Many of the locations from Gregory David Robert’s classic Indian underworld story Shantaram (2003) are real and still standing in Colaba, South Mumbai.
I went out to find the exact locations of Shantaram’s most iconic locations like Leopold’s, the slum Lin Baba lived in, the very first hotel he stayed at, and even where he made love to Karla.
Unfortunately, the Shantaram Apple TV series was mostly filmed in Australia and Thailand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a horrible shame, but at least now you can see the real locations and visit them for yourself too!
The first place Lin stayed: the India Guest House
On Lin’s very first day in Mumbai, after meeting Prabaker, he stays here at the India Guest House with some other Canadian tourists.
Smoking, drinking, dancing, music, sexy business, no problem here,” Prabaker assured us, grinning happily and looking up momentarily from his task. “Everything is allow no problem here. Except the fighting. Fighting is not good manners at India Guest House.
“And dying,” Prabaker added, with a thoughtful wag of his round head. “Mr. Anand is not liking it, if the people are dying here.”Shanataram (2003) by Gregory David Roberts
Google Maps location: FabHotel Colaba Grand.
Where the book starts: the Colaba Causeway
Near the India Guest House is the Colaba Causeway, which is the area’s main road, and this is where Karla saved Lin from being hit by a bus and where their relationship begins.
This area is called Colaba, it’s in South Mumbai, and it’s extremely important to the story because this is where most of Shantaram takes place.
Google Maps location: Colaba Causeway.
The infamous bar: Leopold’s Cafe
Leopold’s, “the largest bar and restaurant in Colaba, and one of the largest in the city”, was famous as a den for illegal businesses that included traffic in drugs, currencies, passports, gold, and sex.
Leopold’s was an unofficial free zone, scrupulously ignored by the otherwise efficient officers of the Colaba police station, directly across the busy street.
Yet a peculiar dialectic applied to the relationships between upstairs and down, inside and outside the restaurant, and governed all of the business transacted there.
Indian prostitutes, garlanded with ropes of jasmine flowers and plumply wrapped in bejewelled saris, were prohibited downstairs, and only accompanied customers to the upstairs bar.
European prostitutes were only permitted to sit downstairs, attracting the interest of men who sat at other tables, or simply paused on the street outside.
Deals for drugs and other contraband were openly transacted at the tables, but the goods could only be exchanged outside the bar.Shanataram (2003) by Gregory David Roberts.
In 2008, Leopold’s was a target in the Mumbai terror attacks. The bullet marks of which are still present at the cafe.
Today, Leopold’s is just a typical tourist restaurant serving average food. It’s quite disappointing and not really a chilled-out place to hang.
Instead, if you want some authentic Irani Indian (Parsi) food like Lin talks about in the book. Go to Britannia & Co. Restaurant or SodaBottleOpenerWala for a classic Parsi cafe experience. Order Mutton Berry Palau and Saali Chicken – and then thank me in the comments.
Google Maps location: Leopold Cafe.
The Police station where Lin was held
Across the road from Leopold’s is the Colaba Police Station, where Lin was first detained before heading to his brutal stint in captivity at the nearby Arthur Road Prison.
I’ll never forget those chapters of the book where he describes what it’s like to be in an Indian jail.
The fourth room was known in the lock-up slang as the dukh mahal, or the abode of suffering, but many men preferred to use the name that the Colaba police had given the last cell in the row: the detection room.
When a new man entered the corridor for the first time, through the steel gate, he sometimes tried his luck in the first room. Every one of the fifteen men in that room, and not a few lackeys in the corridor, would rise up, shoving and threatening him away, shouting: Next room! Next room, bastard!
Driven along the corridor by the writhing, toiling press of bodies, the man might try to enter the second room. If no-one there knew him, whoever happened to be near the door would give him a clip, a smack in the mouth. Next room, motherf***er!
If the man, badly rattled by then, tried to enter the third room as he was pushed further along the corridor, the two or three men who sat or stood in the doorway of that room would punch and kick at him. Next room! Next room, sisterf***er!
When the new man found himself shoved all the way to the fourth room, the detection room, he would be greeted as an old and very welcome friend. Come in, friend! Come in, brother!
Those foolish enough to enter were beaten and stripped naked by the fifty or sixty men who crushed into that black and foetid room.
Their clothes were distributed according to a waiting list determined by a precise and perpetually adjusted pecking order. Their body cavities were thoroughly searched for jewellery, drugs, or money.Shanataram (2003) by Gregory David Roberts.
Note: These are sensitive areas, so don’t dare try to enter for sightseeing.
His first walk with Karla along Mumbai’s seawall from Gateway of India to Radio Club Hotel
The entire Colaba area in Mumbai is a popular tourist trail with the Gateway of India and the Taj Palace Hotel just behind Leopold’s.
Karla and Lin’s first walk together was along this sea wall from the famous Gateway of India to the Radio Club Hotel.
Lin used to come to the Sassoon Dock area to eat. This dock was once a hub for smuggling, but that ended after the 2008 terrorists entered Mumbai through this port.
The slum where Lin lived and built his clinic: Cuffe Parade
This is probably the most important location in the story, the Cuffe Parade slum. Lin lived and started his clinic here. Although, today, it’s nothing like it was in the eighties.
These days there are permanent concrete buildings, and Lin’s house and clinic are long gone.
You can visit here, but I’d take a local because no one there speaks English, it’s like a maze, and it’s not very clean. You won’t be able to find Lin’s actual house there, we asked a few people, and they knew nothing about Shantaram.
Google Maps location: J-Walk Fitness Gym (the entrance is near here).
Here’s what Gregory David Roberts has to say about his experience at Haji Ali:
Interviewer: So what does the Haji Ali Shrine mean to you?
Well, it’s a place of peace, a place of solitude, a place where people from all over the city make their journey to try to find some sense of forgiveness for the things they’ve done in the past.
But it also happened to be a place where gangsters in Bombay, if they knew that they were going to make a confrontation with another gang, a war, that might end in them losing their lives, we would go there, we would wash first and bathe.
We would then make this journey across to Haji Ali. To do the same.
We would ask that we be prepared for what may come, and then we’d walk back along that path and think only about the future, and have cut the tie with the past.Gregory David Roberts, CNN Talk Asia.
Google Maps location: Haji Ali Dargah.
Karla & Lin made love on the roof of the Air India Building
Or did they? Gregory David Roberts confirmed that all characters were types of people he knew but were fictional. However, some experiences in the story are real, and others are informed by his experiences.
None of the characters are real. I’m thrilled that people would think she’s real. Shantaram is about the exile experience. Every character is an exile. There’s only one character who was born in Bombay, everyone else came to the city washed up on the shores and trying to regroup themselves and find out who they are again.Gregory David Roberts in YouTube video Shantaram – Is Karla Real?.
If you know of other locations from Shantaram, please leave them in the comments, and I’ll add them to this post.