My recent visit to Leopold Café at Colaba Causeway brought back a few uncomfortable memories from the past; of that fateful day when Mumbai was seized and attacked by terrorists. It was 26 November 2008, which was soon labelled as 26/11 under the burden of sensationalism by the earnest media where one’s own identity is seen through the western lens even in times of tragedy. The American branding had become more essential to the media than the gruesome events that unfolded.
I sat in the café, sipping my iced tea and reminiscing about the good old college days of being broke and still trying new hang-outs. Soon, I was consumed by the memories of the past when Leopold café was attacked leaving 10 people dead right here. It has been 3 years and it made me wonder looking at those bullet marks in the walls, if, with time, we ourselves blur our wounds or wounds themselves dissolve. And how much of it matters of physical traces in built spaces.
Leopold Café reopened shortly after the destructive night of the attack. Owners Fahrang & Farzad Jehani defiantly had stated: “We would never let terrorists win.” The first customer after the reopening ordered a pint of beer for himself and a Coke for his six-year-old son, and said Leopold’s reopening was a sign ‘Bombay is getting back to normal’.
By maintaining those bullet marks on the walls, the owners have attempted to retain that part of the history and curiously many visitors and foreign tourists take a tour and document it through images. In that sense, it may be a continuous reminder of the past.
The Café stills reeks every bit of its colonial belonging from inside and out. Fluted columns, old cream-coloured slow-whirring fans, dark brown partially worn out furniture, arched windows and semi-wood panelling on the upper walls. Its clientele has always been a good mix of foreign tourists, college students and street shoppers. It is always buzzing with activities, is almost never empty and has retained the influx of people to same extent as before the attacks took place.
The much talked-about fabricated impression of Mumbai’s resilience is media generated; people get on and continue with lives often because they may not have luxury of choices. Negative events leave scars on one’s mind and mostly carry traces of it for a long time. But what about the physical scars such events leave to the built environment? By merely fixing the broken surfaces, painting it and giving it a new appearance like nothing ever happened, can we overcome the past? As Salman Rushdie asks in his book Shame: “I too face the problem of history; what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change?”