Postcard from... Cafe Leopold, Mumbai

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By Marcel Krueger:

In the sweaty humid madness of the cyberpunk city that is Mumbai, where 60-storey skyscrapers rise into the night sky behind crumbling British colonial buildings and where men with typewriters and computers sit in little wooden booths offering letter writing and translation services on the streets, Café Leopold has been haunted by generations of foreigners. Lonely Planet calls it a ‘clichéd Mumbai travellers’ institution’, and it features heavily in Gregory David Roberts’ 2003 novel ‘Shantaram’, about an Australian hiding from the authorities in Mumbai and a staple in the literary diet of backpackers coming to India – they even sell it at the counter in the café.

The café itself however does not seem to live up to its reputation. Its small entrance is almost completely immersed in the tourist infrastructure of the equally touristy Colaba Causeway, the main street of this southern Mumbai neighbourhood. It’s flanked by small stalls and shops selling trinkets, fake jewellery, smart phone covers and T-shirts, and only the two security guards wearing ‘Leopold’-T-shirts at the entrance give it away (and check your bags for dangerous items). What I like about the place is its matter-of-factness. Despite being in business since 1871, there is no European café grandeur amidst the languid air pushed around by the many ceiling fans on the ground floor, only Indians and foreigners, backpackers and businessmen who come here for cheap food, cakes and cold beer.

Maybe it is this matter-of-factness that made it one of the targets in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, when the attackers sprayed the café with bullets from their AK-47s, killing ten guests and injuring many more. Some of the bullet holes can still be seen in the walls, between old beer advertisements and Pulp Fiction posters. Café Leopold defiantly re-opened only four days after the attack, and I for one believe that cold beer and cake will always beat terrorists and their bullets.  

Curious contours of time in a city – Hyderabad

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By Suranjana Choudhury:

“The desire to see the city preceded the means of satisfying it.” Michel de Certeau

Can one experience a city and then narrate it? Is it not quite challenging to embark on such a task? A city lives its own life. I had visited Hyderabad before, the most recent being my fourth time in the city. I knew that Hyderabad also possesses its own lived realities and fantasises. But prior to this I never experienced any urgency to write about this city. Now, as a resident of a quiet and mildly pensive hill station like Shillong, I have grown rapidly sharp and perceptive to the kinaesthetic appeal of a place like Hyderabad.

A longer stay in the city offered me the scope to experience Hyderabad with all its fluidities and fixities.  The sights and sounds overwhelmed me as I realised that I had come to live in what was both an ancient and a very modern city. I remembered my stay in Rome. Rome too had a similar appearance. It had witnessed thousand years of history and preserved many derelicts of the past amidst its growth as a global metropolis. Hyderabad also exuded such a peculiar charm. As a city, Hyderabad has traversed a historical route which has been quite different from that of most other cities in India. The city is defined through its relationships between the expansiveness of its space and episodes of its past. History is a tangible, palpable presence which none can dare ignore. The city does not merely tell its past, it does more than that.

Marco Polo in Calvino’s Invisible Cities tells us that the past in Zaira is contained “like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the Bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” There are many ways of describing the city. On the one hand, it incarnates the busyness of lives driven by corporate dreams. On the other, an idleness of an archaic feudal order. The forts, the tombs, some celebrated museums, some half-forgotten memorials, stood in sharp contrast to a few glamorous and a few prosaic components of contemporary city culture. I responded with awe to the richly nourished histories of Salarjung museum, to and fro motions of time in Golconda gullies, aromatic tastes of biriyani, dazzling visuals of various saree stores and of course heavy trail of chaotic traffic on the streets.

Of all my experiences received in Hyderabad, I remember a particular twilight spent in Golconda fort. This extraordinary structure is not a singular edifice; rather it is a community of constructions spread on a sprawling landscape. Being a Saturday, the place was already swollen with visitors arriving from everywhere. The composition of this anonymous crowd chronicled the hierarchy of a society and the differences of lives lived. On the huge, sprawling canvas one could witness such multiplicities in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion. In short, the place was microcosmic India.

Some fashionably attired young men and women had arrived to spend a casual evening, some very spirited and dedicated travellers browsed every spot of the fort. Interestingly, it appeared that for some families the fort also offered a veritable site for picnicking. Some burqa-clad women, some scantily dressed. A father trying to appease a demanding baby. Some ravenous children gorging on multi-coloured ice-creams… They all presented an aesthetic delight of a different measure.

