Drink and Dive

Jessica Jani writes an ode to Mumbai’s signature dive bars

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

“It was raining. Like mad. We needed shelter and so we found a dive bar,” my friend recounts, as she narrates one of her Mumbai monsoon adventures to a group of spell-bound out-of-towners. There is a collective gasp at the thought.

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Photograph  by Maahi Shah

The idea of a dive bar — a shabby, dingy, local drinking hole — being the preferred place of refuge for a twenty-something Bandra girl is one that is, perhaps, unique to Mumbai. These dive bars dot the city, present in almost every neighborhood, and are so ubiquitous that locals may not even notice them. “They’re practically anonymous, it’s easy for your eye to glaze over them because they’re such a part of the landscape, we pay as much attention to them as we pay to kirana stores,” says Leo Mirani, journalist and ex-nightlife editor at Time Out, where he used to write a weekly feature on Mumbai’s dive bars a decade ago.

Dive bars have a signature look and feel to them — they are shrouded in dim amber lighting that is further reflected by the dim amber liquors that most patrons drink, giving the room a densely fossilized quality. Bright green beer advertisements on the walls or a tiny TV playing a cricket match on full brightness sometimes cut through the dimness, distorting reality more. A faint smell of smoke hugs the faded leather seats, with formica tables that are always slightly sticky. And if you’re lucky, you may find yourself in one that serves deliciously named dishes like “chicken dilruba”. What sets Mumbai’s dive bars apart from ones in other Indian cities is the diversity of patrons. A popular dive bar in the city would host a mix of really loud college students, tired media professionals who were once those college students, and quiet middle-aged working-class men.

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Photograph  by Jessica Jani

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Photograph  by Maahi Shah

If you were among those lucky college kids who were ushered into one of these bars by bossy seniors, your first sight might’ve been something like this — a long pathway that is flanked by sordid two-seaters on both sides, occupied by blood-shot-eyed men hunched over cheap hooch, who stare at you as you walk past them towards the cushy air-conditioned section with your friends. “What a rush!” I remember exclaiming, more than once, as I tried to convince yet another friend from Delhi to accompany me. 

From the Bhandaris who sold toddy on the seven islands in the 1200s and disputed with the British, to the moonshine-serving aunty bars in its prohibition era in the 1960s and 70s, Mumbai has always had an interesting relationship with booze and booze drinkers, who tend to find a way. Once the city eased its rigorous prohibition laws in 1973, as a result of a push by Maharashtra’s powerful sugarcane lobby, many eateries in the city catering to the city’s working-class and migrant population started serving alcohol and similar eating and drinking places started popping up. And so the city’s dive bars were born. 

Mirani offers a limited categorization of the types of dive bars in Mumbai. “You have the former Irani places like Cafe Military, Cafe Oval, these are places that basically started life as Irani cafes and then when the government liberalized liquor licenses, specifically beer licenses, [made the shift].” A second category is the lunch homes. “They started life as lunch homes, catering to migrant workers from Karnataka. They also, when the government liberalized liquor policies, acquired liquor licenses at some point and became bars.” Two of the city’s favourite dives — Janata Lunch Home in Bandra, and Gokul Bar and Restaurant in Colaba, belong to this category. Gokul, perhaps the city’s most famous, and now most fetishized bar, started as a six-table idli-vada joint in the 80s, founded by the late Mr. Jaya Pujary from Mangalore.

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Photograph  by Jessica Jani

As the business grew, it expanded into a bar and restaurant, now run by Mr. Pujary’s children. The fact that these bars stemmed from eateries also explains why many of them serve very delicious food and can be visited just for the food as well. The delicious food is hard to digest though, both literally and figuratively at times, given the grimy plates. It is a mark of a true-blue mumbaikar, then, to be able to gulp down a greasy, red piece of chicken crispy with relish and flush it down with a glass of pungent Old Monk doused in Thums Up. 

