AHMEDABAD – With its beautifully carved stone windows, the Sidi Saiyad Mosque offers a taste of the 16th Century in the middle of this 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 a picture 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 forty-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, shortly 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.
Entering the restaurant for a second time, I just realize it all the waiters and customers are local male, including a young man wearing 90s sunshades and a man with white beard and a little cap. The waiters don’t speak English and have no idea where to seat me. For a minute, I feel back in high school dining hall, having a serious struggle of who should I sit with.
Finally, I find two men wearing glasses that I suspect to speak English. I eagerly befriended them and copied 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 started 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 teacart that Nayar and his companion, Mohammadbhai, had set up outside 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 build a building to house their business right on the cemetery grounds. They gave a lot of thought to the arrangement of the space – an intersection of a tearoom where the living socializes, and a burial site where the dead rests.
The tables are delicately arranged around the tombs, which are marked off with small fences. In addition to paying respect, they also took charge of cleaning and decorating the tombs, offering flowers and decorating the space to console their soul and show respect.
Its success started for its good flavor. The partners added cocoa powder to their recipe, produced by Cadbury India, a company that started to import chocolate to India in 1948. They also started to serve their tea with maska bun.
“The aroma of chai took over the entire place,” says Girish Gupta, a guide of the heritage walk of the old Ahmedabad city. Calling the place a landmark of the city, Gupta is very proud of its popularity, “even Japanese tourists come to visit this restaurant.”
My chai was served shortly after order. A waiter pours hot chai into a tiny porcelain cup. Some chocolate-colored streaks run down to the saucer, which is already covered by stains.
I take a small sip of the chai, trying hard not to make the scene messier. Its taste turns out even richer than its color. The most quotidian India delight brings together the dead and the living, Muslims and Hindus, and carries the old city into its new life.
The combination of masala tea and maska bun became extremely popular and won a large crowd of customers, including a famous painter and friend of the late partner Mohammadbhai, M.F. Husane, whose painting now hangs in the café.
In the painting, above the yellow background, abstract color blocks and two camels, there are two lines of Urdu. It reads “Kalma,” a hymn to God, and the phrase “God is one.”
Ahmet Kargi, a Muslim funeral coordinator in New York, who finds eating with the dead very unusual, stresses that different from Western religions and cultures where funeral serves, to a large extent, to console the living, Muslim funerals are completely for the dead.
Muslim funerals and burials can be extravagant, said Kargi, “people try to ease their guilt of possibly neglecting or having done wrong to the deceased by showering them with flowers or buying a solid bronze casket or dressing them in very expensive suits or dresses.”
The partners also built a small, modest mosque next door to the restaurant to honor the dead and letting the live pray. Different from the populated restaurant, the small mosque sits quietly and receives few visitors. My tea buddies advised me against taking a peak from 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 special feature of tombs.
My tea buddy, Ankit Choudhary who is taking his friend to New Lucky for the first time agrees with the reviewers. He is having a strawberry jam maska bun, sitting in the restaurant with more tombs than the tables. Twenty-seven graves are arranged on its ground, including some in the kitchen and two small ones for children. But none of the customers seem to pay any attention to the tombs, at least not as much attention as I receive when I venture into the place and struggle to find a seat. They eat, drink and chat casually, like anybody does in a Chipotle in New York.
“The restaurant opens almost 20 hours a day and I have come here late at night,” says Choudhary with a smile, “it’s not like they are going to wake up I suppose.”
The 62-year-old manger of New Lucky, Ruzak Bhai Mansuri confirmed the popularity of the place, saying “it opens from 5 a.m. to around midnight and most of the time the place is very crowded.”
The existence of restaurant built on a Muslim cemetery greatly interested Anand Venkatkrishnan, a PhD candidate at the religion department of Columbia University who grew up in a Tamil Brahmin family. Even though in his tradition cremation is adopted, there is a ritual called “shraaddha,” where they feed the dead person symbolically before sending them to the other world.
The restaurant reminds Venkatkrishnan of the Hindu feast after the shraaddha 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 Kargi, the funeral director, Muslims like to build mosque and cemeteries where people have easy access to pray and pay respect.
“The cemeteries are also a daily reminder of one’s own mortality,” said Kargi.
All photos taken by Han Zhang.