4. Enjoy the city celebrations – Mumbai’s biggest strength is it’s spirit, it’s infectious strangely overpowering, addictive joie de vivre. Some of my best Mumbai moments have been spent around the dusty, busy, seemingly ugly areas of commercially important Mahim, Dadar and Lower Parel. Accompanied by an adopted fiercely protective brother from Mumbai, I have spent many dawns walking along those teeming bazaars of activities and cries. Mumbai born and brought up, Mahesh had been a true blue Byculla (neighbourhood) boy, who drove the city’s ubiquitous black and yellow Fiat taxi and loved showing me the seedy neighbourhoods.
I had met him during my flying days and we have been close adopted siblings ever since. It was him who had helped me understand the fine nuances of Mumbai’s biggest festival, Ganesh Chaturthi kept a watchful eye as I had danced to one of the humongous idol’s immersion procession and had introduced me to Cutting Chai and Bun Muska. Most popular in Maharashtra, Ganesh Chaturthi is one of India’s larger than festivals and is dedicated to the cute elephant headed god of wealth, Ganesha. Come Ganesh Chaturthi, Mumbai goes berserk and the festival is celebrated with much pomp and grandeur. The festivities end with immersion of the massive idols in the Arabian Sea and even this is done with much fanfare. Mumbai’s festivals like the city have an adrenaline rush of their own and only those who had experienced the bizarre, but captivating Dahi Handi can understand what it I mean.
Although celebrated across Maharashtra, Mumbai’s Dahi Handi is a spectacular and highly competitive feat, with prize money running into thousands. On every Gokulashthami in August, Mumbai’s localities turn into human pyramids, as the local boys clamber on top of each other’s shoulders to break an earthen pot of curd tied at an impressionable height. While this does not sound as spectacular as it visually is, try making a tapering human pyramid of 13.35 meters (9 tiered 43.79 feet) to beating drums, music and racing time and you will give adrenaline rush a whole new meaning. Because of the popularity and strong social causes like “Stop Female Foeticide” etc, which many of these teams/mandals support, many political parties are striving to make Dahi Handi the state sport of Maharashtra. Although this is remains yet to be achieved, Dahi Handi and Ganesh Chaturthi make up most Mumbai’s visitors strongest memories.
6. Bedazzled by Bazaars – While money can indeed buy a lot of pleasures in Mumbai, some of the city’s biggest delights are for free. Home of countless immigrants, migrant workers and have nots, Mumbai is strewn with some beautiful free jewels of happiness. For example while, the quirky street art/The Great Wall of Tulsi Pipe Road is interesting enough to lead me to Dadar constantly, it’s sea of colourful human heads as clearly visible from the bridge is one of the most captivating sights I have ever experienced.
However one of my most poignant memories of Mumbai is the overpowering aroma of Dadar wholesale flower market. Located in the busy, dusty and human choked commercial area of Dadar West, you can smell the huge flower bazaar even before you can see it. Flowers spill all the way from Dadar station and roses, marigolds, gerberas, orchids, carnations, lotus, jasmine, hibiscus and bright green sprigs of tulsi (basil) splash the gritty neighbourhood with shocking colours. Volume of coral pink, red, yellow, orange, white, green and blue of exotic blooms peak and ebb as the market slowly diminishes by 1130 am (0500-1130). Also called Phool Gully, the Dadar whole sale flower market has around 720 established shops running the ancestral floral business and the entire area is a photographer’s delight.
The huge wholesale garment market lies on the opposite side of the Flower Market and the floral trail eventually extends to a lively fish market which hums with life and photogenic images in the mornings. Most Mumbai markets, I have visited are liveliest in the early hours of the day when retailers flock to buy the freshest products at cut throat competitive prices. The famous Dhobi Ghat had eluded me and my visit to the Bheendi Bazaar or Chor Market (Thieves Market) had been a bit of a disappointment. However the highly aromatic Lalbagh Spice Market and the massive stone elephant at Bhao Daji Lad Museum had been absolutely heady and I had got caught in Mumbai’s charm for good.