Despite Gokul’s years and success, it has barely changed in look, retaining its old 80s vibe, like many other old bars. Even new ones that pop up tend to imitate this vibe. This is perhaps because of the strong sense of nostalgia attached to dive bars. Neerja Deodhar, 26, who is a freelance writer based in Mumbai says, “the instinct to go to a dive bar when you are much older, especially a dive bar that you may have frequented with the same circle of friends, would be for a sense of nostalgia. To feel the same kind of feeling you felt when you were young with the same people.” This nostalgia for middle-class patrons might be due to the ritual-building space that these dive bars provide for college-goers. Sunlight Restaurant & Bar in Kalbadevi has for the longest time, welcomed scared new students from St. Xavier’s College across the street, meekly following their seniors, who soon become seasoned patrons and bring in a new batch of kids. Vaishnavi Nair, 23, who came

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Photograph  by Jessica Jani

from Pune where “shady bars are meant for shady people”, recalls her father and uncles telling her about their visits to Sunlight in the 80s as Xavierites. Shivani Lalan, 23, who along with me was inducted into Sunlight and its sister bar, Kitkat, by college seniors, recalls her first time there. “To have two women seniors just casually walk into that very, very shady looking place and wave to the waiters, I think that was very emboldening. I couldn't have done it if I hadn’t seen them do it.” 

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Photograph  by Jessica Jani

Lalan, who has since lived in Pondicherry and Bangalore, has found dive bars in these cities very unwelcoming. “That experience of safety and drinking, I didn't really find outside of Bombay,” she says. While one of the reasons Mumbai’s dive bars are more accessible to women maybe because of the folklore built around them, as Deodhar points out, “that you and I go over there, and we find that we've had a safe experience. So we bring more of our girlfriends there,” another reason might also be the placement. Dive bars in Mumbai, as dingy and shady as they may be on the inside, don’t exist in a dingy and shady vacuum like they do in other cities. Lalan tells me how Sunlight’s proximity to the bustling CST station, St. Xavier’s College, Cama Hospital, and the busy street it opens on, emboldened her even more. Similarly, Janata Lunch Home links right to the posh Pali Hill neighbourhood in Bandra, Gokul is right behind the Taj Hotel, and another crowd favourite, Bottles, is right under the Versova metro station. In fact, most of these shady bars are situated in the middle of crowded streets, often close to the railway station, perhaps to cater to the commuting city which has “the sort of culture of people having a drink and taking the train back home,” as writer Vikram Doctor points out. 

Not only are Mumbai’s dive bars a safe option for women, but also for the city’s queer community. Schumania’s, in Borivali’s I.C Colony, is a queer-friendly bar, where Deodhar recalls going with her friends who “weren’t hiding their queerness at all” adding that “the fact [that] they were feeling so safe over there is a really nice thing [to me].” Similarly, Gokul is known to have been one of the few queer-friendly haunts in the city in the 90s. “Gokul also became a space where we could invite young men, who were just coming out, to get a sense of the community. The older gay men would be mentors (actually hen mothers!) to the younger ones and teach them the ropes of how to interact, be safe and avoid dangerous situations. A public gay movement was beginning! History was being made,” writes filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan in this Verve article.

Despite the folklore and the accessibility, Mumbai’s middle-class folks choose to haunt dive bars for more than just the vibe. Maharashtra charges the highest liquor tax nationally. Add to this Mumbai’s exorbitant real-estate costs and you find that drinking in Mumbai is a very costly activity. In this scenario, drinking at a dive bar, even for working professionals, is simply a more sensible option. 

One might fear that what this influx of more affluent patrons may lead to is the driving out of working-class customers, or segregation within these bars. For example, a lot of dive bars in the city are divided into AC and non-AC sections, the AC sections often (very metaphorically) being on the floor above. The menu prices of both sections are different, with AC sections being costlier. This means that a more well-off group of patrons is able to access the more comfortable AC section and might create two separate bars inside one.

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Photograph  by Maahi Shah

This is, however, far from reality yet. Stroll into a bar and you will find a mix of patrons from different economic backgrounds occupying spaces in different sections. This leads to a delightful heterogeneity where a South Bombay girl finds herself sitting next to a rickshaw driver, both drinking the same brand of whiskey, both part of the same community for the next two hours. This unique culture deserves to be celebrated and encouraged. Deodhar agrees. “I'm not going to problematize this whole ritual-creating [culture], because I think that's how any city becomes heterogeneous,” she explains. I think the dive bar is special because it is welcoming of so many different kinds of patrons and you can mold the experience that you want out of it. So, you can be an old uncle who's gone there to grab a drink, or you can be like a young person who proudly takes their group of friends over there to show them that this can also exist in the city.” 

In a dive bar, one finds Mumbai’s essence reflected — its grounding culture seeks to bridge class differences without erasing them. A space where pretensions can be dropped and you can be yourself, whoever you choose to be. On the other hand, often, for people like me, who started out as preppy teen patrons and graduated to pseudo-hipster folks of “culture”, dive bars offer a way to cling to our street cred, add that extra layer of thrill to our increasingly mundane lives and of course, be ourselves, whoever we may choose to be that evening.