(Published in The Bengal Post, 16th Jan 2011)
“What, no Kalyani Black Label? Bah! ” Those six little words were expostulated frequently during my early days in Bombay in the mid 1980s. Hey, I was a good Calcutta girl – you can’t blame me for desperately missing my favourite brand of beer! And god knows I needed my beer badly because I was in a new city, struggling to come to grips with my first job in advertising as a copywriter – it didn’t help that I had a boss who just about barely managed to conceal her canine parentage. Admittedly, sometimes I did toy with the idea of telling her to roll over and play dead, and then I’d remember that the most important thing I wanted in life was the ability to pay my way through it. Grim realisations like that demand chilled beer. Lots of it!
It was just as well then that I was staying at a hostel in lively Colaba, within spitting distance of fine and not so fine establishments that serve alcohol. Oddly enough, I never took to the iconic Cafe Mondegar. It was and still is a cool place to hang out - but somehow I never connected with its soul. Leopold was pleasant but way too Tower of Babel touristy with a shabby hippie hangover. Besides it was a tad too expensive for trainees valiantly attempting to live it up on a shoe-string budget. Fortunately, my fellow impecunious hostelites had already cased the joint thoroughly and offered to introduce me to a watering hole in the neighbourhood with a seriously uncool name: Gokul.
“God no!” I protested vehemently, wrinkling my nose. “That sounds like a disgustingly wholesome place with the aroma of freshly churned butter and lassi wafting in the air. And I bet the tables are littered with ‘Get thee to the temple young lady!’ Hare Krishna pamphlets. Let’s go someplace else!” But I’m really really, really, really glad that they dug in their heels and refused give in to my petulant demand, because Gokul aka Gokul’s aka Gokes became one of my favourite haunts in the city.
I fell in love with Gokul at first sight! It looked like the sort of place where disgruntled clerical staff knocked back a quarter to forget their nit-picky superiors at work. It was a dank, dark, windowless basement thick with cigarette smoke that hung in the air like dense monsoon clouds. And when the clouds occasionally parted (very, very occasionally) you got a glimpse of yes, disgruntled clerical staff and, hold on – trendy young professionals mainly from the media as well! This to me was the real charm of some of Bombay’s popular and delightfully unpretentious bars and restaurants in the 1980s – clientele from almost all sections of society sat cheek by jowl. Robespierre, the mastermind of the French revolution, would have enthusiastically nodded his approval.
I didn’t faint although the stench of dead rat overpowered the reek of stale spirits. Hey, I was made of sterner stuff. After three years of stoically consuming what I strongly suspected were rat cutlets at the Presidency College canteen, the mere whiff of rat was nothing! And while on the subject of rat cutlets, the food at Gokul was pretty decent. Particularly if you enjoyed seafood. However, you didn’t have to order a morsel to feel as stuffed as a plump Thanksgiving turkey at the end of the evening. The snacks were on the house – and were promptly replaced with even more snacks and even more snacks and gosh, even more snacks till you paid the bill - the rickety tables groaned under the weight of chipped quarter plates. Gokul was a freeloader’s paradise – which is why it was the preferred dating destination of stingy mingy boys who cared more about money than love sweet love!
I have to confess though that I almost had a minor heart attack when, after my second beer, I discovered that Gokul was run by die-hard male chauvinists - there was no restroom for ladies on the premises! “No big deal,” my fellow hostelites informed me with smirks, “we powder our noses and touch up the lip-gloss in a far more hygienic and luxurious place than this grungy establishment can ever dream of offering.” And off we lurched to the Taj Mahal Hotel, a two minute walk from Gokul, with instructions to the amused waiters to keep our table. We received warm, conspiratorial smiles from the female staff at the Taj lobby – those were innocent terror-free days then, and they probably frequented Gokul on their nights off as well! Besides they were used to playing host to hostelites – every other night about ten of us would visit the Shamiana (the old 24-hour coffee shop) and split a pot of hot chocolate between us. It worked out to about a tablespoon and a half each. Ambrosia!
Many giggly walks to the Taj and back were made that night – it felt wonderful to inhale unpolluted sea breeze instead of cigarette smoke every now and then. And all agreed that it was a super way to keep beer calories down! But perhaps the most marvellous surprise of the evening was the bill. I gasped at how little it was. I was a regular thereafter (but of course) and spent many happy evenings unwinding there, particularly during the last week of every month while pining for pay day. On our more obstreperous nights, some of us would gang up and accost the mild-mannered manager with a stern lecture on the necessity of equal restroom rights with the fervour of Emily Pankhurst – the fiery leader of the women's suffragette movement. It is with deep regret that I inform you that he remained unmoved. He’d blush deeply though, to our immense satisfaction. We were only kidding, of course – we really enjoyed those walks to the Taj!
And then, in the early 1990s, pub culture took the city by storm. I shifted my loyalties to other watering holes in Colaba, like Tavern at Fariyas hotel and Leopold (the first floor was converted to a pub and the last of the hippies never went there despite the fact that the DJ occasionally played Woodstock classics). Call me fickle but hell, nothing beats the combination of hard liquor and hard rock! Many years have passed since and I haven’t been back to Gokul yet. You know what, I probably won’t ever. Only because my memories of my wild times there are so terrific, I want nothing to so much as gently ruffle them. Besides, I hear that they’ve got a restroom for ladies now and they’ve put on a few airs and graces as well. Now that’s what I call vandalism!