By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, India (Reuters) – The sign outside Leopold cafe on Mumbai’s Colaba Causeway has just received a makeover: it is bigger, bolder, and harder to miss amid the clutter of signs on the bustling road lined with shops and restaurants.
That is a good thing for the dozens of foreign tourists who come looking for Leopold, clutching a thick blue-and-red paperback which has catapulted the popular bar and restaurant to the top of to-do lists of tourists.
Leopold, whose beer and food and casual style are a favorite with tourists and locals alike, owes its star status to “Shantaram,” a novel based loosely on the life of author Gregory David Roberts, a former Australian convict, that is being made into a movie starring Johnny Depp.
“A lot of tourists come in and say, ‘We just wanted to see the place’,” said Bernard Coelho, Leopold’s manager.
“They hope to see Greg here, leave notes and letters for him, and ask about other places mentioned in the book, like Cuffe Parade and Haji Ali,” he said, referring to a posh neighborhood and a mosque in the sea.
On the cluttered counter behind which Coelho stands, a pile of ‘Shantaram’ copies autographed by Roberts lean against the wall, on which hangs a slim wooden rack crammed with notes for Roberts from visitors to Leopold.
The book, which was first published in Australia in 2003, has topped bestseller lists in India consistently, where it is also hawked at traffic lights and on pavements.
Roberts, 54, earned the moniker “Gentleman Bandit” in Melbourne, where he conducted robberies armed with a toy pistol to support a heroin habit. Arrested in 1978, he escaped from the maximum security Pentridge prison two years later to New Zealand.
He arrived in India in 1982, where he lived in a village for several months and also in a Mumbai slum. He was then recruited by Mumbai’s mafia and was involved in gold smuggling and arms running, much like his lead character in “Shantaram.”
Roberts was finally arrested in Frankfurt and extradited to Australia in 1991, where he spent six years in prison.
MELBOURNE AND MUMBAI
Roberts divides his time between Melbourne and Mumbai, where he has a home, and has set up a mobile clinic for slum dwellers and funds small businesses in the village where he once lived.
The book, which is being translated into Hindi, tells the tale of Lindsay, who is jailed in Australia for armed robbery, escapes and comes to India, where he works with the underworld and also goes to Afghanistan to supply arms to the Mujahideen.
Roberts is writing a sequel to “Shantaram” and an anthology of short stories, and he has also worked on the movie’s screenplay.
“I carry all my unfinished work on a USB flash drive that I can strap on to my wrist wherever I go because I don’t want to lose any more work,” said Roberts, who took 13 years to complete “Shantaram” after the first two drafts were destroyed in prison.
Filming of “Shantaram” begins shortly, with Depp in the lead, and the movie, when released in 2007, will bring more tourists flocking to Mumbai and Leopold, Roberts said at a recent discussion in Mumbai.
Already, taxi drivers in Colaba are offering “Shantaram” tours to visitors in Mumbai.
But tourists will be disappointed in their search for the village in Maharashtra where Lindsay spent several months, and whose people named him Shantaram, or ‘man of peace.’
“I chose to keep the village anonymous because naming the village could have meant good things and bad things,” the soft-spoken Roberts said, often using words in Hindi and the regional Marathi language, which he learned in the village.
“I told them, ‘You will have lots of people coming here, and you can sell them things, even chase out the goats and offer up the shed to sleep in, and they will pay you money’,” he said.
“But you may also have not-so-nice people come by, and I do not want to risk that,” said Roberts, who sets up appointments at Leopold and other Mumbai cafes, and can often be seen in the city riding his motorbike, his long hair tied back or in a braid.
More than 3.4 million foreign travelers visited India in 2005 and there is growing interest in the country, which was named the world’s fifth most-popular tourist destination.
Those numbers are expected to rise by nearly 10 percent annually, and ‘Shantaram’ may be credited with at least some of the interest, similar to that seen in New Zealand after the “Lord of the Rings” films and in Rome after “The Da Vinci Code” book.