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
Did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Welshman and the seven foot giant in a filing cabinet? No? Well read on.
It could have been the pièce de résisistance of some freakish social experiment. Put three old friends together in a car the size of an upturned washing machine for a week-long, 1000km shindig through a tropical island. Add in scorching heat, bumpy roads, few toilets, less toilet paper and even less common sense, and brace yourself.
The tone for the trip was set on the very first day. The Giant, of Portuguese descent, believed his fair skin to be immune to Colombo’s burning sunshine. Result: much ointment, blisters, incessant moaning, and a quite superb lobster tan.
Here follow the censored highlights from The Arrack Diary.
Day two. The journey up to Anuradhapura passed pleasantly enough. After stops to quench The Giant’s burns and heat rash with dodgy sunblock and lollipops we reached Yapahuwa rock temple. This is a slightly smaller yet infinitely less developed alternative to the famous rock climb at Sigiriya. Monkeys, rock geckos, and a party of German girls took cover as three white boys passed. (Dr Moz: to German girls everywhere – das ist gut, ja? Fantashtic!!)
***This video has been confiscated. WordPress Management***
The Giant, to avoid further sun exposure, had decided on a thick hoodie and a rucksack consisting of a mountain survival kit (water purification and torch included) and a 4-litre bottle of mineral water. I was concerned he may not make it. Point to research later – how much sweat is there in a 20 stone man?
Three thambili were consumed just south of the ancient city of Anuradhapura. There were no straws, so we gunned them native-style. The Giant’s pink T-shirt, and subsequently the backseats of The Beast, sport an interesting mix of ‘curious’ sunblock, aloe-vera infused moisturiser, and king coconut juice.
Chill out at the guest house, run by a pleasant old Buddhist man whose hairy ears obscure his hearing. The Giant insists on chain-smoking in the living room. Delicious Sri Lankan feast, followed by beers and cards.
Day three. The night before turned into some hellish game of toilet-tag, as both The Giant and I felt the full effects, I presume, of the straw-less thambilis. In a moment of madness we sucked on unpeeled fruit from a man in a palm frond-lined shack. A mighty crack brings me back to the present – The Giant has accidentally broken the toilet seat, mid squeeze. Quick goodbyes and a hasty departure.
The journey to Batticaloa passed pleasantly enough. Except for the fact I felt like I was dying. The Giant and Dr Moz decided to snooze in The Beast’s warmth and left me to drive, solo, the very long, straight and empty road to the east coast. I hallucinated that I saw elephants in the distance. Or perhaps they were just elephants in the distance.
Batticaloa is a beautiful and friendly little town, with the air of a final frontier about it. What gives it its charm? After much consideration (having lots of time to think in the car) I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s aware of its own identity. (Dr Moz: WTF???). We stayed with our good friend Michael, and many beers were consumed. This included a couple at a small fishermen’s bar under the stars.
Day four. Dr Moz felt the full effects of bottom inferno, hellfire and damnation during the night. Sadly, I was sharing a small double bed with him. Today we saw some of the sights of Batti, including a Hindu temple that had been broken in two by the force of the 2004 Tsunami.
In the afternoon we rocked up at a paradise beach and challenged half a dozen local boys to a game of beach cricket. Dr Moz, First XI captain, got bowled for a duck. Perhaps not fully on his game. I got stumped after peppering the boundaries. Point to research later – do the rules of beach cricket stretch to stumping, when there is no crease and a makeshift wicket? FFS.
Day five. I can report there were no toilet incidents during the night. The journey to Haputale in the Hill Country passed pleasantly enough. I am impressed at the range of detritus now littering the back seats of The Beast.
We reach the ridge-top town in evening cloud. On the 3 Km walk back from the guest house it starts to rain and visibility drops to a few metres but, luckily, we get picked up by a local tuk-tuk. We are treated to a hair-raising, fragile-gut wrenching journey into town as the tuk-tuk crawls blind past steep drops to plantation workers’ huts on our left below. The potholes at the side of the road mark the moment to ‘edge a little right perhaps, friend?’
Haputale’s Heathcliff bar is a drinking hole of sinister skulduggery. Leary, noisy and smoky, it suited us three reprobates perfectly. It was dark and they only had warm beers, but that was OK. Our dinner consisted of a dried, deep fried fish and pieces of rubber cheese on cocktail sticks.
Day six. Dr Moz and I were rudely awakened, twice, by The Giant’s alarm clock that may well have surpassed the decibels of a full scale nuclear attack. He went to watch the sunrise, apparently. The photos confirmed this, showing The Giant, fag in hand, sitting next to the guest house’s friendly dog, Mutley (The Beast’s alternate namesake).
