Tourists back at Mumbai’s Leopold Café reading ‘Shantaram’

December 11th, 2008 - 12:41 pm ICT by IANS  

Mumbai, Dec 11 (IANS) When author Gregory David Roberts wrote an open letter to all his readers asking them not to lose faith in India and Mumbai following the 26/11 attacks, he immediately found adherents in people like Anne Fox, a British tourist.Braving a fear psychosis Fox took a corner table at the famous Leopold Café - the place Roberts had immortalised in his book “Shantaram” - ordered a beer and got up only after she finished reading it.

One of the city’s oldest Irani-run cafes owned by Farzad and Farhang Jehani, Leopold was set up way back in 1871. Aptly wearing the tagline ‘Getting better with age’, it’s a huge hit with foreign backpackers.

Situated on the Colaba Causeway in south Mumbai, Leo’s (as the cafe is popularly known) offers you more than one reason to hop in. It has 333 items on its food menu ranging from the humble fish and chips to the royal biryani. But loyal Leodians swear by its chicken tikka masala and beef chilly and fried rice.

Serving hefty portions at reasonable price, what also sets the cafe apart is its ambience. Nothing too fancy for your eyes, but a quaint French cafe look with ever amiable waiters ready to serve you make most prefer it to its nearby look alike Cafe Mondegar.

Rudely interrupting its warm ambience, on the night of Nov 26 terrorists targetted Leo’s as their first spot to launch their brazen attacks that claimed at least 179 lives. Seven people, including two tourists and two of the café’s waiters, were among those killed.

Two weeks later, tourists like Fox have started trickling in again for what seems to be their favourite pass time at Leo’s- read Shantaram.

“It’s fascinating to read a book based in a particular place and then relate every little detail mentioned in it to the surroundings here,” Fox told IANS, as she turned a page of the thick book.

A 2003 novel by Roberts, “Shantaram” is about an Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes from jail and flees to Bombay, as Mumbai was formerly called.

Of all the very typical “Bombay” things and places mentioned in the book is the Leopold Café.

Little wonder that one corner of the manager’s counter is stacked with the grey and red covered “Shantaram”. And it most definitely is the most read book in the café - especially amongst tourists.

Sitting lazily on her chair, Fox said that she was holidaying at the sun-kissed beaches of Goa when terrorists struck Mumbai. In spite of the outrage, Fox said she decided to continue her journey to Mumbai as per her long-drawn travel itinerary in India and despite her family and friends advising her against it.

“I have been in India for a month now and all this while I have been in Goa. When I heard about the attacks here, my parents back home wanted me to cut short the visit, but I just decided to carry on. It would have been such a waste of a trip had I gone back without visiting all these places,” Fox maintained.

She, incidentally, was not the only one sitting in the café with a copy of “Shantaram”.

Arthur Davis, a Canadian, sat with his girlfriend close by. Among their cloth shoulder bags and other things lying on their table was a copy of the book.

“This is not the first time that I have come to India and to Leo’s. Now, the bullet marks on the ceiling of this place is unnerving.

“Yet seeing the crowd and the smiling faces of the waiters here gives you the confidence and hope to return. There is hardly any place today which has not been a victim to terror and, therefore, running away from India after these attacks is never an option,” Davis told IANS.

But ask one of the waiters and he admits that after the Nov 26 attack the number of foreigners thronging the place has come down.

“The number of people coming to Leo’s after the attack has not been affected; in fact it has increased. But the number of foreigners among them has come down. Otherwise, at any given time, the lower section of the cafe is generally filled with foreigners,” said Avik, one of the waiters.

Nevertheless, this pub-restaurant - with its typical 1980s look and now bullet-riddled window panes - continues to serve loyal customers defiant in the face of depredations it had to endure.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.p@ians.in)

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