Once every year, I and my husband are India bound. Only this year, in addition to our self-prescribed vacation in Kolkata- our hometown, we squeezed in two days of Mumbai, to make the aquaintance of the prima donna of India’s west.
Even if you’re new to Mumbai, just like me, chances are Mumbai isn’t new to you. You may still have a fair idea of what to expect and experience, thanks to the innumerable books ( Elephanta Suites by Paul Theroux, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra ; Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil) and movies ( Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionnaire, Metro, Bombay and plenty others) that have expressed the ethos of the city through narratives and plots based in the dusty folds of this audacious, over populated, rambunctious metropolis.
If Mumbai were to impress you, the first time visitor, she’d spew her impressive credentials upfront, like being the financial and commercial capital of the country, the mecca of Hindi film industry, the melting pot of communities, cultures and so on. But she doesn’t because she’s isn’t pretentious. She is industrious, sharp witted, resilient and hopeful, qualities I saw mirrored in the people I met on my short visit. The driver of our car that we hired (for 8 hours worth Rs.1500 or S$30 from Savaari Car Rentals) for the day, was an immigrant from Bihar, rather a country bumpkin who arrived in the 80s with nothing on his back, worked his way up, learnt English, married a local and now drives tourists around and guides them through the very city he was once foreign to. Mumbai is rife with stories like this.
After a lazy walk and sketch along Marine Drive – a picturesque promanade, our first stop was Leopold Cafe and Bar for breakfast. One of the most popular haunts in the city (especially with the backpackers), has been around since 1871. I don’t know how much the interior has changed since the old days, but even today, this ensemble – of dark wood furnitures, chequered table cloth, dated wall paintings and old fashioned ceiling fans seem right out of musty sepia toned photographs. What is new however are the bullet holes, from the heinous 2008 terrorist attacks.
We order omelettes with toasts, a plate of über-delicious melt-in your-mouth keema and bread to be washed down with orange, lime and watermelon juice as illustrated in my sketch. I request the geriatric guy manning the cash counter to put the cafe’s seal on my sketches to officially validate my visit. He approaches this gargantuan task with dopey eyes and few vapid sigh. Perhaps, I should’ve asked for a tissue instead. His social ineptitude is quickly compensated by the cafe manager, flips through my sketchbook and hands me two postcards in return.
“You didn’t sketch the bullet holes? he said. I was surprised he asked. It didn’t feel right to record the horrific reminder of an incident that shook the country and carry that with me as a trip souvenir. If that was so, I could’ve bought those kitschy Leopold branded coffee mugs with an image of bullet shots. Yes, the cafe hasn’t shied away from cashing in on the sentimentality. Nevertheless it’s a survivor- Leopold opened for business, three days after the incident – and survivors don’t need to hide their scars.
We turn the corner, walk a few hundred meters and meet the shimmering Arabian sea, the towering Gateway of India at it’s bank and the proud, historic, magnificent Taj Hotel. I have watched this scenery and read about it so many times in my life that my first impression wasn’t of wide-eyed wonder, but that of disorientation – I was recalculating the perspective, size, distance anomalies my mind’s eye had made while visualizing this scene. ‘I imagined The Taj to be aligned with the Gateway” ; ‘The space in front of the Gateway isn’t as expansive as I had thought’ was what I was muttering.
The gate way is barricaded by a voracious slew of photographers (mostly natives of Bihar) dangling chunky DSLRs from their shoulders and thrusting sample photos of people posing with these iconic monuments, into you face. Being Indians, we aren’t accosted by them as much as the foreign tourists. But still a ‘ Sir/Madam, please take a pikkchur..berry nice foto I taking..you like..see this one..or that one..only 20 rupees’ sneaks in now and then. My husband waves his DSLR and asks, if he could take ‘their’ picture instead. All at once they are shy and recede a few steps.
It’s only 10 in the morning and the heat is punishing. I stand in the shade of the towering Gateway and sketch the Taj hotel. The details of the facade are mindboggling, so I try to simplify while little streams of sweat trickle down my lower back. Right on my left, locals and tourists are making a beeline for the ferry leaving for Elephanta caves, ‘only a 50 minutes boat ride away’ – reported our driver later in a tone that hinted our misjudgement in skipping the site. We squint our eyes at the shimmering jetty and at the fatigued tourists fidgeting in the sun, waiting in a queue that is snaking around one arm of the gateway and walk away.
