How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Bombay
Published: May 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
20 Reasons to Fall for India's Sexiest, Spiciest City
It was in the mazelike bazaars of Kalbadevi that I encountered the American. Veiled by smoke from street-stall frying pans, trailed by an enormous cow, he swam toward me through the crowd: drenched in sweat, wide-eyed, and lost. Bombay will do that to you.
"Maybe you can help me," he said, catching his breath. "I'm trying to get back to the tourist area?" A strange request, considering that this marketplace is a tourist area, inasmuch as Bombay has one. But he had something less frenetic in mind—perhaps with air-conditioning. I pointed the way out, and off he retreated to his hotel. Another shell-shocked initiate on his first tour of duty.
The crowds and chaos of Bombay can bewilder even the savviest of travelers (by 2015, this is projected to be the world's most populous city), but settle into its rhythms and you'll soon be won over. Bombay is India at its most contradictory: aggressively modern, yet in parts verging on medieval; glamorous, yet rough-edged; dazzlingly cosmopolitan, yet quintessentially Indian. I've traveled from Goa to the Himalayas, and I've never felt the same romantic charge that I get from Bombay. I try to return as often as I do to Paris or London, and with each visit, it seems more like both: a well that grows deeper as you draw from it.
Incidentally, the next time I saw the American—a week later, strolling along the waterfront—he had the beatific look of a convert. When I caught his eye, he flashed a grin that said, Now I get it.
"Bombay is not about 'sights' in the traditional sense," says my friend Rashida Anees, a tour director and lifelong resident.
"It's about experiences." Here, 20 things that make this one of the world's most seductive cities.
(1) Those wild, evocative names Malabar Hill. The Hanging Gardens. The Queen's Necklace. Elephanta Island. Juhu Beach. Language practically springs from the ground in Bombay. Five major tongues (English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Urdu) and countless dialects intermingle with crazy results, so that certain place-names no longer mean anything, they just sound good. (Breach Candy?)
The British, who built an empire on lousy pronunciation, outdid themselves in Bombay. Some say that the seaside promenade outside the Taj Mahal hotel was named for a type of fish (palau) and the local word for "quay" (bunda), which the colonials turned into Apollo Bunder. Like so many imperial ventures, it implies a colossal mistake: a blunder of the gods.
Bombay itself has disputable origins. Is it a variation on the goddess Mumba?Or an anglicization of the Portuguese buan bahia ("good bay")?Whatever the answer, Hindu fundamentalists cast off the colonial moniker in 1996 and renamed the city Mumbai. This struck some as a spectacularly bad marketing move ("as if McDonald's had renamed itself Kroc's in honor of its inventor," wrote the author Shashi Tharoor). In any case, most English-speaking Indians still use Bombay.
(2) The view across the Oval Maidan Squint and you could be in Westminster. No, scratch that: Venice Beach. Maybe Kathmandu?The Fort district—erstwhile bastion of the raj, and now the main business area—is a palimpsest of India's myriad histories, a dizzying mix of visual and architectural references. They neatly converge around the Oval Maidan, the sweeping sun-drenched green where there's always a cricket match in progress. On one side lies the Eros Cinema, a 1938 landmark with Art Deco motifs and carvings of half-naked nymphs. Across the lawn is the High Court building, a stern English-Gothic monstrosity surrounded by coconut palms—looking as out of place as, well, a palm tree in Knightsbridge. Beyond the court rises Rajabai Tower, which began as an homage to Florence's Campanile and ended up a bizarre take on Big Ben. Into the scene roars a red double-decker Routemaster bus, its rear platform sagging with too many passengers. Its brakes suddenly squeal as it stops for an ox, draped in garlands of jasmine, lumbering by without a flinch.
(3) A day at the beach "The first thing I do when I go back," says the New York—based actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, "is head for Chowpatty Beach, order a coconut, stick in a straw, and drink. Then I know I'm home."
Surfside coconut vendors are not as plentiful as they once were, when Chowpatty was Bombay's answer to Coney Island. On this crescent of sand on Back Bay, in the heart of the city, children would ride tiny, hand-cranked Ferris wheels and families would cluster at stalls selling bhelpuri (puffed rice, fried noodles, and vegetables in a mint, chili, and tamarind sauce), while malish wallahs (masseurs) offered mustard-oil rubdowns on the beach.
Over the past few years, however, conservative officials began a cleanup at Chowpatty, forcing out most of the rides and snack vendors. It's a relatively sedate scene today. Still, some find more covert forms of amusement. Young couples steal off to Chowpatty on their lunch hour to rent tentlike shelters on the beach, under which they, as one newspaper put it, "let their love blossom." (Authorities were shocked—shocked!—to learn of this unsettling trend, and promised to crack down immediately.)
