My celestial clams,
Hello from Pollution Season in Delhi! The skies are grey, the dust is thick and the newspapers are full of politicians blaming each other. *sings* It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
And I’m still here and not back in Berlin so you might have to listen to me complain about it all over again. (Before we romanticise Berlin: right now the weather is a balmy 6 degrees with a high of 13, and wet weather lies ahead this week which also means grey skies and general gloom and doom.) I have applied for my long-term national visa at fucking last, but am told that it could take a minimum of three months, so expect me to hang around this side of the world for a bit while I wait and twiddle my thumbs.
I was at Toto’s just last week. Yes, that Toto’s, Toto’s Garage Bar, Toto’s in Pali Naka, Bandra West. Toto’s where there used to be a really good pirated DVD stall just opposite (piracy is bad, but we had no streaming services back then, and he sold all these great movies that weren’t being released in India.) Down the road, an Indigo Deli, is Indigo still a thing? Remember when you walked down the road in Kala Ghoda, and someone was treating you to a meal, and there was lobster risotto on the menu which you didn’t order because you didn’t like shellfish? Or was no one treating you but asked you to meet them there anyway, and that explains the vague sinking feeling you have when you think about it, all of Bombay a city laid over a trapdoor that holds your deepest financial insecurities?
I’ve written about Bombay nostalgia before in this essay that periodically crops up and gets shared a lot every couple of years. That still holds true. I do miss Bombay from 2007, Bombay when I was young and selfish and the city was full of secrets waiting for me to discover. Toto’s was part of that era, it wasn’t mine in the way that Zenzi was. (A common fallacy: that Toto’s was somehow a dive bar, it never was. Prices were only slightly cheaper than Zenzi, even though it had a dive bar vibe.)
Toto’s is smaller than it used to be, and there’s no indoor smoking any more (you know how old you are by how many bars have turned non-smoking in your absence) and the tandoori pork sausages, a snack I’ve lain awake at night dreaming of, were less good than I remembered, but the memorabilia was the same, license plates on the wall, a window AC unit which was now just for show as a fancy new split did all the work, and a small car hanging over the bar. I took a cropped photo of two license plates against the chain link wire fence and sent them to an old Bombay friend now living in Berlin. “Guess where I am?” the message said and he replied with a smiley face, “Toto’s.”
We haven’t spoken in months, this old friend and me, but somehow I was conjuring up an old image of us, crowded around a small table, him with his two flatmates, me with two other friends, all of us one big gang for a bit. I’ve lost touch with practically everyone else around that table who I used to see so often, and one of the flatmates, who started out as my friend originally, my friend who I introduced to everyone else and who swiftly became their friend in a way that made me want to—I don’t know—remind everyone where that origin story had started, even though everyone knew and they were all better friends with each other, but you still feel a little proprietary tug, no, when you bring people together and they don’t acknowledge your part in it? Don’t tell me it’s only me. Anyway, he died. That was the end of that previous sentence, a sad ending, he was too young to die, and we had already lost touch ages ago at this point so news of his death reached me much later and after he’d already been out of this world for some time.
Toto’s was full of my ghosts, not real ghosts though, just like vivid echoes of the past, like when you look at a really brightly coloured image and it burns into your retina so you can see it even when you close your eyes. I thought I could see myself singing along to one of the old songs at a corner table, always amongst a crowd, it wasn’t the kind of place you went on a date or with someone you wanted to have deep long chats with. It was never really my local, I didn’t go there as often as my friends did, so whenever I did go, it was to join someone else. My friend, the one in Berlin, the one I texted, had a drink unofficially named after him, you didn’t see it on the menu, but you could ask the bartender for it, and if he didn’t remember, you’d remind him and he’d be like, “Oh yes, of course.” Something with half soda and half Limca. Bacardi? I don’t remember, it wasn’t for me.
In Berlin, I have a small joke when I take people to my favourite bars. “This is one of my locals,” I say, “Except they don’t know it.” I have three—living in a lively neighbourhood, I’m spoilt for choice, but my most favourite one is on a quiet street, no busy main roads to cross. It’s named after a Jules Verne character, it’s not the cheapest place on my list, but it’s cozy and the chairs are comfortable, and I don’t know—it has an atmosphere that’s lacking in so many places no matter how hard they try. You can’t buy a vibe, yes, Social, I’m talking to you. I’m not naming this place, it’s too personal, but if you’re in Berlin, I’m happy to meet you for a drink there. (After February 2023 that is, BIG SIGH.) It’s also the place we had our farewell drinks at the first time we left Berlin to go back to India (me, that is, this last summer) and I’m pretty sure the entire table caught COVID from someone there.
My second favourite bar is also not in the super trendy area a ten minute walk from our house, but it’s adjacent. This one I can tell you the name of: Hermann Schulz. It’s very cute, and they let you sit down with a coffee and a laptop all day inside. Nice cake, nice alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and at the end of summer, they give you blankets if you’re sitting outside. The second last time I was there, I was introducing three women I knew to each other. My neighbour brought along her chihuahua puppy, who sat sweetly on her lap for the whole evening. The last time was with another new friend, who had discovered the place when she was cat-sitting for us. The bartenders still don’t recognise us though.
