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.