It was not just the sound or the sight or the smell; the space had transformed into something else. It evolved into an enduring visual, aural and tactile archive, preserving all the contours of this unique experience. It was a rhapsodic evening. As I walked along the belly of the historical ruins, I grew progressively aware of something which is perhaps symptomatic of every tourist spot. Golconda fort has ceased to be a piece of history. It had embraced saleability. This remnant of history had become an object to be exhibited; a public display to be visually consumed.

Amit Chaudhuri, the noted creative artist of our times, writes about a similar trope in his extremely evocative article “Kalighat Revisited.” I had read it long before I visited Hyderabad. I suppose his writing was somewhere lurking in the margins of my mind, and this in turn informed my observations. As more and more viewers trickled in, the fort growingly ascertained its acceptability, its popularity in the sphere of public desire.

There were other aspects of the Golconda narrative. Just as a television visual often renders random layers of a scene one upon another, so does the pattern of traveller/ consumer behaviour offer compelling commentaries on time and change. Some years back, when digital cameras were not digital and world was not so narcissistically obsessed with ‘selfie-images’, the photographer-sellers hitting those tourist places had reason enough to experience their own sense of self-importance. But now, these photographers appeared more and more desperate and sad. There were quite a few of them hanging around. They longed for potential buyers. With anxiety and hopelessness writ large on their faces, these professionals exercised several strategies to acquire a willing customer. They seemed haunted by phantoms of a happier past.

Their tragicomic predicaments held sway over everything else. Even a few years back there was no dearth of customers for them. The visitors who did not possess cameras or who forgot to bring one would gravitate towards these photographers to carry back their own personal memories of having been visited the fort. They would deliver one photograph after another in surprisingly short span of time. They were performers, conjurors who ensured that the audiences experienced full satisfaction after the show got over. However, a post-globalised universe has now fiercely transformed our imagination and cravings. I perceived these lost professionals as parallel recipients and victims of a changed world. They haunted the margins of an existence. Could they launch a different career? Is there any other strategy?

It is difficult to arrive at any answer. When I walked outside this luminous, resplendent architecture, my thoughts had changed perceptibly. I no longer felt an outsider. The collective experience of this visit opened up an imaginary space. This space was infinite, boundless. I was happy to inhabit and possess it together.

About the author:

Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings and Translation Studies. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Humanities Underground, The Statesman, Cafe Dissensus, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, and Scroll.in.

The Housewife of New Friends Colony

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A story by Rita Malik

Her husband Ravi had eaten a strange leaf in the first strange country he had visited long ago, under the pretense of his business affairs, no doubt. But his gastronomic tendencies were awakened to the new possibilities. Possibilities that did not include in any way shape or form, yellow or red ground spices, mixed all spice, cinnamon, nor betel nut, no hing, no lentils, and no unnecessary red or green chilies. The peptic ulcer his personal physician had for so long profited over, that helped house him in a perfect Mercedes Benz, was no longer going to provide the funds. The salt had lost its savor. He was a connoisseur of all things non-Indian. He could even gallivant and float and beam over the most delectable and bland fish, boiled potatoes, as long as they were associated with a culinary culture and a national pride of some independent nature, such as Irish dishes. Yes, Ravi had developed a taste for Irish food.

Meanwhile, his friend Vijay had hatcheries all over China. Seema had wondered during many pillow talk parlances with Ravi about the state of affairs if one has only to rely on the revenues from various chicken hatcheries to make a living.

“But he’s doing very well,” Ravi had told her. “How else could he live in that beautiful farmhouse and all that acreage in the middle of Delhi?”

“Inheritance,” she’d replied, flipping a magazine page without looking up. “He’s his father’s son.” Vijay’s grandfather had been the Mayor of Delhi once upon a time. The family had depths of connections, especially in political circles. His wife, a pretty woman, who went by the name of Penny, outright non-Indian, even though she was a Kashmiri, had the gift of youthful looks and a fine figure, Seema reflected ruefully.

Seema herself was darker skinned, but by no means of the blackish sort, seen in the people of Dravidian descent. Her family was from U.P. Bihari’s. Wheat skinned. And there was no noble lineage. She had been able to hide this from her friends. In fact she had led them on to believe she was descended from a long line of Rajputs, before the drastic changes took place, industrialization, globalization. She made self-deprecating remarks and joked about the Rajputs along the way, endearing herself with the Dolly’s, the Sweety’s, and the ruffians of Punjab, as she would call them, in her parlances with Ravi after their partying.

Still, Ravi never understood. He did patiently hear her out, as she ranted about the housewives of New Friends and South Extension.

“Shopping and kitty parties and showing off, that’s all that these women find time to do.” Why she had done this, the deliberate misleading as regards her lineage, she did herself not know.