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In praise of Mumbai’s Shetty joints

Some Indian cities have a reassuring history of small bars that host women safely for a quiet after-work drink and dinner

The Shetty joints are small, local bars that don't fuss over women yet make them feel welcome. They are nothing like the happening places of today with Ladies Night discounts and karaoke events.
The Shetty joints are small, local bars that don't fuss over women yet make them feel welcome. They are nothing like the happening places of today with Ladies Night discounts and karaoke events. (iStock Photo)

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The phrase ‘safe space’ has been overused and misused to the point of being trivialized to denote any easy, cosy or comfortable atmosphere. And so, I hesitate to use it here, but it really is an appropriate phrase to describe the small bars and spaces that many urban working women of earlier decades made their own for a quiet wind-down with colleagues after the end of a shift. 

These small bars, generically termed ‘Shetty-joints’, have been in the business for decades. They were nothing like the ‘happening’ places of today with ‘Ladies Night’ discounts and karaoke events. There were certainly no bouncers and no temporary tattoos stamped on your hand at the entrance. There was no high-octane laughter and overdressing, the signature of many a self-conscious party-zone today.

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The soundscape of these places was usually the hum of people simply unwinding after a day at work, before heading home and dealing with the attendant duties. None were housed inside large hotels. Mostly, they were situated in and around the business districts or in local market hubs in the suburbs. Women in twos or fours could seat themselves and order a basic drink (not cocktails with fanciful names) without drawing any unwanted attention. In the eighties, women like myself, in Mumbai particularly, were redefining where it was okay to go without any male presence for a drink and a meal. Some of the proprietors, managers and male clientele of these places were certainly our tacit allies in the process.

In most of these ‘Shetty-joints’, the food is ‘south-ish’ as one person describes it, with the mandatory north-Indian, Chinese and Italian thrown in. Gokul behind Regal Cinema in Mumbai continues to be one such unobtrusive watering hole. Boiled salted peanuts and chick peas would appear as soon as you sat down, and still do. 

Some have morphed into upscale places, but “many still exist as they are, holding it all together, including carrying their staff over the recent lockdowns. One of the pleasures of things opening up is to slide into your favourite seat and look up at a reticent but familiar face, and quietly signal: ‘Theek hai na? Haan, surviving’,” says Sonali Teredesai, who works at a stockbroking firm and is a regular at Symphony in Pune’s Range Hills area. 

“As the weekly meetings of our queer feminist collective between 2006 and 2013, a bunch of us inevitably wound up at our oasis away from home, Two Star in Kalina Market,” recalls Iravi, film professional and text editor who goes by one name. “The unpretentious joint’s mainly cis male clientele had learned not to stare or remark because the management so clearly had our back. You felt watched over benignly. Two Star let us briefly forget the homes where nobody waited with dinner. It was situated conveniently opposite a row of pavement vendors so you could quickly go get your sabji-phall and be back before the frost on your glass evaporated. It stayed open till 2 am,” Iravi says.

Bureaucrat and illustrator Geetali Tare remembers another leave-you-alone place during her years in Shimla in the previous decade: “Embassy restaurant in Shimla was the place where my disconsolate heart and I sheltered when we wished to avoid the loving, but sometimes pesky attention of friends. It was the sort of place which allowed you to be pensive, wistful, or merely reflective. The owner sensed when to leave you alone. His wife placidly crocheted doilies at the cash counter. The clientele firmly minded its own business.”

Shivanjali in Pune used to be seen as a ‘quarter joint’ for long, but has been renovated into a more ‘family-oriented’ place during the last two years. It remains a fine example of a safe place for women to enjoy a pint and not just be left alone but also be treated with a respectful warmth. As manager Aravind Shetty puts it, “All people who drink are not riff-raff, and all riff-raff are not welcome just because it is a bar.”

Gouri Dange is a counsellor, novelist, and people and animal watcher.

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