In Focus

Colaba's 'Small' Bar Must and Will Survive

By Gajanan Khergamker

Most bars in Colaba are touristy, so to speak. Places thronged by tourists who've followed word of mouth, a review in a travel blog or column and are on a list of must-visit when in South Mumbai's most-prized tourist precinct. Almost all of them are legendary and have tales of yore associated. Like Gokul, Leopold, Mondegar and so on and forth; tales of hushed clandestine activities past dusk and publicised terror attacks known to the entire world.

VACANT: Worker Pradeep Shetty at the now-deserted Kalpana Bar and Restaurant

Kalpana Bar and Restaurant, Mumbai's 'first' bar that lies bang opposite Sassoon Docks is a 'community' bar distinctly different from the rest of the 'touristy' ones, loved and visited by locals only. 'First' because Kalpana Bar and Restaurant is the first bar open to civilians after the out-of-bounds-for-civilians Defence Area. 

And, following the onslaught of COVID-19 and the lockdowns, last year and now, business is reduced as it literally crawls on a shoe-string budget. With the exception of a few regulars dropping by to pick up their favourite drink as 'parcel' complete with soda and accompaniments, business is in a slump.

OLD GUARD: It's the old-timers who have held the fort here
Hassled by the curbs on business, lockdowns and civic body regulations in these trying times, septuagenarian owner Krishna Shetty and resident of Third Pasta Lane's Lilly Lodge looks back over the years, since he took over the property then known as Sona Restaurant in 1976, with nostalgia as he spoke to The Draft Colaba about how it was "near impossible," to run business today.

"Back in 1976, I tried to run it as a restaurant and beer bar but had to convert it into a bar to break even," recalls Mr Shetty. So, the bar, since 1985, would be frequented by locals, mostly from Sassoon Docks and Colaba who'd walk into the bar at any time of the day for a quick tipple or two over a chat with a friend while watching a match on a television set that sat in a corner at the entrance.

HOPEFUL: Owner Krishna Shetty awaits a revival of sorts

The owner would sit at the counter and watch a match with the rest of the customers and the waiters, cheering at time, loudly ruing the fall of a wicket or two at another. It was a collective endeavor, the entire activity.

From a strength of 20 staffers, the bar is reduced to barely 5 people now...all old-time regulars. Vasu, Dinesh, Bhaskar, Suresh and the neighbourhood cigarette stall owner Mohammad Rafi who has pitched in to work 'for free' during the second lockdown. "Now, this business model has failed. There's no profit in this enterprise. While everyone feels that there's a lot of money to be made in a bar, nobody realises that it's just a myth now," says Mr Shetty who lives with wife Suhasini.

DISARRAY: The interiors of Kalpana Bar and Restaurant lie strewn with the staff's belongings

Shetty's son worked at Kalpana Bar and Restaurant for a bit when he was younger but quickly gave up on the prospect of taking over the business. "I won't be able to manage this. I wonder how you do it," he told his father before venturing on to work for a hospitality chain in Pune.

Kalpana Bar and Restaurant symbolises the state of affairs for all 'small' bars who survive only on local business. Why, after the first lockdown, even their staff left for their hometowns in other states. "There is so much uncertainty owing to the COVID-19 situation and the lockdowns that follow that it's impossible for anyone to plan for the future. That apart, there are a lot of jobs and opportunities in their own hometowns. The lure that Mumbai held for them no longer exists," says Mr Shetty. 

Vasu Pujari
Now, more than half of the restaurants, even those doing thriving business in good times, have shut shop. Their staff has left for good and the losses are just too high to overcome. Permitting business for a few hours just won't allow them to get back on their feet. "Simply put, they've run out of options," says Mr Shetty.

Mangalore-based 54-year-old Vasu Pujari has been working at Kalpana Bar and Restaurant for over three decades since 1990 returned from hometown in September 2020 to oversee the 'deliveries' that were the only mode of business permitted for most of the second lockdown.

Colleague and friend over the same period Dinesh Shetty went back home to Mangalore for two weeks in March 2021 to visit his parents and returned to family of wife and two daughters in Kurla. "Ab yahan pe poori zindagi rahe hai. Sab badal gaya par kya karein," he says.

AFFABLE: Manager Dinesh Shetty handles the loyal customers with a smile

Neighbouring A1 Beedi Shop owner Mohammad Rafi had left for his village at Kasaragod in Kerala during the last lockdown and suffered immense losses to business. This time around, he stayed back and worked voluntarily at Kalpana Bar and Restaurant, helping out with parcels and other activities.

Mohd Rafi
"I got my meals at the restaurant in return and plan to open my shop now during the restricted timings," he says. Now, business may not pick up as it did in the past but he is looking forward to minimising the losses he suffered from keeping it shut for over nine months now.

Udupi-based Suresh Shetty who has worked for 15 years at Kalpana Bar and Restaurant as its manager stayed back at home in Mira Road with wife and two children for a while when all was shut. He has now returned to the bar and restaurant to pitch in with help.

And, old-timer Bhaskar Moolya, who stayed from March to August last year at his village in Mangalore with wife, two children and mother and for two months again this year, when business was shut in Mumbai, has also returned to help with the business.

Suresh Shetty
Today, the motley lot of senior staffers stands at the entrance even inside around Kalpana Bar and Restaurant, which has been converted into a make-shift lodging with tables set together to double up as resting spaces for the staff and chairs as drying zone for their clothes. 

Now, a nondescript news programme plays on the TV in the corner with just the owner half-heartedly watching it. This, in sharp contrast to a deafening Indian Premier League (IPL) match which would be played, as a rule, in normal times for the benefit of transfixed customers downing their favourite drinks.

Bhaskar Moolya
The mood is somber but the spirit strong as ever. After all, few restobars and drinking holes - however plush and pompous - would have its age-old staff and patrons rooting for it like a seemingly 'small' Kalpana Bar and Restaurant.

And now, Mumbai is unlocking...again! This time around, while the mood isn't that upbeat, there're signs of a revival. The IPL is resuming on 19 September 2021 and the final will be held on 10 October 2021.

Mumbai should bounce back as usual and Kalpana Bar and Restaurant, like the rest of its sort, regain its lost glory. It will!

(Note: Some subjects may have removed their masks only to be identified in photographs to be used with this news report. COVID-19 appropriate behaviour has been maintained at all times)

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