I had found the Chor Bazaar junk too bland and uninteresting and the touristy, but busy Crawford Market with its dismal pet shops very overrated. However, the island like circular Gol Deol Shiva temple near Chor Bazaar had been much fun to pause at and watch traffic zip around and I had loved the crumbling old mansions of the area. Some of those buildings had been around since 1902 and their gloomy courtyard opening deeper into the mansions had left me absolutely intrigued. Their age, onion skin like architectural quality and quirky contrast of blooming flower pots and Barbie dolls stacked on the sagging balconies had charmed me to complete photographer’s satisfaction.
7. Bask in the tasty heritage – While most of the markets had been guided tours with my (Mr Know All and Proud of my City) friend, Mahesh too had been instrumental in introducing me to the earthy flavours of Mumbai. It is because of him that I can never have enough of Bun Muska and my weighing machine shows alarming numbers after every Mumbai visit. Usually accompanied by “pani kaam chai” (strong tea), Bun Muska is humble butter slathered bread. Served in many Irani cafes all across Mumbai, those flavourful joys have come at twopence, brusque service and really vintage interiors (think high ceilings, slow rotating fans, marble top tables and well used wooden chairs).
Now Irani cafes are to Mumbai what cats are to Istanbul. Originally started by Iranian/ancient Persian immigrants to India, Irani cafes are a part of Mumbai’s food heritage. Although Kyani Cafe is the most famous of them all and a city heritage landmark, my favourite had been the Britannia Cafe at Ballard Estate. I have always been at my most gluttonous self there and had greedily sampled most of the items its gleaming bell jars and ancient menus had held. From keema pavs, akuri on toast, coconut and jam biscuits, my over feasting at Britannia Cafe had always given me happy tummy aches. While these traditional authentic eateries are perhaps not the most visually appealing or welcoming places in the city, they are a proud part of Mumbai’s heritage, nostalgic memories and even have poems dedicated to them.
It is perhaps, the famous Indian Jewish poet, Nissim Ezekiel‘s observation about his favourite Iranian Cafe, which does justice to these heritage spots. “No talking to cashier/No smoking/ No fighting/ No credit/ No outside food/ No sitting long/ No talking loud/ No spitting/ No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/ No hard liquor allowed/ No address enquiry/ — By order.”
8. Chawls and Fort – Many times during my early morning walks with Mahesh, I have delightfully discovered bits and pieces of history roaming through Mumbai dawn like forgotten ghosts. He had been a story teller who had spent a substantial part of his childhood in busy Mahim and always reminisced days when the entire stretch to Lower Parel used to be lined with mills. Sirens would break those quiet Mumbai mornings and herald school time for children as their fathers would cycle over to the mills for their day’s work. While those mills have mostly long been converted to swanky offices, the surrounding community residential quarters called “Chawl” (another of Mumbai’s ubiquitous heritage) which had housed the workers’ families, still remain prominent in the cityscape.
Designed to hold maximum number of people in smallest of studio apartments, most chawls are for families only, have shared bathrooms, toilets and intensely strong enmeshed community feeling. Upon Mahesh’s request, I had once visited his family at one of the chawls and had come back with mixed feelings. The tiny space had been crammed with minimum 8 members, had zero privacy and neighbours had walked in and out through the always open door. The experience had been overwhelming, but the excitement, tight web of extended family feeling and simple joys of Mumbai’s have nots’ life had made me feel awfully lonesome in my opulent hotel room that night.
