Four nights in shimmering Mumbai

Mumbai is India’s most alluring, most intoxicating city, where upwards of twenty million people are crowded onto an island at a rate of 21,000 people per sq/km (or 53,000 per sq/mile). It’s the place where the country’s richest live, and also some of its most destitute. And whether Bollywood superstar, industrial mega barron, of the emerging middle classes and comfortably enjoying the city’s preeminent role as financial hub, or hustling merely to survive (and perhaps not), it feels like the city and its residents have a relentless energy and industrious nature that is unavoidable.

You do not come here if you’re looking for a quiet or easy life; this is not a current you can swim against. You either jump in and get stroking, or Mumbai will swallow you whole. Despite this, like all global cities, people keep on coming, drawn in my the lure of possibility; many spat out in the churn…

But Mumbai has been attracting people from all over India, and beyond, for a long, long time. During the days of Empire, it was transformed into the centre of British East India on the west coast, and became a major international trading port.

As a result, Mumbai looks diverse, its people a representation of India’s true ethnic diversity (and the rather whimsical but still fascinating clay figure displays of Mumbai’s residents at the City of Mumbai museum show just how much of a people magnet the city has been over time).

Also during the days of Empire, Mumbai was transformed physically. I knew that Mumbai was originally seven islands and that, through a process of land reclamation, they had been merged into one. But, again through the City of Mumbai museum, I learnt just how distinct those islands had originally been, containing multiple European settlements, and just how much reclamation had to take place from the late-18th century to create the form familiar to us today (although this wasn’t finally achieved until early last century, when further reclamation created the very distinctive Victorian vs. Deco era shorelines that are part of its appeal).

Mumbai is the only place I’ve visited in India, apart from maybe Bangalore, maybe Kolkata, where I’ve felt I could realistically – as opposed to romantically/fancifully – live. I thought this the first time I visited, in 2013, and I thought this again when we recently visited for four nights.

There is a growing sense of international cosmopolitanism here, and it is changing rapidly, yet it is still very definitely India at its best (and worst). It is both the country’s future, yet its past remains ever present. In short, as I said at the outset, there is something undeniably alluring about Mumbai’s unique mix of people, architecture, history and culture.

Here’s what we got up to during our four-day stay…

Historic walking tour

We started our first day with a half-day, self-directed walking tour around the areas of Fort/Churchgate/Colaba, Mumbai’s colonial heart. We started at the waterfront, famous India Gate and Taj Hotel, and then wound our way through streets with eyes wide open and heads up, as there is a lot to see.

Essentially there are three major themes: some of the most gorgeous colonial architecture of anywhere we’ve visited, concentrated into a small area on what was the original shoreline; a likewise concentration of Deco-era architecture, most of which are in its rows of apartment buildings that were constructed after the 1920s reclamation; and the visible manifestations of present day Mumbai’s new cosmopolitanism, as galleries, cafes and eateries, bars and boutiques fill the old and renovated buildings around its grand old financial institutions.

This is the city’s hip, young face, and it was interesting to see it rubbing right up against the older, more stereotypical scenes of streetwalas, street food vendors, and literal hole-in-the-wall shops. I suspect this collision won’t be permanent, with the old eventually giving way for the new (or being pushed out in the inevitable process of gentrification that is clearly taking place; I don’t know that India is that unique to achieve a different outcome to everywhere else this has taken/is taking place).

Markets and bazaars

Mumbai has a particularly vibrant market and bazaar district, a few hundred metres north of the grand Victoria CSMT terminus. The district houses the famous Crawford Market, built in 1869, which is home to a dizzying array of goods, from fresh grocery items, meat, and even a giant pet store. It’s fairly labyrinthine, especially inside, where the imported goods, spices, cosmetics and other household goods stalls are all lined up, gleaming and glistening, and vying for your attention (and rupees).

I, of course, was particularly drawn to the spices, nuts and dried fruits, and the ludicrous displays of imported chocolates, in seemingly every flavour, colour and from every continent!

The crazed hub of commerce only continued across the road, as we disappeared into the truly labyrinthine tangle of bazaars, the place to come for fine silks and materials, among every other possible need or want (or so it felt like).

There is something quite otherworldly about the Indian bazaar; there’s no retail experience you’ve grown up with (if presumably from the West) that comes anywhere close to quite the same look and feel. The further in you go, the more and more the lanes tighten and the building loom overhead, like menacing waves threatening to topple in and take you down. It is quite exhilarating, especially if busy, which it was just coming into as we made our early evening escape.

Marine Drive

One of Mumbai’s jewels, the result of the 1920s reclamation, Marine Drive is super popular with locals, who promenade, exercise, socialise, and take selfies in droves every night along its expansive arc, which leads all the way to Chowpatty Beach. Adding to the atmosphere of watching the sun set over its horizon, it’s lined with gorgeously faded chic, Deco-era apartment buildings.

The whole experience is a calming balm for frazzled big city souls. We were there wandering two nights in a row at about the same time, and, astoundingly, recognised some familiar faces (older retired couples with distinctive dogs, some runners, a particularly flamboyantly dressed local gent, and a middle-aged, executive-looking type, out for his evening walk, who said ‘good evening’ to us both nights). How lovely it would be, I thought, to become one of the Marine Drive ‘locals’!

