All you who will drink tonight
The gentrification of Bombay is relentless, but there are still a few unchanged pockets that allow you to step back in time
Some of my nicest memories of Bombay are related to bars. I say this in full recognition of the fact that it makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I refuse to be apologetic about that because it doesn't really change how I feel about them. This is because the bars I refer to have nothing to do with the one-size-fits-all drinking holes that have slowly but steadily been taking over the city. You know the type.
I suppose it began in the late '90s, the gradual emphasis on swanky interiors to justify ridiculously priced beer, the removal of free snacks with every drink as taxes rose, the elimination of all watering holes that occupied the space between 5-star pubs and dingy bars.
Today, walking into a pub makes it hard to figure out where in the world one is. Some point this out as a matter of pride, as proof that Bombay has arrived. I think of it as a tragedy, that we should use pubs and restaurants to define whether or not we have arrived, instead of barometers like infrastructure and public healthcare. But that's another story.
While in college, I remember places like Sunlight and Kit Kat, both unpretentious bars in Marine Lines, a place that still crawls with unpretentious bars if you're adventurous enough to go looking. It's interesting how these places thrive within a few kilometres of Colaba, where the possibility of finding an unpretentious bar is lower than that of finding a decent politician.
What made Sunlight and Kit Kat special was how they acted like equalisers, allowing young college students like myself to sit together with folk from across the city, thigh to thigh, downing cheap glasses of Old Monk and coke with assorted rough characters who told tall stories, and locals who could be found at the same tables on any day of the week. It was, for many of us, an education on what life in Bombay was really like outside the relatively sheltered childhoods we had just emerged from.
I remember Toto's in Bandra because it's hard to forget its raucous soundtrack that will probably play long after Bon Jovi, Metallica, and Def Leppard put away their battered drum kits. Toto's continues to be special because of how rude it can be, how it refuses to think of the customer as always right, and insists on treating everyone with the right amount of disdain. In doing so, it personifies Bombay in its own way, putting all who walk through its doors in their place, asking us all to forget about preferential treatment.
Not far from Toto's stands Sunraj, a bar that sinks below ground level and offers patrons a staircase to a mildly claustrophobic air-conditioned first floor. It's where you can run into those who have long given up on hipster Janta, and it is surprisingly popular with young entrepreneurs for reasons I have yet to fathom. Another place sharing this distinction is Harish, in Irla, that sits alongside what was once the most notorious dance bar in the suburbs. You can never tell who you will find here, from television soap actors to filmmakers, joint families to enterprising businessmen. I have spent years at Harish, watching how its interiors have evolved into the generic equivalent of a South Indian restaurant. The food and drink cost a lot more than they did when I first began visiting, but what hasn't gone away is that weird feeling of comfort that only a few places manage to retain in the face of relentless change.
Every suburb always has a bar that attracts people for generations, from Ocean's in Khar to Ratnagiri in Andheri, Sagar in Malvani to Schumania in Borivali. Some boast special dishes that never change, others stick to decor that was already unfashionable in the 1960s. For regulars, they are the places where they can walk in and everybody knows their names.
Bombay's bars have long been notorious for reasons that are good or bad depending upon who you happen to be. For me, they have been a source of comfort and endless amusement, where I have found solace in the company of old friends and complete strangers. They continue to offer a semblance of shelter for those brave enough to step outside comfort zones and move away from the spots that attract reviews from food critics. When I think of Bombay, and the idea of home, they are and always have been the places that come most to mind.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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