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Seeking Shantaram: Sunday morning in Leopold’s.

Posted on Dec 23, 2011

“‘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.

“To Mumbai.”

Leopold Cafe Mumbai - Shantaram Novel

Leopold Cafe Mumbai - Shantaram Novel

Leopold Cafe Mumbai - Shantaram Novel

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.

Leopold Cafe Mumbai - Shantaram Novel

Leopold Cafe Mumbai - Shantaram Novel

Leopold Cafe Mumbai - Shantaram Novel

Leopold Cafe Mumbai - Shantaram Novel

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? 

  • I’ve heard that if you want to be an extra in a Bollywood film, just hanging around here one afternoon will get you a few job offers 😉

    • Haha that’s awesome! I imagine that’s definitely the case. I got an offer while hanging around outside Regal Cinema…unfortunately I only had one day left in Mumbai at that point, so I didn’t want to spend all of it on set (they said it would be from 8am-8pm). Maybe next time, right? 🙂

  • jen

    you can make anything sound interest, my darling. Tell me a story about what you see out the window.

    • Thanks so much, love! And that’s a brilliant idea–I’ll have to get to work on that one 🙂

  • Fantastic post. I visited Leopolds myself and was in fact drawn to Mumbai in general thanks to Robert’s compelling novel. But what drew me to India the most, was Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” set in a Keralen backwater village. I just had to experience it for myself and read the novel for third time as I cruised the waters.
    What draws me to your blog, however, is that I am signed up for next year’s Rickshaw Run, and I feel great comfort in the fact that you lived to tell the tale 🙂 Really glad I discovered your writing, and look forward to reading more.

    • Thanks, Sarah! I had no idea “The God of Small Things” is set in Kerala…that’s an old favorite of mine from university, so I’ll have to go back and read it now that I’ve actually been to Kerala 🙂 And congrats on signing up for the run! Please don’t worry–you are going to LOVE it. It was such an adventure and an amazing way to see the country. By the way, are you by any chance doing it with a girl named Hannah? She contacted me a few days ago, saying she was doing the run with two other female travel bloggers…wasn’t sure if you are one of them!

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  • i admire the sense of space andtime you haveat your disposal

    • Thanks for stopping by and saying hello, Mark! I’m really glad to hear you enjoyed the post.