Diving In The Deep

  • Cheap booze, ’90s hits on a jukebox and unusual chaknas—a trip down nostalgia lane through Mumbai’s dive bars

It was a weeknight of 2018. I had spent over 10 hours at work, plumbing through copies, fitting text on pages and wrapping up the production of one more weekend edition of a national daily. My colleagues and I were drained and in the mood for a no-holds-barred drinking session without burning a hole in our pockets. We zeroed in on our tried-and-trusted watering hole in Bandra – Yacht.

Many moons ago, I remember enjoying a sun downer date at this dive bar, sipping vodka-Sprite and munching on chakli, sitting next to the curtained windows near the entrance. We were so close to the traffic that honked its way through the Hill Road and yet, wrapped in our own bubble at Yacht’s dimly-lit and deeply comforting environs.

On that night, though, when I walked in, I felt as if I was in just other gentrified part of Bandra. Gone was the old and familiar signage, the rexin sofas and the soothing grungy bulbs. Stripped clean of its grimy interiors, dingy ambience and with it, a lot of its charm, the dive bar had been revamped into a sterile resto-bar with canary-yellow seats and powder-white lights that took a bit of adjusting to.

Thankfully, it was still wallet-friendly. Our table groaned under the weight of white rum quarters and many stories wafted through the room. But an important character felt conspicuous by its absence that night. I haven’t been to Yacht since.

The dive bars of Mumbai have been an important part of my 20s. They were my post-work haunts, pre-gaming spots to tank up on booze before dancing the night away at a nightclub and sometimes, becoming romantic getaway spots to spend some quality time right in the middle of the city but away from familiar, prying eyes.

While most of the dives I visited were women-friendly (their washrooms, however, were to be used at your own risk), there were some that definitely weren’t for the faint-hearted. Like, New Majestic in the Capitol Cinema building near CSMT station where the day’s specials would be noted on a chalkboard and where a rat scuttled under my feet once.

I often sought refuge in the air-conditioned section of Gokul, a famous dive tucked in a lane off Colaba Causeway. Pro-tip: sit away from the AC since it’s installed at the height of the tables. If yours is in its firing line, be prepared for chill blasts hitting the nape of your neck. Apart from regular options, their menu also included quite a few flavours of Breezers (blackberry, cranberry, Jamaican passion and lime), meal options (simple but robust-flavoured sabzis with tandoori rotis) and a variety of rolls, including malai chicken and paneer tikka, always served piping hot.

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Meanwhile, I distinctly recollect the top section of Sunlight Restaurant and Bar at Kalbadevi resembling a dingy drinking den – one filled with college-kids who sat around me on its community-style tables and belted out the chorus to ’90s hits by Lucky Ali playing from a jukebox while I washed down butter popcorn (yes!) with beer and vodka.

One of my most-frequented dive bars was Madira Restaurant and Bar at walking distance from my former workplace in Parel. While its indoor section could get a bit cramped, its outdoor section was airy and most often, I’d find folks from the nearby advertising agency chatting (and puffing) away at the neighbouring table.  With a friendly, efficient staff and a sufficiently large menu of alcohol that included beer cans too, Madira was my safe space, one where my colleagues and I could vent, laugh and shed tears too. It’s also here that I discovered the delightful, crunchy chakna that is Chana Garlic Fry.

Over the years, I’ve had boozy night outs at (still reasonable) pubs that offer alcohol in stock exchange-like setting, serve it neat in typical, glass pauva bottles and at one that even recreates the dive experience. While many of those nights have turned out to be memorable, the nostalgia of evenings spent at authentic dive bars refuses to wear off. It is, I have discovered, a world you can never fall out of love with.

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