Seeking Shantaram: Sunday morning in Leopold’s.
“‘How much devil have I got in me?’ she answered me, the half-smile teasing her lips. ‘That’s a very personal question. Come to think of it, that might just be the most personal question anyone ever asked me. But, hey, if you come to Leopold’s sometime, you could find out.’”
— Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
It’s noon in Bombay and my tea is growing cold. But I don’t mind, really, for the tea is just an excuse. Like the appetizer you order just so you can enjoy the view from a revolving roof-top restaurant, or that extra drink you buy when a cute guy walks into the pub and you convince your friends to hang around. This tea is my excuse to linger in Leopold’s.
I pull out my sketchbook and spread out at table number eight. Above my head simple white fans spin on the ceiling–the air is warm but comfortable. Sounds of knives chopping and blenders whirring filter out from the kitchen, a subtle soundtrack beneath the clatter of plates and glasses. Waiters in red t-shirts move between closely positioned tables, serving the mix of foreigners and Indians that fill the restaurant.
A group of friends sit down across from me and order beers. When the drinks arrive, they raise their glasses.
So who, or what, is Leopold’s anyway? If it wasn’t for Gregory David Roberts’ classic novel Shantaram, I wouldn’t know either:
“Do you know a place called Leopold’s?” I asked Prabaker as he joined me, and we started to walk once more.
“Oh, yes! Wonderful and lovely place it is, Leopold’s Beer Bar. Full of the most wonderful, lovely peoples, the very, very fine and lovely people. All kinds of foreigners you can find there, all making good business. Sexy business, and drugs business, and money business, and black-market business, and naughty pictures, and smuggler business, and passport business, and–”
“Okay, Prabaker, I get it.”
“You want to go there?”
“No. Maybe later.”
Lin does go later, of course, and it’s where he first meets the beautiful Karla, the gregarious Didier, and a whole host of characters that make up the book’s unforgettable cast. In real life, it’s where terrorists killed at least ten people during the 2008 Mumbai attacks on November 26th–and some bullet holes remain inside the cafe today. All of this has produced a kind of aura around Leopold’s, an aura of legendary and unmissable proportions that seems to draw in every tourist in Bombay.
For me, too, it became another mecca on my literary pilgrimage around the world. From Virginia Woolf’s house in London’s Fitzroy Square to the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris (and other old haunts of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the like), there’s something moving, something satisfying, about seeing where places that have existed only in your mind actually exist in reality.
So even if there didn’t seem to be much black-market business going on around me, I sat for longer than I should have in Leopold’s–sketching, people-watching and waiting the whole time for Lin to walk through the door.
Want to visit Leopold’s yourself?
- The cafe is located on Colaba Causeway, near Electric House.
- Opening hours are 8am – 12 midnight.
- Telephone: +91 022 2282 8185
What are some of your favorite literary pilgrimages you’ve made?