No, Mr Gregory Roberts, the waiters at Leopold's are no longer surly. Your attention to their 'legendary churlishness' must have shamed them out of hauteur and habit. They now attend to you as though you were actually a paying customer.
Leopold Café. Morals no bar. Race no (longer) bar. Under the umbrage of its saffron lights, (almost) everybody is equal: the Turkish trio mothering a mousey urchin in a half-dead Harry Potter T-shirt, the son of a famous comedian who wants to be a serious actor, the group of North Koreans plotting the siege of America with Minoltas, the couple making sotto voce deals — about what, Shantaram only knows!
Leopold's was a star much before the book made it numinous. It saw the light of day in 1871 as an oil depot run by Iranians. Then a drug store. (Oh, the irony!) And a café and general store. But only with a permit licence in 1980 did it truly settle down and hang up its confused collection of (now) retro prints. When Leopold's opened a mezzanine pub (the second in Mumbai after Rasna) around 1985, it covered the basic ground for social asylum — food, alcohol, and a milieu pliant to both solitude and society. Sunk virtually in the navel of tourists' Colaba on Causeway, it became the place of congress for foreigners, some of who dusted off the residue of their travels at the café, while others took the café on with them, evangelising fellow journeymen about the liberty, equality and fraternity of Leopold's. Fodor's, Lonely Planet and others caught on, so the orbit of the café's influence kept dilating.
And then came Shantaram.
“A faded but still sumptuous elegance struck and held the eyes of all who walked through those wide arches into Leopold's little world of light, colour and richly panelled wood.” Then he got more interesting.... “Leopold's was an unofficial freezone...deals for drugs and other contraband were openly transacted at the tables...” And then he titillated you with talk of arms dealers, black gold merchants, counterfeiters, prostitutes and other habitués. But if there are those, there are also these — families with babies, couples in their prime and a few past it. And if the planets are pleased — there's Shantaram. “We've had people travelling to India, and to Leopold's, only to meet him and study the Bombay he wrote about,” laughs Ferzad Jehani, one of the two brothers who steers this ship. “If he's here, we point him out to them; if not, we pass on their email addresses to him. We receive international calls for him, and even have a special mailbox for his fan mail...” Along with copies of his book, which, are sold with his signature for Rs 1,000! Without it, but with the stamp of Leopold's celebrity seal, the book sells for Rs 500. Undoubtedly, business has picked up (along with sales of Leopold's keepsakes — mugs, T-shirts, plaques...).
If the roll call once recalled éminences grises like Shekhar Kapoor, it now drops names like Martin Scorsese, Jean-Claude La Marre (director of Brothers in Arms), and Craig Pearce (co-writer of Moulin Rouge), who Farhang, the other brother, claims have consorted with Roberts here. A corner of his mouth squeezes, “Johnny Depp is coming in August.” Of course, we'd never know — Depp may be smuggled in after shutters drop. Leopold's maintains a quaint indifference to the enthusiasms of the celebrity-struck.
Everybody hunkers over their crispy chicken and lager, even though low-key curiosity ricochets off mirrored walls and around semi-Doric columns. When you look closely, this is really just an old Irani café without its antiquated owners, but with its standard stick chairs, torpid ceiling fans, chequered tables primped with fresh rose buds and an affinity for elastic hours. The pub upstairs is the most obvious anomaly to the 'Irani' tradition. This tiny T-zone magically lodges a bar, a pint-sized dance floor, a DJ and a multitude that mysteriously finds room. The food is another misdemeanour against convention — Chinese, North Indian and scanty Continental. It's low-cost and copious, (delicious, if you're lucky), and that's what counts. And at the close of the year, the kitchen will work overtime to accommodate all those added mouths gaping al fresco on the soon-to-open terrace.
The crowds say they've got the formula right — which is why the owners have been propositioned for franchises in other cities — but it's really the laissez faire of Leopold's that works. With or without Shantaram.
Leopold Café, Colaba Causeway, Mumbai G.P.O, Mumbai (022-22020131); open daily, 7.30am-1.30am; the pub opens at 1.30pm.