I try to squeeze in a quick sketch of the Gateway before we step inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel to cool down. The interiors are as regal as I had imagined with sparkly chandeliers, nifty flower arrangements and luxurious upholstery. Waiters flitted around obsequiously ushering, chaperoning, and in some cases placating indignant guests. One side of the lobby was lined with premium stores, mostly vacant and the other side was fitted with glass cases flaunting Taj’s flamboyant past. Photographs of notable guests from Jac Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Duke of Edinburgh to Beatles adorn the walls. A smart uniformed staff in a saree and well coiffed hair was manning the ladies room and proffered a rehearsed smile when we entered. Each time a guest left the stall, she promptly flushed the toilet ‘again’ and wiped clean the wash basin. When we left, she smiled again.
Very slowly, we drive past the Bombay High Court, admiring the impressive neo-Gothic building from 1848 and made a short stop in front of the Victoria Terminus Railway Station ( officially called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST ) because I couldn’t, rather wouldn’t leave Mumbai without pinning this massive, 1888 built, palatial world heritage site down on paper. Perhaps, more than the Taj or Gateway, it was VT’s cocktail architecture – Victorian, Italian, Gothic, Mughal – and sheer size that made it an absolutely delightful ( albeit challenging!) subject to gawk at and sketch. Once again pressed for time, I simplified – my pen obliterating the numerous arches, windows, turrets, grotesques friezes, bas reliefs and other embellishments so painfully put together by the architect – to capture the essence of the place in simple urgent strokes.
Tearing away from VT, we insisted on visiting Dhobi Ghat – which in our driver’s opinion was suited ‘for foreigners’. Not entirely, though. Our senses might be numbed to sights of men and women washing laundry in the open, along ponds and streams, but this was something else. This was large-scale, to the stature of ‘Central Laundry Station of India – the headquater of all laundry units across the country’, if something like that existed.
Amid a grungy shantytown bordered by railway tracks, all we could see far and wide were clothesline hanging spotlessly white sheets that were fluttering in the breeze. Down below, it was all business – network of concrete troughs fitted with floggng stones, were filled with water, where the clothes would be soaked, scrubbed, washed, starched and dried by taut swarthy men and their families. This 1890s establishment now has a website http://www.dhobikalyan.org, where you can register for a tour.
One of the most famous public beaches in Mumbai – Girgaum chowpatty, looked practically abandoned and therefore unrecognisable in the swelter of the afternoon whereas during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, hundreds of people gathered here to immerse the idol, jostle for an inch of space. The white toasty sand reflected the sun right into our eyes, sending us scampering for shade. Post a ‘gola’ (ice shavings) in kala-khatta flavour from one of the venders, we settled for a drive around adjoining Malabar Hill – the dwelling grounds of the rich and famous. Our driver insisted we stop at Hanging Gardens, built on top of a water reservoir and admire it’s greenery and the sweeping view of Chowpatty and Marine Drive from it’s vantage point.
The cynosure of all eyes however, was this giant shoe house, which was infested with giggly school kids, who just couldn’t wait their turn to climb it.
Having about two hours to spare, we headed towards Dharavi– one of the largest slums of the world- that popularly wears the ‘genuine leather goods at great bargains’ tag. There are thousands of leather factories in the district that churns out handbags, jackets, wallets, belts and what not. And in the absence of middlemen, the shopowners offer wholesale prices, which is quite low, while making decent profit at the same time. The catch however (isn’t there always!) is – if you have refined tastes, it will be hard to find something you like from the scores of knock-off designs that the shopowners proudly exhibit and the parsimonious yet fashion conscious college crowd readily laps up. Just keep looking till you find ‘the one’ and haggle when you find it.
People, to be specific cousins and close relatives are curious, if the sanitised and systematic Singapore lifestyle muddles our visit to India; if we find it disconcerting to brace the heat, noise, dust, crowd, traffic, chaos; if we tire of the hackneyed idiosyncracies and the constant impedimets to get through each day.
