When the Parsis first landed in India sometime in the 7th century to escape persecution in Iran, they promised King Jadhav Rana that they would sweeten the Indian community as sugar sweetens milk. That was nearly 1,200 years ago in Sanjan. If that was in Gujarat, in Secunderabad’s Sardar Patel Road, the Iranis have lent their own flavour to the ‘sugar and milk’ story. Instead of milk, the family has added sugar to carbonated water with a dash of vanilla, ginger, lemon, orange and a host of other flavours. They then mixed carbon dioxide to make it bubbly and fizzy.
First started by Jehangir Sheriar Irani, the Iranis have been into the business of aerated drinks since the 1940s under the brand name of ‘Spenses’ — perhaps the first and oldest aerated drink in the city. Nearly 80 years on, Jehangir Sheriar’s son Shahveer Irroni is taking forward what he calls the ‘Spensational’ legacy of his father. The Iranis supplied ‘Spenses’ to the Nizams, Golconda Army, Vazir Sultan Tobacco Company, Indian Airlines, HMT Bearings, ECIL and a host of other industries in the twin cities. Decades after its launch, the business has not lost its fizz, surviving even the onslaught of Colas. “I remember, a Saudi royal family took a carton of our aerated drink Spenses. The Nizams, even the Babu Khan family, patronised our product for years, especially during Eid,” Shahveer Irroni informs as he pores over tattered files to show some old correspondence with the Nizam’s government.
Shahaveer, who dropped the ‘A’ from Irani and added an ‘O’ with an extra ‘R’ for the sake of numerology, learnt the nuances of the aerated soft drink business first from his father when he was a teenager and later from his mother Dhun Jehangir Irani. Nearly 30 years after taking over the business from his father, Shahveer, now 58, has the same ‘zing’ he once had as a 13-year-old. At his office on Sardar Patel Road, Shahveer, accompanied by his filmmaker son Jehangir Irroni, informs that J S Irani & Co has recently repackaged the glass bottled ‘Spenses’ to ‘Spems’ in pet bottles with the same 80-year-old adage: ‘The real test lies in the taste alone’. While the family’s ‘Ice Cream Soda’ has refreshed their patrons for long, Jehangir says a host of other flavours like Orange, Fruit Tonia, Ginger Ale have been there for years. “The ice cream soda gives a delicious feeling of softness in the mouth, but you must have it chilled,” informs 32-year-old Jehangir. Spenses, Shahveer, says was popular at most Parsi ceremonies, be it Navjote or weddings just as ‘Dhansak’, ‘Lagan nu Bhonu’ or ‘Gajar Mewa Nu Achaar’.
The Irani family also ran the famous Plaza Supper Bar attached to Plaza Cinema on SP Road, where the Subbarami Reddy Complex now stands. Plaza Cinema was the only movie theatre in the country that had a licence to not only run a bar, but also allowed Bacchus lovers to sip a beer or down a whiskey peg while watching a movie. Army men used to pop in to wet their whistles, while some artists and writers spent their lonely hours brooding over their booze. The bar enjoyed a pride of place in the city’s history, a favourite haunt for the well-heeled in Secunderabad. During the movie break, some moviegoers would pick up a drink with a packet of chips just as one would grab a bucket of popcorn these days. “My mother Dhun Jehangir Irani and my brother Cyrus Irani managed the bar for some time after the demise of my father at a young age. Later, I took over the business,” Shahveer recalls managing the bar after he turned major (18).
Since it enjoyed a close proximity to the Gymkhana Grounds, the Plaza Bar was a watering hole for Hyderabad’s most famous cricketers who represented India. After a tough session at the nets, the cricketers would then head to the bar for a drink to unwind. Jockeys and stud owners used to pop in for drinks as the bar was close to the race course which was once located at the Gymkhana Grounds.
Close to the bar was John Burton & Co at what is now the Coromandel House. It is another lore that Scottish tailor John Burton, the finest draper and tailor of the yore, had stitched ‘sherwanis’ for Nizams.
“The bar used to open to the theatre along with a canteen which was also run by our family,” recalls Shahveer. The bar had to wind up its business after former chief minister and matinee idol NT Rama Rao imposed prohibition in 1994, forcing some to head to Bidar to have a beer. The bar is now lost to history, although some old timers still say cheers to the times gone by, while others shed tears.