The journey to Colombo passed pleasantly enough. Except for the hellish A4 from Ratnapura onwards that makes the M25 seem like a countryside jaunt. I took a short cut and got us lost. We were riding on petrol fumes and fighting our way through a market of local vegetables, as a tropical deluge hit the area. The Giant and Dr Moz were both remarkably quiet at this stage.
Our final fling was a night at Bellagio Casino. The Giant started chucking chips around on the Black Jack table like a naughty toddler in McDonalds. Perhaps it was unfair to unleash a recovering gambling addict on the fair people of Sri Lanka and Chinese prostitutes who made up the clientele. Alas. Any thoughts of my boys leaving the casino with some rupees were dashed at the Roulette table when they bet all their remaining chips on black…and lost.
Final thoughts: The Beast is a machine of balanced perfection. German girls rule. The Giant should have gone with lobster red.
We spent Christmas and New Year on the road. Our route criss-crossed the cultural triangle, an area north of the hill country where ancient kings once built sacred cities and irrigated the land with a network of elaborate tanks. We then went east to remote towns and national parks where white faces were still a thing of curiosity. Finally we travelled south, through the tea plantations of the eastern hill country, and to the idyllic beaches on the south coast. Over 1,700 kilometres in our little Maruti 800.
With the car we had bought our freedom and were able to explore remote cave temples and mountain shrines, and stop at towns and villages as we pleased. There is a certain charm about the small urban places one encounters when travelling between bigger commercial centres, in their crowded streets, dust, and tired concrete buildings. Often there is something unexpected about them which can give a place an identity not instantly apparent. Look closely and there may be an old colonial building immersed in the modern town, or beautiful trees that line main streets, lovingly kept and in contrast to the cracked tarmac they shade. There will likely be an elaborately sculpted Hindu kovil, a minaret that pierces the skyline clad in painted tiles, or lines of Buddhist prayer flags that leave a trail of fluttering shadows.
The towns, villages and roads provide a place for small business and innovative ventures, run by people who are always willing to tell their story. On the road from Kurunegela to Anuradhapura we stopped at a roadside café. The owner had set up a bakery behind for short eats and had expanded his business to include biscuits of unusual flavours and ingredients. He showed us the large stone oven that provided the only light in the dark rooms and we watched a worker make fish buns. His biscuits used only local ingredients, and included flavours such as garlic and rice, and water lily seeds.
Our going was slow to Anuradhapura, as all the surrounding roads were being resurfaced in preparation for the annual Independence Day celebrations held in February. The result was kilometres of rocks, vicious pot holes, mud, dust, and angry bus drivers.
Anuradhapura became capital of Sri Lanka in 380 BC and over the next several hundred years the great kings constructed magnificent monuments and irrigation systems. Today the sacred city is set in scorched forests just north of the new town. Majestic dagobas rise out of the trees, ancient monuments to ethereal times. Three are working shrines and places of pilgrimage today and are plastered brilliant white with a glittering golden spire on top. But the colossal Jetavanrama Dagoba is left in partial ruin, and foliage and monkeys cling to the gentle curves of the exposed brickwork that is the colour of baked clay.
Humans and animals share these places. The ancient buildings provide a sanctuary for magnificent monitor lizards, exotic birds, monkeys, turtles, giant squirrels, flying foxes and semi-wild buffalo. The monuments themselves were often dedicated to mythical beasts. The weathered remains of five-headed cobras and the multi-species makara adorned bathing pools and palaces.
Surrounding the site are three reservoirs, known as tanks in Sinhalese. They date from the 4th century BC and provide water for agriculture during the long, arid dry season. The largest, Nuwara Wesa, covers 1,200 hectares and is still used today as a place for bathing, washing and leisure. Nearby are the remains of a monastery where, so the tale goes, monks dressed in scraps of clothing taken from corpses lived on a diet of rice.
The new town was typically chaotic, noisy and full of the clamour of urban Sri Lanka. It was designed under the tutelage of eminent town planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie, and incorporated the most roundabouts in any Sri Lankan town as part of a baffling road system. Driving through modern Anuradhapura is an exercise in concentration and patience. Cows, potholes, bicycles, buses and crowds of people fill the dusty streets. And a network of roundabouts in a country that has no discernible right of way makes navigation all the more tricky.
We stayed in a small guest house run by an old school friend of my Director. He served great feasts of stringhoppers, milk rice, fish, dhal and potato curries, and poppadums. A generous man, and in keeping with the legendary Sri Lankan hospitality, he plied us with arrack. Together we polished off two bottles on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Small B roads took us east through rural villages surrounded by jungle, paddy fields, and ancient tanks. To the south, the peaks of the Knuckles mountain range shimmered in the intense heat. Treacherous road surfaces made the going slow but this suited our frame of mind. Agriculture and employment in the public sector seemed to be the main industries, and we passed intriguing government departments such as the Coconut Research Institute and the Wild Elephant Control Unit.
