January 2015 – Colours (in-flight magazine for Garuda Indonesia)
I first fell in love with Mumbai mere moments after arriving here. Stepping off the sleeper train that had brought me from Rajasthan in the north to Mumbai Central, one of the city’s major railheads, I hopped a black and yellow taxi headed toward the historic center, called Fort, where I was to meet a friend who’d moved to India a few months earlier. The taxi cut east past a blur of terra cotta-roofed houses and new concrete highrises toward an elevated highway that wound south over what I would soon come to know as Mohammed Ali Road, the deafening thoroughfare at the heart of the city’s old Muslim quarter.
The highway (known, charmingly, as the JJ Flyover) carried us alongside the open windows of turn-of-the-century apartment buildings, seemingly close enough to touch, and a flurry of green and white minarets. It took us past the crumbling clocktower of Crawford Market, South Bombay’s biggest vegetable market, and down into the British city’s extravagant procession of Victoriana. Banyans draped themselves languidly over gothic archways and green branches burst irrepressibly from between elaborately carved pediments. There were people and cars everywhere; the light was gentle and warm, as though shining through a yellow scrim. Three years later, the noise and the cars may seem less romantic than they did then, but this city—with its spectacular diversity of religions, languages, cultures and classes—does not.
Originally a cluster of seven islands populated by local fisherman known as kolis, Bombay is, as much as any city I’ve seen, a true patchwork, pieced together by landfill, expansion, migration and commerce. From Laid-back, Catholic Bandra in the northwest with its bars and restaurants and outward-looking cultural milieu, to old money Colaba at the southeastern tip of the peninsula, each of central Bombay’s neighborhoods has its own distinctive way of life. (Bandra, the first of the so-called suburbs, is really more like the city’s halfway mark, with incredibly dense, though largely characterless, urban sprawl extending far to the north.)
And while rampant development—particularly in the old mill districts that first drove the city’s growth in the 19th century—has tragically erased parts of the city’s past, South Bombay, and particularly the old neighborhoods around Fort and Colaba, present an engagingly unpolished picture of a city still in love with its past yet unable to resist its centuries-old tradition of pursuing the future, wherever it might lead. Walking these neighborhoods is also a walk through several hundred years of India’s urban history.
The city of Bombay as we know it today did not exist until the mid-16th century when the Portuguese established a fortified city in the area now called Fort. The land went to the British less than a century later as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry in her marriage to King Charles II, who promptly leased the territory to the British East India Company for just £10 per year. Over the next four centuries of British rule, Bombay developed into one of India’s most important centers for trade and manufacturing, and, more than any place on the Subcontinent, into a locus for immigrants.
Though most (if not all) pre-19th-century buildings have long since disappeared from the old Fort, the area running south along DN Road from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (once called Victoria Terminus and still the world’s busiest railway station), with its flamboyant archways and gargoyles and carvings, south toward Kala Ghoda, now a major hub for galleries and boutiques, is still marvelously evocative of the city’s colonial heyday. On weekdays, the 19th-century Arcades along DN Road still throng with hawkers, businessmen, college students and liveried lawyers from the nearby High Court, one of the city’s most impressive buildings. By night, much of Fort empties out and its abandoned lanes glow sepia under the streetlamps.
Off its main thoroughfare, Fort’s many humble ‘Hotels’ and ‘Lunch Homes’—simple restaurants catering primarily to local businesspeople—still represent the clutter of immigrants that has defined the city’s culture over the centuries. Britannia & Co. in Ballard Estate is an institution for food from the Parsi community, descendents of Persian Zoroastrians who have had a disproportionate impact on the city’s culture given their small numbers. Hotel Deluxe and Taste of Kerala are beloved for their coconut-laden cooking from the southwestern state of Kerala. Four classic seafood restaurants in Fort and Kala Ghoda—Mahesh, Apoorna, Trishna and Ankur—claim the sometimes-irrational loyalties of their respective clienteles (I, personally, am a committed devotee of Ankur’s Mangalorean cooking), and among them offer just a small sampling of the different cuisines from the coastal regions south of the city.
South of Fort and Kala Ghoda, a pair of Mumbai’s original seven islands was joined in the 19th century to create the long, narrow neighborhood known as Colaba. From the mid-19th century onward, Colaba’s port, facing the harbor, served as the de facto entry point for anyone arriving in Bombay from far afield. Even today, most foreign visitors to the city eventually end up here. The city’s two most recognizable structures—the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Gateway of India—look out over the harbor from the edge of a seaside promenade, behind which a tidy grid of streets lined with elegant turn-of-the-century apartment buildings houses several of the city’s best boutiques and restaurants. Stores like Design Temple, Bombay Electric, Bungalow 8 and the new showroom for local designer Payal Khandwala showcase the best of Mumbai design, combining indigenous craft with a global aesthetic (in Kala Ghoda, shops like Obataimu, Filter and The Bombay Shirt Company do something similar on a more intimate scale).
By evening, a nice stroll from Colaba past the Oval Maidan, where cricketers in their whites play in the shadows of leaning palms and the Victorian Gothic university clock tower, will take you to Marine Drive, the city’s iconic bayside promenade. Until the late 1930s, with the third and final Back Bay Reclamation scheme (the previous two were both unmitigated disasters), Oval Maidan faced the sea. By the early 1940s, Marine Drive’s long span of Art Deco apartment buildings, the largest in the world outside Miami, had taken pride of place along the waterfront. Mumbai has always behaved this way, happily allowing one iteration of modernity and glamour to overtake the last, yet simultaneously allowing the past to keep living, in certain hidden corners, as though it were the present.