On a Sunday morning, I normally would have taken the ‘fast’ train down to South Bombay, but today I wanted to drive through the city. Lin Baba, Gregory David Roberts’s semi-autobiographical character from the 2003 novel Shantaram, wove through traffic on the same streets I would take, smoking chillums with underworld don Khaderbhai and learning how to gun past signals on the back of gangster Abdullah’s bike.
I also wanted to do so in a vehicle that fit the book’s milieu —1980s’ Bombay. I walked past a few empty cabs outside Mehboob Studio, Bandra, before I found a beautifully beat-up Padmini: the kind of ride that lets the sun’s reflection bounce off the asphalt and glitter through the cracks of its underbelly. Whenever the driver braked, it felt like he was pulling on the reins of a fast-moving horse and carriage. We zoomed south, past Haji Ali, where Lin drank late night lassis, past the Air India building, where the lovesick brute made sweet love on the rooftop to his Swiss-American temptress Karla. At noon I screeched to halt in front of Regal Cinema, right on time for ‘Lin Baba’s Colaba, Shantaram Tour: A Convict’s Bombay.’
The walk was hosted as part of the third edition of the India Heritage Walk Festival in conjunction with The Readers’ Tribe, an event held in February before the pandemic put a pause on city strolling, featuring over 140 experiences in 44 Indian cities, in collaboration with more than 65 local-level partners. One of them was Beyond Bombay, a niche travel collective that organises concept-based walks, engaging people with the past and present of the cities they call home. I had never participated in a city walk or tour before, and was rather proud of that. Such tours always seemed to be made up of sheep-like groups of people, obstinately gawking on already crowded streets. I’ve often brusquely nudged my way past these human barricades, perhaps muttering a few obscenities for good measure. On the other hand, I rather liked Shantaram. I had read it over a decade ago, long before I moved to Bombay, and figured it might be fun to retrace the absconding Australian’s first steps in the city. Afterwards, I could always pop by Cafe Mondegar for a pint, no matter how the walk went.
A group encircled a woman sitting on the theatre’s steps, and I could immediately tell she was Shriti Tyagi—the head of Beyond Bombay—by the way she calmly pivoted in conversation with the people around her. Twelve years ago, Shriti started conducting such literary walks, what she refers to as “bookworming,” with ‘Lin Baba’s Colaba’ (Shantaram) and ‘Babbanji Bihari Walk’ (based on Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City). I introduced myself and joined in the small talk that always preludes such undertakings. It was effortless, the docent was charming as was her group of explorers, and I began to feel comfortable as my scepticism drifted away. The cluster of walkers was a diverse one. There were mothers and daughters, married folk, a young couple Fevikwik-ed to each other’s sides, an engineer who recently read Shantaram because he was stationed in a remote place with no internet connection, and a linguist—who may or may not have read the book—determined to practise any of the five languages he was fluent in, and two others, German and Russian, which I believe he was learning, with anyone and everyone on the tour.
There were more of us than I expected, perhaps a dozen. I thought it would be hard to hear Shriti speak, but I could hear her clearly, and even better, she proved to be a master shepherd: “You have to negotiate with noise, movement and everything but one has to figure out places where you can hold conversations with least disturbance and that you have to do at the recce stage,” said Shriti, when I asked her about her approach after the tour. She not only was able to herd us skillfully through the bustle of Colaba, but kept our attention lassoed by her loquacious and revealing insight into an area that scaffolds the narrative of Shantaram. She wove in a couple good Shantaram quotes into her introduction, alluding to ‘sweet, sweaty hope’ and the ‘amphibian-like humidity’ of the city, which was expected, but she also gave context to the area, the alcove that is Colaba, engaging us with the lively atmosphere captured in the novel. Shriti explained, “The idea was to see the city through ‘book eyes’ and see how books based on the city lend themselves to the city and vice versa, while tracing the trajectory of the protagonist through a pocket (of Mumbai).” She elaborated, “Shantaram fit in beautifully because it places itself somewhere between fact and fiction, with the city as a character. You not only reconstruct events set in this pocket, but also talk about the place it occupies in Mumbai, its histories and stories.”
As we ambled under musty awnings haphazardly fixed to deco buildings, Shriti coaxed out the backdrop of Shantaram from Colaba, referencing mill strikes, the strengthening of the underworld, the growth of the slums, and the prevalence of runway tourists.
Her tour engaged us like Gregory Davis Roberts’ writing, walking the tightrope of information and intrigue. It
was a venture that kept pace with the beat of the neighbourhood, negotiating
the literal and figurative flurry and swell intrinsic to the place Lin Baba first established himself in the city.
If we had thrust ourselves into Cuffe Parade’s slums where Lin really began to cultivate local ties to the city, or Dongri’s narrow by-lanes in search of bygone child slave markets, the tour would have been a crass endeavour; but concentrating on Colaba, the city’s proverbial ‘isle of lost toys,’ made sense. Iranis, Nigerians, Arabs, Chinese, Afghans, and a variety of goras have long recognised that Colaba is a place where outsiders can become insiders, so our motley crew was not entirely out of place as we roamed through the area, at ease in an ocean of graceful chaos. Even though so much has changed in this area where Lin Baba made his bones, there are still so many places that pad the tour with a real sense of the story’s backdrop: Irani cafés, colonnaded architecture, Colaba Police Station, Radio Club, Little Arabia, and so on. As Shriti said, “There is enough to see and reconstruct the events and enough to imagine.”
We stopped by the bullet-ridden walls of Leopold Cafe & Bar, filled with customers swilling lager and cutting up buff steaks, the once “unofficial free zone, scrupulously ignored by the otherwise efficient officers at Colaba Police Station” where the “business ranged from traffic in drugs, currencies, passports, gold, (and) sex.”
Across the Causeway, we explored a little-known corner of Colaba’s police station where Lin Baba was first detained before heading to his brutal stint in captivity at Arthur Road. We strolled down to Little Arabia, passing perfumeries brimming with auburn mixtures in ostentatious glass decanters, moving towards Lin Baba’s first lodgings, India Guest House. While the exteriors of the guest house may have changed very little since Lin Baba’s time in Mumbai, we walked up to the third floor of a building completely gutted from its former, lackluster grunge. It was now a far cry from the days when Prabaker (Lin’s friend and guide) proclaimed, “Smoking, drinking, dancing, music, sexy business, no problem here,” only to add, “Everything is allow no problem here. Except the fighting. Fighting is not good manners at India Guest House… And dying… Mr. Anand (the manager) is not liking it, if the people are dying here.” At least the sea-facing view remains the same.
We looped around past a Koli fishing village, glimpses of terracotta tile roofs obscured from the shade of surrounding apartment buildings. Then we pushed on, deep into Sassoon Docks, a once salient sanctuary for smugglers. Whatever was left of the morning’s catch now clung to our clothes as we wrapped up the last stop of our three-hour exploration of Colaba. Despite the thick of the afternoon heat, it was impossible not to be completely satisfied by the tour. Even those who hadn’t read the book wore the lazy smiles that come after a well-spent, jam-packed afternoon.
Some of us weren’t ready to say goodbye to Colaba just yet, so we popped over to Cafe Mondegar for an ice-cold beer surrounded by the sound of excited tourists and a blaring jukebox. I’m a stubborn soul, so much that in school I earned the title “Never Wrong Manning” for my obstinacy. But that sweaty Sunday I retired a bias I had long held onto. It amuses me to no end that now, as I’m stuck at home during a pandemic, I constantly dream about taking another of Shriti’s or Indian Heritage Walk’s tours. As Lin Baba says, “If fate doesn’t make you laugh, you just don’t get the joke.”
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.