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In the city of dreams, a star café

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-12-10

FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto reports from India's financial capital as the city slowly recovers from the devastating attacks that killed nearly 200 people.

 

Sunday, Nov. 30


Today, Leopold Café pulled up its shutters and opened its doors to the public.

 
Mumbai’s much-loved café in the hip Colaba neighborhood was the first target of the city’s most brazen terror attacks. On the night of Nov. 26, militants burst into the café, lobbying a hand grenade and indiscriminately opening fire on the staff and guests in a bloody rampage that killed 10 people, including two waiters and four foreign nationals.


Three days and many harrowing tales later, Leopold was opening for business in a testament to the indomitable spirit of this city.

 

Braving the media crush of sweaty, irate journalists on the sidewalk, I ducked under stained, malodorous underarms to squeeze myself into the place. I have an emotional attachment to this place and I’ll be damned if I didn’t make it in.

 
Site of numerous university-era dates, Leopold was one of our favourite hangouts in the late 1980s. Its owner, Farzad Jehani, looked on benignly as we lingered over cheap cups of tea and split dishes to stretch our meager student budgets.

 
Today, Jehani, 44, is a media star. TV crews are aggressively following his every move, elbowing and virtually punching the crowds of onlookers that invariably gather on Mumbai’s streets at the least sign of any ‘action’.

 
The Australian teams are particularly hot on his heels. Leopold became a hit on the Australian – and international – backpack circuit after it featured prominently in the bestselling novel, “Shantaram,” by Australian Gregory David Roberts. Now, as I risk losing an eye to an Aussie cameraman’s elbow, somebody whispers that there’s a film being made about the book, starring Johnnie Depp.

 
Ah, the price of stardom.

Leopold owner and current media star, Farzad Jehani. Photo: L. Jacinto

Jehani though, is as down-to-earth as he’s always been. Once I have his attention, he shows me around the place, lifting a tablecloth to reveal a deep hole in the floor where the first grenade landed that fateful Wednesday night.
 
“Two gunmen came in and they just emptied their magazines into the restaurant,” said Jehani, who happened to be on the mezzanine floor of the split-level café.
 
After their rampage in the café, the gunmen then walked down the street to the Taj hotel barely a block away. The Taj was the site of the longest battle between Indian security officials and the militants during the deadly Mumbai terrorist attacks.
 
“I have a feeling they just wanted to divert the cops’ attention on their way to the Taj,” said Jehani.
 
His waiters, dressed in red T-shirts are all spruced up and lined up against the back wall after a hard day of scrubbing the bloodstains and clearing up the mess after the attack.
 
Nilesh Patil, a waiter who came to Mumbai six months ago from his native village outside the city, lost his two friends and fellow waiters, Piru and Kaji, that night.
 
Like the millions of dream-seekers from India’s impoverished countryside who arrive in Mumbai seeking the lives they see in Bollywood films and TV commercials, Patil shares his one-room abode with several other young men.
 
Does he wish he never made his way to this hustling, bustling, and now violence-hit city?
 
No, not at all. “Yeh Bumbai hai,” he says simply in Hindi. This is Bombay - or Bumbai or Mumbai, or call it what you want. This teeming, grimy city on India’s western coast has and always will hold an appeal for Indians across the subcontinent.
 
And it’s this famed ability to cope and carry on despite the odds that Jehani is tapping into this Sunday morning.
 
“This place is 137-years-old. My family has kept it running in good times and bad. We have opened this place. They can’t kill our spirit,” he said.

First come, first served: tea and veggie sandwich at the newly reopened café. Photo: L. Jacinto


For now, we share in that business as usual spirit. My friend orders teas and a veggie sandwich. It arrives in a jiffy. The management staff is so moved by the momentousness of the occasion, they refuse to bill us.
 
But we are principled journalists and insist on the check. It takes a great deal of fighting, but finally we get it. Eighty-seven rupees for two teas and a veggie sandwich. The first bill in the newly reopened Leopold Café. We pay and then fight to keep the bill for souvenir’s sake.

 

Read Leela Jacinto's other notebook entries:

 

05/12/08 - India's first anti-Semitic attack - goodbye Mumbai

04/12/2008 - Regrets, goodbyes, curtains - and a Bollywood bungle

03/12/2008 - Mumbaikers take to the streets

01/12/2008 - Questions for a likely ex-chief minister
 

Date created : 2008-11-30

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