Apart from the hill country, Sri Lanka’s topography is generally flat except for numerous rocky outcrops that sit like giant domes on the landscape, carpeted with trees. Dimbulagala’s peak, known as Gunner’s Quoin, rises over 500 metres from the eastern plains. At its top is a magnificent Buddhist shrine, presiding over the land like a giant white sentry.
The climb was a humid scramble up rocks and through dense jungle patrolled by troops of monkeys, eager to steal delicious treats, such as the freshly cooked corn on the cobs sold along the route by locals. We were met with breath taking views from the rocky summit. From the shrine, the resident monk pointed out, we could see the eastern forests which used to be the stronghold of the LTTE. The peak formed a border of sorts, as well as the administrative boundary of the north central and eastern provinces. Looking at the dense foliage that stretched to the horizon in all directions it became clear why Sri Lanka had only recently emerged from a bloody civil conflict lasting 25 years, the longest in recent Asian history. Guerrilla warfare in this terrain would test even the most powerful armies.
What can be done with just one day in Colombo? Well, an incredible amount as it happens. My brother and his friend came via the city from nearby Bangalore en route to London. And we showed them a good time.
After an early start and a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast we squeezed into a tuk-tuk we’d hired for a few hours. The driver Dudley, now a good friend of ours and our go to man for a local journey, took us out into the countryside to the stunning Kelaniya temple, and then a tour of some of the sights of Colombo.
My brother’s visit was an opportunity for us to sample the best of Colombo’s nightlife. First it was the Blue Bar, part of an excellent pizzeria housed in an old colonial villa in the city’s embassy district. A short tuk-tuk journey along a quiet boulevard lined by giant cinnamon trees took us to Lemon. Its position five stories up gave wonderful views of Colombo. From the rooftop terrace we drank cocktails and watched the twinkling lights of Sri Lanka’s capital.
Dinner was at the Gallery Café, widely recognised as Colombo’s best restaurant. The building and ambience are breath-taking: you enter through a small courtyard with candlelit pools on two sides leaving a bridge to the main restaurant. The building was once the office of internationally renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, famous for mixing modernism with Sri Lanka’s vernacular, and designing buildings that work with the tropical climate. As such there’s a subtle interplay between indoors and outdoors in his work; minimal concrete, exposed brickwork, and hardwoods are organised to create natural cool and shade alike. It was all very zen.
The food was superb, a fusion of Sri Lankan and European to give dishes such as fillet of modha fish, coconut crusted on a bed of mashed potato, vegetables and drizzled with an orange and saffron sauce. And we had white wine, for the first time in three months. Splendid.
Colombo’s nightlife could well be the thing of legend. There are lots of bars and clubs that are extremely trendy, extremely glitzy, extremely expensive, and frequented by expats and wealthy locals. A strict dress code exists at them all – no shorts or sandals allowed.
We had time to kill. The clubs in Colombo don’t get going until midnight and it’s not the done thing to get to one before then. So we had a quiet beer in the courtyard of the colonial Galle Face Hotel; grand, old, and on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
Then, finally, it was a club known locally as the Museum. At one in the morning the place began to get busy and by two it was packed. Glitz, glam and bling were everywhere. All manner of liquor flowed. At four (or was it five?) we got a tuk-tuk back.
24 little hours: 21 of wonderful Colombo, 3 of sleep.
We’re in Mirissa on the south coast, a picture-perfect paradise. I write this sitting in a Sri Lanka cricket T-Shirt in the shade of a palm tree, with only a pure white beach and mile upon mile of Indian Ocean separating me from Antarctica.
We’ve been in Sri Lanka ten weeks now. It’s surprising how quickly time passes, and how quickly memories of London life are slipping into the golden-hued realms of nostalgia. Increasingly we’ve been able to travel and see more of this country. We’re putting together a picture of this place, of the communities and vistas that make it. I’ve been lucky to travel widely with my new director to visit clusters of village groups supported by South Asia Partnership. Faced by such engaged and proactive people, I do wonder what I can ever hope to achieve.
We’re in Mirissa following a meeting with two community groups in nearby Matara. They will be part of the project I’m working on. This was the first meeting of its kind and heralded, in some ways, a real beginning to this work. It is the start of a long process to build relationships with groups around the island and to work with them so that, collectively, local people have a stronger voice.
The journey down yesterday followed the coast south, through local markets selling the day’s catch and skirting palm trees roped at their tops for the practice of toddy tapping. Along the way remains of ruined huts destroyed in the Boxing Day tsunami were barely visible now through foliage, and in each town, headstones peeped out of the long grass just above the beach. Amid the bustling seaside scenes where visitors and locals enjoyed the water and cool breeze, they were a fleeting but stark physical reminder of the hardship people have faced, a topic not openly discussed here.