Drinking in Mumbai runs the gamut from swigging cheap whisky in a dimly lit park to sipping champagne in a five star hotel. Climbing a few rungs down from the latter might land you in some trendy microbrewery in a redeveloped Lower Parel mill site, while climbing up a few steps from rock bottom takes you to my favourite sort of establishment: the dive bar.
This in itself seems to be a rather broad category. There are studenty haunts like Sunlight, in Dhobi Talao, which has been described to me as the “unofficial college bar” for St Xavier’s, one of Mumbai’s most prestigious academic institutions. Former Xavierites (their word) get a faraway look in their eyes when describing Sunlight: “Oh my God, that’s so edgy, yaar… I spent sooooo much time in that place…” and, invariably, “it’s such a dive!”. Certainly its name is far from apt – it would be hard to imagine a more dingy space – but in my own limited experience it seems to be crammed with bright young things, enjoying the juke box and munching on rather nice popcorn as waistcoated waiters top up their Tuborg.
I would say something along the same lines for Gokul, on Tullock Road opposite legendary meat-grilling joints Bademiya and Baghdadi. This part of town, Colaba, always feels a little louche despite (or perhaps because of?) the nearby Taj Mahal hotel and the high concentration of tourists from the Gulf as well as international backpackers. Gokul (“bro, you gotta go there, it’s a complete dive”), as dark as Sunlight and like most such bars with an Air Conditioned upstairs section, fits into this environment perfectly, and serves cheapish beer and surprisingly good dal fry.
For me, though, these excellent institutions only qualify for the upper fringes of dive-dom, pulling in a young, mixed sex crowd as they do. If you want a true dive bar, I suggest taking a train out of SoBo (as south Bombay/Mumbai is known) to one of the former mill districts. A word of caution here, though: there’s no point getting out at Lower Parel and heading straight towards one of the redeveloped mill complexes like Todi or Kamala. All you’ll find there are joints like Café Zoe and The Barking Deer. While these offer a fine line in craft beer and imaginative bar snacks, they are far from dive-inity.
A better bet, in my opinion, would be to pop into any of the bars near Cotton Green station. Quaint as its name sounds, Cotton Green is regarded by many of my better-heeled friends as outside their comfort zone. A fiercely independent journalist of my acquaintance, who thinks nothing of battling with her car through the maelstrom of Mumbai’s rush hour traffic, once told me that her mother had forbidden her from visiting the place. Certainly you’d be hard pressed to find branches of Café Coffee Day or Chaayos in the area and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no “Cotton Green Social”. What there is, however, is a good clutch of murky drinking dens, where an entirely male clientele washes down plates of chickpeas or chakli (a deep-fried wheat flour snack eaten with garlicky Szechuan sauce) with a bottle of domestic whisky such as Royal Stag or Blender’s Pride.
Here you’ll meet electricians from Bihar and gold merchants from the deserts of Rajasthan. An argument in Marathi, Marwari or Maithili might be breaking out in the corner, and it’s quite likely that an old man, unmoored by too many pegs of the cheap stuff, will be being roughly helped to his feet by a soberer acquaintance. Others drink alone, with Whatsapp or YouTube for company. Amid all this, quaintly dressed waiters from Jharkand or Karnataka will be on hand to refill your beer glass to the brim the minute you reach the bottom. At these sorts of places, one of the ultimate treats is a plate of Chicken Lollipop, for me the apogee of Indo-Chinese food: a plate of grilled drumsticks, bony ends wrapped in foil, arranged around a central plate of Szechuan sauce. Naturally this begs to be washed down with a bottle of ice-cold Kingfisher Ultra.
A few months back, an artist friend introduced me to his local, a fine establishment called Trilok near King’s Circle, just north of Girangaon, the erstwhile “village of mills”. The chief draw here, in my opinion, is outdoor seating that still manages to retain a distinct dinginess. I was cautioned against making eye contact with the local bore, who was having a belligerent conversation with himself at the next table, and instead listened to my friend, clad in traditional Mangalorean dress, regale me with tales of his latest Grindr conquests. Suffice to say that the next day was one of the few times in Mumbai that I’ve craved a Full English Breakfast.
Dive Bars are to be found in the suburbs, too, of course, although I haven’t made much of a study of these. One such is Janata Bar in Bandra, a far cry from the trendy nightspots that the Queen of the Suburbs is justly famous for. On my only visit this proved an excellent follow-up to a delicious shark thali in Highway Gomantak, a low-key Bandra East eatery that is far too focussed on delivering superlative seafood to bother with things like beer. However, the popularity of Bandra with visiting Europeans and North Americans is obvious even at Janata, which to my mind knocks off a few marks on the dive-ometer. The aggressive party of Punjabis who shared our table restored the balance to an extent.
As so often happens in Mumbai, I recognise in these bars that my outsider status insulates me from the unease I might feel visiting equivalent watering holes in the UK (I’m thinking of unapologetic Old Man Pubs in Walworth and Bermondsey, or certain hostelries in Exeter before they all started serving Chorizo Burgers with triple-cooked chips). In particular, as a white male I actually receive far less attention than would an obviously upper-middle class Indian female. Nevertheless, I remember once having a drink in a bar in Dadar (middle class ex-mill territory), on the ground floor of a cheapish hotel, and in the upper reaches of dive-itude. I was with a student friend who had moved a year or so back from Delhi. What, I asked him, is biggest difference between Delhi and Bombay? He gestured to the room at large. “This,” he said. “In Delhi you either get dodgy drinking dens or super Hi-Fi places like in five star hotels. Here you get places like this where everyone can drink – rich, poor, old, young, even girls in many places. Basically, according to me, Mumbai is the capital of democratic drinking.”