TIME SLOWS DOWN AT CAFE MONDEGAR
WORDS BY RAVINA RAWAL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA
“Coffeehya shop, coffeehya shop, coffeehya shop...” he would always tease, shirt torn almost in half, one step behind me all the way down the road to Colaba Causeway. The first time I acknowledged him, by swinging around hotly, it was to dismantle his jugular. I had just walked all the way down after class from St. Xavier's College. The day around me was a hundred degrees, my skin was sticky and my hair wouldn’t stay in a bun on my head with a pencil. I needed this guy to shut up and play whatever game he was playing with someone who wasn’t me. Taking several swallows of air thick with the threat of rain that never came, I stopped to tell him to stop. But the minute we were face to grimy face, he squinted, stepped back on one foot and changed tack with a cheeky grin. “Amsterdam! Amsterdam! Amsterdam!” he chanted, by way of explanation, bringing up an invisible joint between his thumb and forefinger and mock-smoking it. I burst out laughing. Drug peddler. With a business card. I snatched it out of his hand, called him an idiot and hurried into Mondy’s.
I was late. I am always late. But I surround myself with friends who I can count on to reach crowded places before time and get a table, where they can later hurl terrible names at me in peace. Spotting three such stalwarts immediately, I walked through the familiar rumble of constant chatter and shifting chairs, stepping over impatient feet and bumping into a corner of every table on the way like I was superstitious about it. I signalled my order to the waiter like a Dumb Charades champ and sat down to empty out my mirror-work cloth bag onto the chequered table cloth, collecting all the coins that came spinning out. Mixed into the common pile of everyone else’s pocket change, we looked like a bunch of cheap gamblers all set for game night. Except our slot machine was the jukebox in the corner.
As the crowds swell and thin, the songs from the jukebox at Mondy’s swim down the walkway, adding to the rhythm of an already pulsating street.
One of Mumbai’s oldest cafes and the first in the city to haul in a classic jukebox, Café Mondegar is owned by a Parsi family and has been sitting in the Metro House building at the beginning of Causeway since 1932. Besides the street shops selling greasy trinkets you never need but will likely buy anyway, this stretch is strewn with bars and cafés of the same historic, iconic value as Mondy’s. Leopold Café, Delhi Darbar, Piccadilly, Café Churchill, Gokul and what used to be Ming Palace – these are the legendary coves and corners where tourists swing by for the stories that the locals nest in for years to create. As the crowds swell and thin, the songs from the jukebox at Mondy’s swim down the walkway, adding to the rhythm of an already pulsating street. Songs of giving in and giving up, of jaw-clenching determination and fist-pumping hope, and at least 17 fucking replays of Hotel California. Which is where our coin stacks come in — to battle the unrelenting beast that is the ’90s playlist. And bully the idiot flipping through the Def Leppard CD jacket by throwing in a week’s worth of your own lunch money in order to monopolise the machine.
For over a decade now, my order at Mondy’s has remained more or less the same. Grape juice to begin with — theirs is the most spectacular, only second to the manna served at the St. Xavier’s canteen — and beer for the chase. They also have wine on the menu, but that’s the extent of their alcohol permit. A chicken-something for the table has a habit of showing up at some point in the evening, along with some or the other version of cheese toast, always the onion rings, sometimes extra fries.
If you have nowhere else to reach in a hurry, you can spend hours at Mondy’s between sips and guzzles, your eyes involuntarily following people through the windows or trying to decode the late great Goan cartoonist and painter Mario Miranda’s black, white and red murals on the walls if you’re seated deeper inside. (Each wall has a different theme — Life in Mumbai and Atmosphere in the Café — but they’re connected, so pay attention. The details will delight you).
A chicken-something for the table has a habit of showing up at some point in the evening, along with some or the other version of cheese toast, always the onion rings, sometimes extra fries.
As the forgotten sky outside changes colour, voices rise and fall, tables flip. Over the slowed ticking of woozy clocks, people grow generous (and loud) enough with their feelings for you to be able to tell those who are holding on from those letting go. You can't help but pick up snatches of everybody else’s beer-soaked conversation, which only serve to remind you over and over that everyone is a storyteller and everyone a subject; there will always be familiar plot twists, awkward anti-climaxes, and the repeat realisation that your own story isn't as original as you'd thought.
Finally stumbling out, always later than you'd planned, you might find that Colaba is washed in a completely different light. You might even spot your friendly neighbourhood drug peddler again, chatting up shopkeepers, giving you the cold shoulder. This time, he won’t bother to tail after you. But on a slow day, he might make one last weak attempt, “Ey! Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Amsterdam…?” he’ll call out, now a vague echo in your general direction. Unimpressed by the final shake of your head, he'll shake his own while spitting behind him on the road. "Shyaa..." he'll mutter, bitter and condescending, as though he'd known all along that you weren't going to be worth his time.
Café Mondegar, 5-A, Metro House, Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, Near Regal Cinema, Apollo Bandar, Colaba Causeway, Colaba, Mumbai 400 001. Phone: 022 2202 0591