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'Shantaram' returns to Leopold

Matthew Schneeberger in Mumbai | December 10, 2008

newHad the terrorists come five hours earlier, I wouldn't be here talking to you," says Gregory David Roberts, the Australian author of the novel Shantaram [Images], oft-considered a foreigner's Ode to Mumbai. "We were here in the evening, then left for the airport, as we had to fly to Australia [Images] that night for business."

While sitting at his designated table -- "This is my spot. I always sit here," he says -- in Leopold's Cafe [Images], the Colaba area haunt that provides much of the backdrop to Shantaram, he continues to reflect on how closely he came to meeting disaster on November 26, the day terrorists shot up and tossed grenades into his favourite restaurant and watering hole, murdering customers and serving staff indiscriminately.

"A grenade blew up right next to where I always sit," he explains, pointing to a very large, very visible indent in the tile floor. "All the people sitting here at that time died."

As he speaks, gushing fans, both foreign and Indian, queue up to meet Leopold's most prized patron, who makes time to speak to them each individually, signing books and shaking hands. All the while, he cooly conducts a separate interview with a reporter from a Mumbai-area daily newspaper.

"Since I got back from Australia, on December 7th, I've been here every day, and will continue to come," he says decisively. "I just want to show my support and solidarity in a time of crisis."

Though his long blonde hair and light eyes mark him as unmistakably foreign, Roberts --- aka Shantaram -- is really and truly a Mumbaikar. His eyes show sadness when he speaks of the attacks, and his smiles seem forced, as if other thoughts preoccupy his mind.

Asked when the city will be back, he waves his hand at the tremendous crowd coming and going on the Colaba Causeway, many of whom are foreign. "It already is," he says.

Image: Gregory David Roberts with his wife Francoise Sturdza at Leopold's on Wednesday. Photograph: Matthew Schneeberger

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