Sipping coffee, at Leopold Cafe unafraid and undeterred (One Year After 26/11)

Mumbai, Nov 19 ( It’s breezy and, oh yes, bustling with people. Over a lunch of roast chicken and cold coffee, Leopold Cafe regular Wesley Paul says casually, “There are gunmen at the door.”

As Wesley bites into some succulent meat, he is fully aware that this is the place where two staffers and seven guests were killed in the 26/11 attacks – but is unafraid.

“It’s hard for Leopold Cafe to not embrace people as they come in. It’s tough to keep up a security check,” he says.

The cafe is at walking distance from the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, yet another site of the horrific attack by Pakistan-based terrorists that claimed 166 lives in Mumbai a year ago.

“On the night of the attacks, I was on my way to Leopold Cafe,” Wesley remembers. “But I heard of some firing happening in the area, and instead went to Henry Thams. We were partying there, oblivious to the magnitude of the firing in the area.

“It was only much later, when I received several calls from friends and family, that I realised my city was under siege.

“The night of the attacks was the first time I felt the steel of a gun. I was on my way home at 2 a.m., when a policeman stopped our taxicab. He was seething; his eyes were menacing, frightening. I have never seen a Mumbai cop like that before.”

Things, however, have become normal for Wesley.

As with photographer Ritika Jain, another cafe regular, who claims to have never been afraid.

“I went to Leopold Cafe the day its doors were flung open to the press. There were bullet marks on the doors; the ceiling fan was twisted. Abandoned backpacks lined its walls, and fear hung in its air. I walked in, unafraid.

“I was curious, I didn’t know what to expect. But, like everybody there, I turned up to show my support,” she says. Both Wesley and Ritika continue to frequent Leopold Cafe, with friends and family.

As one enters the cafe, the atmosphere is relaxed, carefree and this correspondent isn’t subjected to a security check.

“Mostly, we do not check single ladies,” explains kitchen supervisor Bharat Gujjar.

A year ago, Bharat was on duty at the Leopold Cafe billing desk when terrorists opened fire, killing nine people there. He was struck down by a grenade, which left him hospitalised for 16 days. He emerged alive, but with 14 stitches on his stomach.

“What happened has happened,” says Bharat.

Bharat busies himself around the restaurant – he has barely a few minutes to spare. Like the stream of young and old, foreign nationals and Indians making their way in and out of the famed cafe, for Bharat too, life has moved on.

“I would rather leave the past behind than go over it again and again,” he says.

“Leopold Cafe is like god’s gift. Customers will continue to throng our cafe. As you know, Mumbai only pauses at times, it never stops.”

But springing back to action hasn’t been easy for Bharat. There is a weakness in his limbs that time cannot erase. Two cafe staffers were among those killed that day while the remaining five victims were customers.

“My wife fears that I may be attacked again. But I cannot leave Leopold Cafe. When I was without a job, it was only Leopold which offered me one. I will be forever indebted to them.” It is also the need to earn that keeps him going.

On the way out, patrons point to messages on the wall, bullet marks on the door. The Leopold Cafe, run by two brothers, Farang and Farzad Gehani, has not been repaired, painted or renovated. The extensive damage is there for all to see.

At one table, customer Aayush Iyer is engrossed in a book. “Every once in a while, I come by to Leopold Cafe,” he says.

Isn’t he afraid? “No,” he answers in a flat tone. “Leopold Cafe is a prime example of how we can forget, or even worse, accept shocking disasters and get by with life. For better, or worse.”

For better or worse – but forever.