Leopold’s café on Colaba is another Bombay institution. The wide shopfront on Colaba Causeway, one of the oldest and busiest roads in the city, opens up the large café to an expansive view of the street. Beggars beg, hawkers peddle counterfeit goods to the crowds of passing locals and tourists, and black and yellow taxis stuck in traffic honk, pointlessly. It’s a snapshot of vibrant, energetic, urban Bombay.
Gregory David Roberts famously wrote about Leopold’s in his book Shantaram, which was the essential backpacker accessory a few years ago. The main character used to sit there endlessly with his colourful cast of friends. The book recounts the story of Roberts himself, an Australian prison escapee who lived in the slums, where he established a health clinic, became a street soldier for the Bombay mafia, was thrown into Indian prison and then went on to fight with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Slightly crazy, but a fun and lively read.
As in the book, Leo’s is almost always full, but it’s much better to be inside than outside. The high ceilings and buzzing fans provide welcome relief from the heat. The café chairs are just comfortable enough. The big old clock above the door and the aging mahogany trimmed mirrors even lend the café a distinguished air. Leo’s dates back to the 1870s, so it has earned the right to its shabby elegance.
The customers are pretty diverse. Bombayites mix easily with tourists from all over the world. Hours are lost in people-watching. Business is conducted. Some suggest that Leo’s is a good place for less legitimate kinds of trade, but it’s just part of the fabric of Bombay.
If you ask, the waiters will point out the bullet holes in the walls and in the mirrors where the terrorists who took over the café for a day in 2008 left their mark. It was a traumatic day but a few days later, Leopold’s re-opened and resumed its rhythm.
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