The Shantaram Tour takes literature lovers through the bustling Colaba Causeway to the now iconic Leopold Café. (Shriti Tyagi)
In the novel Shantaram, Linbaba’s Mumbai is at once a place of glamour and destitution – a place where spectacular wealth and devastating poverty live side by side. This lethal mix cultivates a thriving underbelly that author Gregory David Roberts brings to life.
Today, visitors can find these worlds converging in the area of Colaba, the focal point of Mumbai’s tourist scene and home to the Taj Mahal hotel, a target of the 2008 terrorist attacks. “[It] makes for a great setting where tourists, drug-dealers, gangsters, fishing-folk and businessmen rub shoulders,” explained tour guide Shriti Tyagi.
Tyagi leads Bookworming Tours of Mumbai. Her most popular is the Shantaram Tour, which follows the footsteps of protagonist Lindsay, an Australian convict who flees to India after breaking out of prison. Arriving in Colaba, Lindsay befriends a tour guide of his own, Prabhaker, who gives him the nickname Linbaba. “Foreigners [visiting Colaba] can expect to be accosted by the Prabhakers of today, offering drugs, accommodation and foreign currency exchange,” Tyagi said. “Some things never change!”
The Shantaram Tour takes literature lovers through the bustling Colaba Causeway to the now iconic Leopold Café, where Linbaba spent much of his time. Leopold’s is often full of expats, tourists, and locals, some hoping to run into Roberts, who used to frequent the restaurant himself. Other stops on the tour include the Colaba Police Station on Mandlik Road, where Linbaba was beaten after being arrested with no warning, and the seaside neighbourhood of Cuffe Parade, where the slum that Prabhaker called home sits adjacent to million-dollar high rises.
“Mumbai offers multiple points of view,” Tyagi said. “It has many layers and many micro-cultures.” This makes it a fascinating place to write about.”
A very different account of the city comes from Gyan Prakash, an urban historian from Princeton University. His compendium, Mumbai Fables, delves into old newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, tabloids, billboards, even comic books to get to the heart of Mumbai’s history. It can double as a guidebook, as it describes the fascinating stories behind such tourist attractions as the Gateway of India, Bollywood’s movie studios and Marine Drive.
Booker Prize winning author Rohinton Mistry has also written extensively about Mumbai. His collection of short stories, Tales from Firozsha Baag, and his novel, Such a Long Journey, depict the struggles of working class Parsi communities.
A more straightforward travel narrative is found in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, the subject of another of Tyagi’s Bookworming Tours. Mehta takes readers on an immigrant’s path through Mumbai, beginning with the Chatrapati Shivaji railway station. Tyagi’s tour includes stops at Flora Fountain, Churchgate Station, the Jehangir Art Gallery and Café Mondegar (located in the Colaba Causeway).
Mumbai’s many faces have given the city a strong literary culture. Tyagi said her favourite part about leading book tours is watching readers interact with a world presented to them as one author has experienced it. “It is interesting to see how they react when the imagined reality and the ‘real world’ come face to face.”