And sometimes when I’m taking guests through Boxhagner Platz, Berlin’s Hauz Khas Village, I guess, Berlin’s Bandra, we call it Boxi, I’ll take them to Dachkammer. The word “kammer” means “chamber” and the bar is on Simon Dach Strasse, named after an old fashioned German poet, but the bar is nothing like a poet’s vision, it’s dingy and loud and trendy, but the outside in the summer is very nice and the drinks are cheap. None of the Berlin bars serve food, so you always have to eat before 10 pm when the restaurants close, if you remember, and I’ve taken to eating like the Germans: dinner at 6.30 pm followed by drinks after, because the bars never close unless it’s a Monday.
I’ve been thinking about locals ever since I met Ameya in Bangalore last month. Ameya finds locals wherever she goes, she just moved to Bangalore and already has a neighbourhood bar, a very cute place I am forbidden to tell you about. It has a rooftop and nice snacks and drinks. Another was a smaller Mangalorean hole-in-the-wall with a smoking section built in to the restaurant, in the centre. At both places, the waiters knew her, and she waved to one or two before she sat down. I’ve never had a wave-y situation with a waiter or a bartender, in fact, every time I sit down at a restaurant I think I’ve visited very often, they explain the menu to me all over again. Maybe it’s just my face—I don’t think I’ve ever been a very local person. I’m always slightly embarrassed if the waiters know who I am, as if they’re saying “don’t you have any place else to go?” and while I envied Ameya the nice familiarity of having people greet you as you go in, I’ve always been the kind of person who can’t wait for the waiter to leave when he comes round to see how your food is, and invariably you have to answer mid-chew. I’m not much for banter—in Bandra, we went to see a late night comedy show and Mansha insisted we sit up front so the comedians could make us part of their act, but while K got into it (and got some of the best laughs all evening), I just couldn’t. I smiled weakly when she called me “chasme waali ma’am” and asked me to stop making eye contact with her, but really, where else was I supposed to look? I tried to look at her knees instead, but she was wearing shorts so I was afraid she’d think I was ogling her or something. High pressure banter situations are not for me. (Anyway, she wasn’t very funny. A bit more cruel than funny, not with my hey speccy remark, I like my glasses, but she called one guy “forever alone” or “stalker” and asked K if he was white or if he had vitiligo which…. um. Not very funny or appropriate for crowd work where you’re supposed to get the audience all loved up and amused.)
In London, my cousin had a local. K went out one evening with old friends and she took me to her favourite bar down the road. It looked fancy and I was prepared for an expensive night out, but because she went there so much and because they loved her, they comped our drinks all evening, even bringing her free cocktails and our total bill at the end of it was even cheaper than it would’ve been in Delhi, so hurrah for locals, all in all, I’d say, and I wish I had one too, well, had one that they’d notice I went there a lot but I think you need to be a Local Bar Kind of Person. Also I’m a lightweight, and there’s a plateau of drinking I reach pretty early in the night when the world ceases to be fun and I want to go to bed so I stop talking to people. Social wall I think they call it. Abruptly running out of battery like an old cellphone.
All great television and detective novels have a local spot to revolve around. This newsletter takes its title from Cheers, which I’ve never seen but know enough about to quote the credit song to you. There’s How I Met Your Mother, there’s smoky bars where cops drink after hours in all those American TV shows, there’s Kinsley Milhone from Sue Grafton’s books at a grouchy Hungarian woman’s dive, drinking cheap sour white wine, there’s Alicia Florrick in the bar underneath her law firm’s offices, putting away tequila like she doesn’t have to wake up clear headed the next day. I’m only thinking of American examples, but didn’t all those old PG Wodehouses begin with someone or the other at their club, drinking?
No, I don’t think I’ll ever be a Regular. I am fickle. I like to shop around, often going to far away neighbourhoods to see what they’ve got going on. My own “local” down the road in Berlin has seen me three times in three months. That’s hardly enough time for anyone to recognise you. I might’ve had a greater shot of having a Personal Favourite in Delhi but the bars here don’t really appeal to me much. Very pretty some of them, but I’m bored of gin, and never drink Old Fashioneds (the two main cocktails at Delhi bars), and they’re so expensive that I much prefer drinking at someone’s house, at least my friends remember what I’d like to drink and greet me in familiar loving tones.
Lalalala, BUY ME A COFFEE if you liked this post or the others. Just click that button. You know you love me. xoxo Gossip Woman (I am no longer in the girl stage of my life.)
Some personal news since I couldn’t find a place to jam it in in the newsletter. Because the visa waits are taking so long, I’m actually not just sitting here in Delhi, we’re both taking a month in Bangkok for our writing projects. I’m finally going to finish rewriting a book I’ve been fiddling with since 2019. Have rented a cute small Airbnb and I’m very much looking forward to it. Self imposed writing retreat ahoy!
LINKS! (AND I FINALLY MET SOMEONE WHO SAID THEY LIKED THE LINKS BEST BECAUSE THERE WAS SO MUCH ON THE INTERNET TO READ AND THIS MADE IT EASIER FOR THEM, SO NOW THIS SECTION IS ENDORSED LINKS)
The Gone Girl-themed cruise sounds nuts. (Slate)
Beautiful piece by a veteran author on stopping writing. (Griffith Review)
The rise of far right Hindu nationalism… in Australia. (The Saturday Paper)
Oldie, but I just came across it: being in the queue to view Queen Elizabeth’s body. (GQ)
The story behind Germany’s cult favourite skin cream. (New York Times)
Last week’s most read story was this one about Colleen Hoover’s meteoric rise to fame.
Goodbye! I’ll write to you again soon.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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