a serious struggle of who to sit with.
Finally, I find two men wearing glasses that I suspect to speak English. I eagerly befriend them and copy their order, the specialty of New Lucky: masala tea and maska bun, a kind of sliced bread with butter smeared inside.
One of the young men who founded the restaurant, Kutti Nayar, is now 72 years old. He sits quietly in a corner of the restaurant with his son, Rajiv, who frequently checks his phone. The restaurant grew out of a tea cart that Nayar and his companion, Mohammadbhai, had set up under the shade of a neem tree. The cemetery was behind them, facing the famous mosque. They sold masala tea to people in the neighborhood, as well as visitors to the mosque and the cemetery.
As the business grew, the partners decided to construct a building to house the restaurant right on the cemetery grounds. They gave a lot of thought to the arrangement of the space—a combination of a tearoom where the living socialize, and a burial site where the dead rest.
The tables are delicately arranged around the tombs, which are marked off with small fences. In addition to paying respect, the restaurant owners also took charge of cleaning and decorating the tombs, offering flowers and decorating the space to show respect.
The combination of masala tea and maska bun became extremely popular and won a large crowd of customers. One of those customers was the famous painter M.F. Husane, a friend of the late partner Mohammadbhai. One of his paintings—which now hangs in the New Lucky—consists of abstract color blocks and two camels, above which there are two lines of Urdu. It reads "Kalma," a hymn to God, and the phrase "God is one."
New Lucky's success started with its reputation for flavor. In a signature twist, the partners add cocoa powder to their tea. "The aroma of chai took over the entire place," says Girish Gupta, a guide for the heritage walk of the old Ahmedabad city, who calls New Lucky a landmark.
My own chai is served shortly after I order. A waiter pours the hot tea into a tiny porcelain cup, while some chocolate-colored streaks run down to the saucer, which is already covered by stains.
The tea's flavor is even richer than its color—a mixture of chocolate milk and chai. Here, the most quotidian of Indian delight brings together the dead and the living, Muslims and Hindus, and carries the old city into its new life.
The partners also built a small, modest mosque next door to the restaurant to honor the dead and let the living pray. Unlike the busy restaurant, the small mosque is quiet and receives few visitors. My tea buddies advised against taking a peek through the door, feeling that it might be kind of intrusive.
Other than the masala chai, the restaurant now also offers a full menu of Indian food. But many people just come for the classic—tea and bread—as recommended by reviewers on Zomato, an Indian version of Yelp. Many of them didn't even mention the 27 graves within the restaurant.
Indeed, none of the customers seem to pay any attention to them, or at least not as much attention as I receive when I venture into the place. They eat, drink and chat casually, as if they were in any other café anywhere else in the world.
The 62-year-old manger of New Lucky, Ruzak Bhai Mansuri, confirms the popularity of the place. "It opens from 5 AM to around midnight, and most of the time the place is very crowded," he tells me.
Anand Venkatkrishnan, a PhD candidate in the religion department of Columbia University, is greatly interested in the existence of restaurant built on a Muslim cemetery. Even though Venkatkrishnan grew up in a family of Tamil Brahmins, who typically cremated their dead, he points to a ritual called shraddha, where the deceased are symbolically fed before sending them to the other world.
The restaurant also reminds Venkatkrishnan of the Hindu feast after the shraddha ritual, when the family and friends gather near the body during the 13-day cremation ritual.
"The atmosphere at the ceremony and feast, however, is at once solemn and festive. Solemn, because of the memory of the dead; festive, because of the extended time spent with living family," says Venkatkrishnan.
Even though the relationship between life and death is like day and night, says Ahmet Kargi, a Muslim funeral director in New York, Muslims like to build mosque and cemeteries where people have easy access to pray and pay respect.
"The cemeteries," he notes, "are also a daily reminder of one's own mortality."