Sunday, August 22, 2010

Café Harbour View

The Gateway of India stands near the southern tip of Mumbai and looks out westward to the Arabian Sea. The sea also flanks the Gateway’s sides – narrow channels of water brushing against stones and a makeshift pier. From the pier, steamers and cruises ply towards the South up to Goa, passing through tiny, sleepy beach towns that offer Mumbai’s populace quiet weekend getaway options. One of these is the town of Mandva, barely inhabited, which owes its disproportionate popularity in pop culture to the iconic Agneepath – one of Amitabh Bachchan’s most beloved films. Kaushik, Ashish and Ritankar had once taken a steamer back to Mumbai from Mandva. Throughout the journey, they had reeled off dialogues from the film at the slightest pretext. They had decided that they would return some day, dressed in all-whites like Bachchan had done, including the blazer, shoes and the rims of their glasses.

Even from up close, the Gateway of India appears strangely unimpressive, almost feeble. The unquestionable grandeur of the Taj Mahal Hotel behind it accentuates the Gateway’s lack of stature. From steamers approaching Mumbai, the Taj Mahal hotel can be spotted from miles out; the Gateway not until much later, when it is only a few hundred meters away.

Nevertheless, thousands of tourists flock to the Gateway each day, year after year. The spacious square, in the centre of which the Gateway stands, teems with people throughout the day, even when the Sun is at its angriest. A dozen photographers walk around, carrying decade old cameras and a colour printer inside a bag on their shoulders, nudging every tourist group, especially those from foreign lands, to pose for pictures.

A narrow street leads away from the Gateway and runs by the sea, separated by a wide parapet. Two minutes into its journey, the street leaves behind the noise and commotion and chooses to pass by old bungalows and three storey apartments instead. Most of the structures, simple and elegant, are from before Independence and the European design and décor is evident. Wide verandahs look straight out to sea; old men and women, a lot of them Parsis, spend their days there, swinging gently in their armchairs.

It is on this street that one stumbles upon the Strand Hotel. From the outside, the hotel appears somewhat dilapidated, an impression that is reinforced once one walks inside. Over the entrance, on a stained white translucent sheet, behind which tasteless tube lights flicker, the name is written in large red fonts, the ends of the ‘S’ curved around twice for style. Right next to this signboard, another smaller wooden plate has the words ‘Café Harbour View’ on it.

A cramped elevator that lurches violently before it moves, much like Mumbai’s local trains, takes one to the terrace where the café is.

Once at the terrace, the scene alters considerably. The tables, about a dozen of them, are widely spaced. A cool breeze blows in from the sea, which is visible in breathtaking panorama. Dozens of boats, private yachts, commercial vessels and steamers lie scattered in the harbor, simmering in the afternoon sun. Towards evening, when the sky darkens, twinkling lights from ships anchored far out at sea become visible; their presence betrayed in the setting sun after they’d remained undetected in daylight.

There is a ‘No Smoking’ sign pasted on one of the walls but nobody heeds it. If requested, the waiters bring cigarette packs from a shop downstairs. Ashtrays are not offered; cigarette stubs litter the floor. The presence of ashtrays, they explain, is considered evidence when the occasional friendly Police raid occurs, whereas cigarette stubs and ashes are not.

The service is embarrassingly poor. It takes ages for food to arrive. Sometimes, it doesn’t arrive at all. If one looks up and searches for a waiter, there are none to be found. After waiting a few minutes for one to appear, it is wiser to walk into the kitchen oneself, where the waiters huddle together, chatting. On seeing a customer appearing thus, they are not flustered in the least, and calmly note the order being placed.

Gratifyingly, the beer is rarely delayed. And since nobody goes to Harbour View for a quick bite, everybody waits patiently to be served.

Kaushik was told of Café Harbour View by a colleague in office, who he rarely otherwise listened to. But the colleague insisted that Kaushik check it out and one day, when he was in the general area, Kaushik decided to. He went there in the late afternoon, towards the beginning of the summer months. They placed an enormous umbrella, stuck at the top of an iron stand, over his table. Once in its shade, the wind from the sea took effect, and it became most pleasant. They also planted a table fan near him which blew full into his face. It made him gasp for air and lighting a cigarette impossible. He asked them to remove it and ordered beer. He spent close to four hours there, that day.

The next weekend, Ritankar and Ashish were introduced to the place.

Around that time, Kaushik also learnt of Couchsurfing – the online network of travelers that allowed its members to approach other members in cities they were travelling to and spend a few days with them. It was just after he and Ritankar were back from Europe and Kaushik cursed himself for not discovering the community earlier. He registered on it, as did, Ritankar and Ashish, although those two never actually used it. By the end of one year, he’d met more than a dozen travelers from around the world. Initially, it was only men, young and old, that sent him meeting requests. Ashish and Kaushik quipped regularly how even this ploy of theirs wasn’t working; they had earlier joked how this was perhaps the only way they were going to have women visiting their apartment, although none of them was sure what good it would do to them. Ritankar rarely partook in such bouts of crassness for he was reticent in these matters. A few months later, however, once a few men had passed through and Kaushik’s credibility was sufficiently established, the women started to appear, although they always came with a boyfriend in tow. There was one from New Zealand about whom they gushed for weeks afterwards.

Kaushik suggested these people places to visit in Mumbai and the country and showed them around the city when he had time. He was exhilarated with the whole thing. He met people from countries he was unlikely to ever travel to and learnt of those lands. He told them of India, although he got bored with repetition after a while. Gradually, he started to avoid showing them around the city, sick and tired of visiting the same landmarks, and let Suresh handle that part of the business.

Many times, he took them to Harbour View in the evenings and after a long day’s walking around, they relaxed and chatted. Some of Kaushik’s fondest memories of these people were formed there.

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