Ram and Shankari Mohan had never heard of Café Leopold until 26/11.
“We were curious about it after we heard it was attacked,” said the Chennai-based couple, lunching at the café on the eve of the attacks’ first anniversary. “That’s why we came here on our visit to Mumbai.”
Leopold’s status as a tourist hotspot was never in doubt, but it’s fate as a pilgrimage spot-cum-tourist attraction has been definitively sealed since that fateful night one year ago.
While for many it is curiosity that draws them to the restaurant, for others it’s a sense of affection.
A year after the attacks, Leo’s, as it is affectionately known, is bustling, with the usual mix of back-packers, office-goers on a lunch break and collegians packing the tables. At the cash counter, Leopold T-shirts priced at Rs 450 are selling briskly.
“We always sold these T-shirts and though we have no record of the numbers, there has definitely been a rise in sales in the past year,” said Bernard Coelho, manager.
For Molly Lawson, a T-shirt was the perfect souvenir after having read about the iconic restaurant in Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram.
“That book was the main reason for my curiosity,” said Lawson. “Of course, last year’s attacks were another factor.”
What Shantaram kick-started for Leo’s, 26/11 sealed – a permanent place in the city’s imagination.
“There is nothing special on the menu; I can get the food anywhere in India,” said Francoise from France on her tenth trip to the city. “But Leopold is Leopold – there will only be one of it.”
One suspects that Leo’s draw has always had less to do with the food and more to do with its convivial ambience.
“It’s got a special charm,” said Arun Bagvati, on a lunch break with friends from his Fort office. For many like him, it is also a taken-for-granted piece of the landscape.
“We’ve always hung out here,” said his friend Hardeep Singhuru, as they waited for a pitcher of beer. “You could just as easily die in your own home if there is an earthquake. A terrorist attack is no reason to not come back.”
For many, a terrorist attack is an especially good reason to come back or visit for the first time.
With the bullet marks still gaping from the café’s walls, 26/11 is as much a part of Leopold’s image as its décor.