To dispel those lonesome twinges, my friend had taken me out to the street art filled swanky Bandra neighbourhood and by the Arabian Sea. Nothing uplifts the mood more than explosion of colours and life and I had hopelessly fallen in love with Colaba Causeway‘s glittering multi coloured lanterns on sale. A popular tourist beat and my hotel’s location, Colaba Causeway always buzzes with knick knacks, cheap souvenirs and rush of excited/exhausted tourists drifting around the prestigious Gateway of India. I liked it’s proximity to the Fort Area, which housed my favourite Flora Fountain square, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Victoria Terminus Station and many grand, ornate colonial structures. Though filled with shark like hustlers on the prowl, Fort Area is absolutely atmospheric and the hulking Victorian Gothic beauty of Victoria Terminus/CST/Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus in comparison to the delicate loveliness of the oasis like Flora Fountain is breathtaking.
Fort Area (there used to be a fort built by British East India Company, around the Bombay Castle) is as historic and atmospheric as it gets and drooping banyan trees, commercial chaos, Mumbai’s double decker buses and quaint hole in the wall business establishments make it a charming area to walk around. I have spent many awe struck moments there taking in the precinct’s charmingly quaint businesses and have watched ancient stationers, stamp makers, key shapers and knife sharpers jostle for space with huge international banks, busy grimy eateries and overpriced souvenir vendors. A few shady bars also call the area home and on one late evening I have been harassed by a drunk there. The Fort Area leads to the bustling arty crescent shaped Kala Ghoda, a place which I have not explored much and it is crammed with historic buildings (including the Watson’s Hotel), museums (Prince of Wales Museum etc), galleries (Jahangir Art Gallery etc) and art institutions.
9. Arabian Sea Secrets – The Arabian Sea is my favourite part of the city and I love it’s promenade all the way from glitzy Nariman Point to earthy Chowpatty Beach. I have walked along its surging shores on many evenings and romantic nights and during monsoon, the sight of huge angry waves crashing against the promenade had reminded me of my rainy Havana moments. The Worli Sea Face promenade is equally pretty and with the wispy Worli Sea Link bridge as its recent crowning glory, it is no wonder that tourists are bee lining towards it for a clutter free drive. However it is the lovely 4.3 kilometers half moon shaped promenade, Marine Drive, whose lit up night prettiness rendered it the name, Queen’s Necklace which is an absolute delight and is as eclectic as it gets.
From the stunning art deco buildings of the rich Walkeshwar neighbourhood, strings of waving naked bulbs and happy families enjoying bhel puri at Chowpatty to boys in white playing cricket at one of the numerous parks scattered along the esplanade, Marine Drive is Mumbai’s most enjoyable attraction. Kissing, canoodling couples, city’s serious and casual walkers, scampering children, young guns pumping iron, groups of pretty young things checking out the youth scene and pet owners with all sizes of furry friends make the walk very lively. Incidentally the Arabian Sea and its circlet of reclaimed land hold many interesting pockets of timeless spots like the boat crowded Sasoon Docks and its fish market, the Church of St John the Evangelist/Afghan Church, complete with pews with rifle holders etc. Both the Sasoon Dock (one of oldest docks in Mumbai) fish market and the Afghan Church are my personal favourites and I love the dark, colonnaded interiors of the religious house.
10. Artsy High – For a city of high rollers, Mumbai has a substantial number of art lovers and from rock shows, dance festivals, drama nights, film festivals, fashion shows etc the plethora of arty pleasures available is staggering. Prithvi Theater Festival, Kala Ghoda Festival, Mumbai Fashion Week, Street Art Festival, LGBT parade Queer Azaadi etc are some of Mumbai’s finest arty events to look out for.
With so much of beauty, quirkiness and paradoxes scattered at every step, it is no wonder that Mumbai or Heptanesia (as ancient Greeks called it) is hard to ignore. Like every toxic or difficult relationship, while Mumbai’s charms give me an addictive high, its pollution, moody traffic and squalor repulses me till I can’t take it no more. But then I do always come back, like millions of its other lovers, who simply have to leave the city for some time, to love it with more intense passion.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL-BECAUSE I CARE
All photos have been taken from internet.