Girgaon and surrounds

At the far end of Marine Drive is Chowpatty Beach, which is where the district of Girgaon is located. Originally sparsely populated, with people living by agricultural means, it developed rapidly in the 19th century, as it became integrated into Bombay itself (connected via roads and, eventually, rail), and witnessed a huge influx of people.

The result was a hugely diverse population, with each community (from different states/kingdoms, followers of different religions) occupying a different ‘wadi’ and maintaining their own cultural practices.

One of the most famous ‘wadi’ (for tourists, anyway) is Khotachiwadi, a small enclave famed for its Portuguese-style wooden architecture and a little pocket of remaining Catholic Mumbai. We managed to find it, with Lonely Planet’s instructions bang on, thankfully: find St. Theresa’s Church, head down the road immediately opposite, and take the third lane to the left; a most Indian set of location instructions, as places here are usually identified by what landmark they are close to.

It’s pretty small, but we enjoyed wandering about its lanes and the whole area. What was particularly noticeable is how these wadi are now set right up against the encroaching march of skyscrapers (these are particularly desirable locales). Again, Mumbai’s past and future are clashing in the present; a desire to maintain face-to-face with the need to future-proof. It’s an interesting battle we’ve seen play out in many places we’ve visited.

For a bit of contrast to the tightly packed throng of humanity, we wandered up to and around the Malabar Hill district, one of the city’s most prestigious neighbourhoods. Time prevented us from getting right up in this area’s grill, but the contrast was pretty apparent.

Sitting in the borderlands between Girgaon and Malabar Hill sits the world’s most expensive private residential ‘house’, Antilla, which is actually a 27-level building, and a garish temple to obscene wealth in a city where the contrast could not be more extreme. I actually thought the building, ugly in what it symbolises, was pretty ugly in appearance too; the nicest thing I could say was the green foliage that clings to its lower levels is rather pretty. I hope the 600+ staff that help to maintain it are paid well, at least.

Up in Malabar, we took in some gloriously sweeping views of the city stretching back south, and walked passed the eerie Parsi/Zoroastrian compound. Non-Zoroastrians are never allowed to enter these buildings and I’m quite amazed we were able to freely walk passed, although it was deathly deserted. In saying that, we were certainly unable to get anywhere near the mysterious Tower of Silence, where followers are laid out to be eaten by vultures, as part of their death rituals. That it is so inaccessible to outsiders, of course, only makes it all the more intriguing, to me anyway.

The city’s biggest washing machine

North of the main tourist areas sits Dobi Ghat, which is known as the city’s largest human-powered washing machine; how poetic. It’s quite a sight, though: rows and rows and rows of clothes and linens, billowing in the breeze; industrial-sized quantities of washing being aired and sun-dried (I assume it is hotels and so on sending loads of laundry here, as opposed to locals dropping off a bag of smalls).

Beneath the lines is where the washing takes place, in giant vats and tumbling machines being manned by people who must be among the cleanest in the world, swimming in suds all day.

It’s easily accessed on a trip to the City of Mumbai museum (catch the train to essentially outside the museum’s entrance, or Uber there, as we did), walk across to the Ghat (a 10-15 min stroll; you view it from a rail overbridge), walk back and jump on the train back to CSMT (outside of peak times, the train is actually not that packed, there’s no clinging to the sides necessary here!). Easy.

Galleries and museums

Speaking of museums, there’s an avalanche of cultural institutions here! The unfathomably large, grand main museum – it’s known by a couple of names – is no doubt worth your time. We decided against it, as we’ve been to many a museum here now, and this seemed to be more collections and galleries of what which we have already repeatedly experienced.

Instead, we prioritised the City of Mumbai Museum, and I’m so glad we did. It’s housed in a glorious Victorian era building, built after the 1851 World Exhibition to be Bombay’s museum, and was modelled after London’s mesmerising V&A Museum.

The curation is pretty interesting: a lot of its narrative is told visually (lots of dioramas), and at first I thought I wasn’t getting a lot out of it. But I realised that I had absorbed a lot about the city’s history this way – its peoples, its industries, its almost unbelievable geographical change – without the usual panels of facts and figures and photos, and so on.

Even better, there was a fantastic art exhibition woven through the museum, in which contemporary artists were asked to produce work that considered textiles, and their complicated history with notions of art, trade, culture, and colonisation. There was a lot of thought-provoking and beautiful work.

And on art, we spent hours soaking up some of India’s finest contemporary art and artists. The DAG Modern, an offshoot of the institution started in Delhi in 1993 and sitting right in the middle of Mumbai’s new cosmopolitanism, and the older Jehangir Art Gallery, were both showing incredible retrospectives; the former national in scale, the latter focused solely on local art and artists. And if that’s not enough, the National Gallery of Modern Art is within the neighbourhood too. Unfortunately, it was all but closed, with only one not particularly interesting looking exhibition showing, so we have it a miss.

Dharavi – the ‘slum’ tour

Finally, apart from all the other just wandering about, soaking up the visual, aural feast, and eating food glorious food, meal after meal, the other activity we did while in town, was to take in a tour of Dharavi, the so-called slum, but I’ve got a separate post about that, coming shortly.

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