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Open for business

It wasn’t just Café Leopold, but a 137-year-old legacy that was on attack on 26/11. But owners, Farzad and Farhang Jehani are still serving the beer. Tasneem Nashrulla reports.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2008 23:27 IST

Farhang S Jehani is the man of the moment. In more ways than one. The 44-year-old owner of Café Leopold, Mumbai’s iconic watering hole where the terrorists struck first on the night of September 26, is busy welcoming patrons and well-wishers, answering calls on his mobile, yelling out orders to waiters, posing for photographs and shooing off pesky bystanders.

Evidently, he’s juggling all of it quite well. As is his café, which is full to its 125-seating capacity on a buzzing Wednesday evening, exactly a week after two armed men opened fire here, killing seven, including two waiters. One could

be fooled into believing that nothing happened here, let alone a terrorist attack. The only tell-tale sign is the bullet-ridden glass at the entrance.

For Jehani, it’s business as usual. In fact, more than usual. “We are getting more customers than ever. Our regulars are back, along with first-timers who are curious to see the place,” he says good-naturedly. “Even foreigners haven’t kept away.”

<b1>And with good reason. Café Leopold, which opened in 1871, is one of Mumbai’s oldest and most loved landmarks. It has been with his family for 78 years, but Jehani says he is unaware of the original owner. “Even my father doesn’t know who started it,” he says with a toothy grin. Farhang and his brother, Farzad have been running the show for 24 years now and practically live in the café. “From a place serving only continental food, it is now a multi-cuisine hub with Indian, Chinese and Thai food on the menu. We want to cater to people from all over the world,” he says. “Foreigners love eating here because they never leave with an upset stomach.”

The café is an integral part of Mumbai popular culture, thanks in no small part to one of its most famous patrons, Gregory David Roberts, who described it as “a world of light, colour and richly panelled wood” and wrote of his fondness for Leopold’s celebrated three-litre (six pint) pitchers of beer in his best-selling novel Shantaram. Ever since, the café has attracted the likes of Martin Scorsese who was in India a few months ago.

The café has been prominently featured in Lonely Planet’s guide to India and its author is another Leo loyalist. Says Jehani, “He spends most of his time here. He says the place has such positive vibes that his pen just flies on the paper here!” Ironically, it is this international appeal that made the café a target for the terrorists.

Life, for Jehani, is slowly getting back to normal. “But I’m exhausted,” he says. “I’ve stopped answering calls giving interviews.” (Save this one, of course).

Jehani has the current recession in the economy to thank for saving his life. “Business was somewhat slack. So my brother and I went to the mezzanine floor to watch a football match,” he says. “Usually, we stand at either side of the entrance, from where the terrorists started shooting.” Jehani only heard the sounds of the grenade bursting and firing for two minutes. When the gun-shots had receded somewhat, he went up to inspect. “All the tables and chairs were damaged,”

he says, “My first thought was to get the injured to hospital.”

Surprisingly, Jehani still hasn’t calculated his losses. “My priority was to re-open Leopold. Even my boys [the staff] egged me on to open as soon as possible.” The cafe first opened on Sunday but closed soon after because of uncontrollable crowds. But the shutters were up again the next day at 2.15 pm. Twenty-five Leopold T-shirts were sold in the first half hour after the café opened.

The re-opening, is not an act of cheeky bravado, a business strategy or a symbol of aggression, Jehani says. “We wanted to show that Mumbai rocks!” With that he puts on a Leo tee, shouts out the last order and joins a peace march to the Gateway of India.