‘Nothing has changed here’, they’d say plaintively.
To this, I’d say, ‘What, another shopping mall on VIP Road?’, gaping at the newbie. Mango and Marks and Spencer have stores in Kolkata? When I asked my sister in law, what does she substitute Mascarpone with when making Tiramisu, she said, “Why, I get all ‘foreign’ ingredients from Spencer’s ( food retailer) these days”. Sifting through The Telegraph’s glossy lifestyle section, one evening , I found hand purses of premium global brands advertised along with local ones. A walk through Park Street, led me to an Apple store sharing a wall with a RayBan, Prada, Gucci, Chanel sunglasses retailer sharing a wall with Pizza Hut; cafes of international design and standard and bakeries with fancy French names like Au Bon Pain, riddled with white tourists clad in hot pink salwar kameezes and Indian women in short skirts and body hugging blouses.
Gone are the, reserved, reticent and nervous school kids, specially girls burdened with moralities, chaperoned by their parents to and from schools or tuitions, lest they befriend the opposite sex and malign their family’s reputation. Such species have been replaced with fluent English speaking teenagers, confidently strutting along their male compatriots, texting on phones, cracking jokes, giggling – basically being young. They looked confident, equal and in control. They also look well groomed. The Indian comfort attire – the traditional Salwar Kameez – that was the default garb for majority of women, has undergone a ‘workplace appropriate’ transformation, making it smart and chic.
The ubiquitus salwar-kameez has also been replaced with western attire, most common being denims. Dresses that remained the domain of the Anglo-Indians or the liberal bengali women are being picked up by more eager consumers that work in global companies offering a multicultural work environment. How can one not see this transformation?
Fashion is changing, so is the attitude. From where I see, looking good matters in this Indian city as much as it matters in any other city of the world. Top-end beauty salons like Jawed Habibs, which wwere populated by the well heeled, have cropped up like weed in my neighbourhood, with a one hour collagen facial setting you back by over Rs.3000 (or S$60). As the prices of commodities and services have increased, so has the disposable income and people have become conscious on what to spend their money on, which is not just on the basics anymore.
Annoyed with the traffic I was, but the city is on it’s way to build yet another flyover that promises to clear many terminal road blockages in future. Proposed metro lines, half dug shopping malls, gigantic residential complexes with cranes, exposed iron rods and metal sheets and men breaking their brown sun burned backs, make grey appearances all over the city, making it look like a perpetual work-in-progress. Nearly seven hotels are due to be operational in the city in the coming years, 3 new ones including JW Marriot, just on EM Byepass, which already has ITC Sonar Bangla and Hyatt. A year after the liquidity crunch in 2008, the works on the projects have picked up after the economy and the stock market has rebounded.
There was a time not too long ago when internet connection at home was a far fetched thought. There was this one cyber cafe in the vicinity where I had to queue up during weekends to get access my mails. My hapless parents have been struggling with the prehistoric dial-up connection for as long as I can remember. Two whole minutes of uninterrupted Skype call was divine. Then came broadband, offered by BSNL, which was an upgrade but not a smooth ride either.
On our way from the airport this year, I saw the city flooded with hoardings, posters, marquees advertising a Wi-Fi internet dongle with built in hotspot that can be fixed into any plug point and is capable of serving five Wi-Fi devices at a time. “Go Live, Go unlimited” says the tag line. What more – minimum paperwork, online bill payment and house visitation for servicing, if anything goes awry! A media report from last year states Kolkata has 4.4 million internet user now with 47% y-o-y growth which is the highest growth of internet users among top cities in India. If this isn’t change, what is?
While the city’s trials and tribulations which are in multitude, render an unchanged image to it’s residents, once-a-year visitors like us, who bring in fresh pairs of eyes, see movement. My send-off was from the swanking new state of the art airport terminal ( a magnificent glass and steel structure sprawled over 1,89,815 square meters that cost Rs. 2,325 crores) – a testament to the fact that things are changing. But sometimes the change isn’t so apparent because this city is like a goliath centipede with thousands of years of baggage, making slow but sure progress.