Mumbai, Bombay. Both names are evocative and exotic. It is the maximum city that packs in all the diversity and customs of India, at once the richest and poorest, the smartest and shabbiest; it is extreme on a massive scale.
Colonial and continental chic
In Colaba district stands the Gateway of India. Once the ultimate symbol of the British Raj, this grand monument now signifies independence and the final point of departure of the crumbling empire from India’s shores.
From the basalt arches Mumbai unfolds into leafy, cobbled streets, circles, squares, and broad boulevards lined with elegant townhouses and vast neo-gothic public buildings from the colonial era. Intersections are marked with classical sculptures, fountains, and art-deco office blocks and cinemas.
Trishaws are banned from this area. The roads are the territory of Mumbai’s iconic Premier Padmini and Hindustan Ambassador taxis, dating back beyond 1950. The famous black and yellow machines serve the city’s streets and offer good value fares.
It is all oddly calm, peaceful even. A cool drizzle descends so we stop at a café by Horniman Circle gardens and drink good coffee. We could be in Paris.
Sky high wealth
Mumbai oozes in-your-face wealth. Boutique shops and glass high-rise living twinkle around Marine Drive, the 2km curving beach-front promenade. Malabar Hill is across the bay from Colaba. This is the location of the most expensive house in the world, a billion dollar folly in the heavens.
More and more exclusive apartments are being built, higher and higher. In central Mumbai, away from the sea breeze, the city streets become breathless, chaotic mazes. Those who can afford it escape into the skies above Mumbai.
A suburban train takes us one evening to Bandara, nicknamed ‘Queen of the Suburbs’ and playground of Mumbai’s sport and film celebrities. Here are Western style bars and designer shops aplenty, providing outlets for the city’s glitterati.
En route to Bandara we pass established shanty towns and more temporary slum housing that fill the city’s open spaces and arteries. Railway lines, flyovers, waste land and pavements are the setting for a never ending cycle of removal and rebuilding; these places are where the estimated 500 people who arrive in Mumbai every day looking for work live.
Our train passes by a shanty encampment, locked between the railway and Mahim Creek. In a few seconds we get a snapshot of the settlement: densely packed greys of corrugated iron and crumpled blue tarpaulin; dark shadows fill the alleyways, just two people’s width between the huts; groups of people chatter – are they socialising, doing business, or both perhaps? Smells of mud and shit fill the train; a little girl crouches to urinate.
Beyond the old coastal tenements and slums glitters a new toll suspension bridge that joins Malabar Hill with Bandara suburb, the financial executives with the Bollywood stars. It stretches three kilometres across Mahim Bay, in another world.
Ancient and mystical
Less visible in the shadows of the skyscrapers in Malabar Hill is a snapshot of old Mumbai. Here communities carry out rituals in buildings that are thousands of years old. Pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters of Bangana Tank and Zoroastrians leave their dead in towers called dokhmas around the Hanging Gardens. These are off limits to others, but fleeting glimpses of a vulture in the Malabar Hill woods is a symbol of their presence.
The tank is alive with chanting bathers, young and old, and set against a backdrop of ancient stones that dance with splinters of light reflected from the water. Incense smoke adds to the mid-afternoon haze that partially obscures the skyscrapers towering above.
At the Basilica of Mount Mary in Bandara suburb, thousands of people of all faiths process to the Christian church to give offerings to a garish neon Mary. They believe the icon has the power to heal. Stalls selling curious white porcelain statues of babies, limbs, and internal organs turn the climb to the Basilica into a freakish surreal frieze, as the crowds bustle to find representations of their ailments.
Food lover’s paradise
The fortnightly Time Out Mumbai, bought on arrival and dedicated to the buzzing nightlife, cultural pursuits and superb culinary delights of the city, quickly replaces our Lonely Planet. It gives us a way in to the affluent Mumbaikar’s social scene and we, Londoners at heart, are not disappointed.
The guide directs us to fine restaurants during our stay that provide a culinary reflection of Mumbai’s mishmash population. Soam, opposite Bulbanath temple in Chowpatty, serves Guajarati and south Indian vegetarian dishes, and at Apoorva in Fort we are treated to the ‘world’s tastiest Konkan seafood’ and plates of prawn gassi served with appams.
We travel in an Ambassador across the city to Neel in Mahalaxmi Racecourse grounds and sample sublime tandoori baked meats in opulent surroundings. And at Britannia & Co we eat berry pulao, an Iranian biryani covered in piquant red berries from Tehran. As the name suggests and the décor confirms, the restaurant is in homage to imperialism. The walls are now bric-a-brac with curious kitsch relics of Old Blighty, including a portrait of Victoria and a life-size cardboard cut-out of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The eccentric owner, an 89 year old Parsi gent, insists on referring to the city as Bombay and his homeland as Persia and asks that we send him a postcard from Royal London on our return.
Labyrinths of curiosities and deprivation
Walking past CS railway terminus, the crowning achievement of the Raj era, is like stepping across a threshold. The sweeping city vistas and quiet, tree-lined streets are replaced with a chaos that chokes the senses.
The districts of Kalbadevi and Byculla in central Mumbai are the most intense and compelling of all. Bazaars spill out into the narrow streets fighting for space with beggars and filth. Many of the buildings here are medium height chawls built in Victorian times to house workers. They are now dilapidated and claustrophobic, with sagging wooden balconies and tarpaulin covered roofs. Their structures are slowly being consumed by the monsoons.
In Mutton Road, a Muslim district just north of Kalbadevi, the flea-market stalls sell strange antiques and oddities from India’s past. Befitting the street name, each shop has a large goat tethered to the door post, keeping watch over the goods and adding to the attack on the senses.
We wander through the streets, lost and disorientated. Around every corner is a new promise, an unexpected twist, or the possibility of a chance encounter. Despite the visible deprivation these areas enchant and intrigue. The smells, sounds, mayhem, fills you up until you are exhausted. Here, the strength of community and collective sprit keeps society standing.
The city is alive, flexing and toiling, revealing its prized jewellery and open, weeping wounds in equal measure. Three days in the metropolis and I’ve been smitten.
Time Out Mumbai was the most indispensable guide