Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
The Palace Wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel sat shuttered, several months after the horrific attacks there. Its façade, a striking example of the Anglo-Indian architecture scattered throughout south Mumbai, looked out over an empty Arabian Sea.
I passed it on my way from the Gate of India to Leopold Café, a bar on the outstretched fingertip of a city that, on a map, appears to be reaching for something.
On November 26th 2008, 10 people were shot and killed at the Leopold; because of its clientele and its open-air frontage it made an easy initial target for the terrorists who besieged Mumbai. On this short walk, I was probably retracing their steps from the sea straight to the cafe. Today, missing chinks of concrete and spider-webbed glass are vivid reminders of the violence at the Leopold. But on my visit the bar was cheerful and full.
"We want to welcome people here, and put this awful thing behind us," one man said.
Because there are only a handful of places where travelers congregate in Mumbai, you often find yourself sharing a table with strangers. Its bars are short on space. That night, I shared mine with an English jeweler who had sold his shop and set off to see the world before he died, as he explained to me with great pleasure.
As I was about to set off for dinner, sometime around eleven (not all that late by Bombay standards), he smiled and said this: "You know what kid, you'll never dig up a rich businessman and hear him say he should have spent more time at the office." Then he slugged his last gulp of London Pilsner and plodded off into the darkness.
I slipped around the corner, past shadowy hashish peddlers and street kids, onto the sandy run of street being rebuilt behind the Taj. And I stumbled upon a restaurant called the Bagdadi. If you like good food, don't mind sharing a table with working-class folk and eating with your hands, and you happen to be wandering around Colaba just before midnight, you might want to try it.
That night I shared a meal at the Bagdadi with three best friends, men who had served together in the Indian Navy for nine years. They had returned to drink a few beers at Leopold's and then to eat at this, their favorite restaurant in the city. The sailors were a little tipsy, but they were respectful and friendly.
"For nine years we've come to this place," one of them said, "and this will be our last time together here. Our military tours are over this week. When we heard about the attacks, about so many people getting shot in our old stomping grounds, we were out at sea. And so when we came back to this port we had to return one last time, to see how it has changed."
They all nodded their heads from side to side, and sopped up the Bagdadi's spicy masala chicken curry with bits of crisp, puffy roti. Decades of hungry elbows had worn through the Bagdadi's tabletops, and it was clear to me why. "Write a story, and tell people to come to Bombay, and not to be afraid!" another sailor asked. "We want to welcome people here, and put this awful thing behind us."
As we picked apart our chicken, wrapping it in bubbled sections of bread and dipping those in cool yogurt, the restaurant brimmed with finger-licking customers. Noisy drinkers and wandering tourists spilled out onto Colaba's narrow streets, from the Gokul Bar and Café Mondegar.
And the sailors all agreed that their curry tasted just the same.