(4) The back streets of Colaba A once-seedy port area named for the founding community of Koli fishermen, Colaba is now mainly a commercial district whose avenues are filled with wallahs (peddlers) of some product or another. Walk down busy Colaba Causeway and you'll be shadowed by tobacco wallahs and fruit wallahs, hash wallahs and bongo wallahs, money-changers and life-changers. But just beyond the causeway, Colaba's quiet residential streets are the closest thing to peace you'll find in central Bombay. Ancient banyan vines hang over grand mansions built by the British. With their splendid wooden galleries and half-crumbling walls, the houses make the area look uncannily like Savannah.
Many of these mansions are protected landmarks, so the exteriors cannot, technically, be altered. But local architects always find a way around building codes—witness the modern high-rise that literally shoots out the top of one (still intact) villa. Apparently, the law didn't say anything about the roof.
(5) Shankar's bookstall Where else in the world can you find a trove of great literature laid out on the sidewalk?Forget the bouquinistes along the Seine—those guys are jerks, and besides, their books are in French. The book wallahs working at Shankar's stall, outside Café Mondegar in Colaba, are chatty and amicable, and the selection is absurdly vast: a dozen editions of the Kama Sutra; comic-book versions of the Mahabharata myths; Plato, Descartes, and Calvin & Hobbes; and every major South Asian writer, from Narayan to Rushdie. I don't expect to need a copy of Vedic Mathematics by Jagadguru Swami Sri Maharaja, but I know where I can get one for a buck.
(6) Reading Stardust magazine in the cinema queue Shankar's also sells the current issues of Stardust, Filmfare, and other Bollywood gossip rags; I always pick one up before a matinee to get the latest news ("Anupam Dumps Tabu for Mahima!"). Bombay is, of course, famous for making movies, churning out several hundred a year. Lately, everyone has been getting in on the kitschy fun: Andrew Lloyd Webber has a new Bollywood-inspired musical in London (Bombay Dreams) and the epic Indian film Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar this year. Most Hindi-language "masala films" aren't much on plot or production values, but who's complaining?Going to the movies here is like going to a rock concert in the West—people get into it, singing and dancing in the aisles.
Bollywood's array of film stars is as vast as the Hindu pantheon, and indeed, elder figures like Amitabh Bachchan (a.k.a. "the Big B") have an almost godlike status. Bachchan, who is semi-retired from acting, now hosts Who Wants to Be a Crorepati? on Indian TV. (A crore is 10 million rupees; a crorepati is a millionaire.)
(7) Indian fashion From its unassuming location in a dingy corner of Colaba, you'd never guess what's inside. But step into Azeem Khan Couture and you'll find a turbocharged space, all brushed steel and frosted glass—very Melrose Avenue. Khan's brilliantly colored saris, gowns, and kurta tops are a favorite of Bombay's elite, who love the traditional embellishments of crystal and beadwork; many have their wedding parties outfitted here. (Khan has also done embroidery for Gaultier and Yves Saint Laurent.)
"The days of copying Western designs are over," says Anita Shroff, former fashion editor of Elle India. "Indian women still buy foreign clothes abroad, but they want an Indian sensibility from designers here." The rest of the world is responding, too: boutiques like Ensemble (which sells stunning designs by Tarun Tahiliani) and Areesa (from India's hot design duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla) now cater as much to well-heeled Europeans as they do to Bollywood types.
(8) All the stuff you don't need It's absurd, the things people try to sell you on the street all over Bombay: spare typewriter keys, single socks, your name written on a match. My favorite street vendor is the guy I've come to know as Balloonman. He spends his days near the Gateway of India, Bombay's monumental arch, hawking equally monumental, six-foot-long, phallus-shaped balloons. He'll approach passers-by with one propped against his pelvis, pounding the balloon with a fist (boing! boing!) to demonstrate its sturdiness.
"Look, sir!" he called to me one morning. "A bargain at fifty rupees!" He grinned as he beat his inflated Siva lingam.
"What possible use would I have for a penis-shaped balloon?" I asked.
"Oh, very useful, sir! Holidays, entertaining children, the whole family!"
"Anyway, it's too big," I said. "Wouldn't even fit on the plane."
He fixed me with a look and readied the final pitch. "For you, my friend?Special discount. Five rupees."
"Now you're talking!" I said, and bought two.
(9) Diving deep into Kalbadevi For a retail experience that's the polar opposite of Azeem Khan Couture, Areesa, and Ensemble, I head for the Kalbadevi neighborhood, which is made up of a dozen crowded chowks (bazaars). Even if you're not buying anything—the selection ranges from Victorian-era china to boxfuls of glass eyes—walking through the bazaars is like mainlining India, an instant rush. At the famous Chor Bazaar (Thieves' Market), getting lost is inevitable and even enjoyable. Madhur Jaffrey, who furnished her Manhattan apartment with antiques from Chor Bazaar, makes a point of snacking on "the most delicious sweetmeats in the world, at the Muslim mithai shops off Mohammed Ali Road." That's one way to get your bearings, at least.
(10) True Indian food For all that the world knows about Indian cuisine, it's as if, say, Italian food were still defined by spaghetti and meatballs. Restaurants outside India tend to serve only Mughlai food from the north: curries, kebabs, naan, you know the drill. Even in India, places catering to tourists usually stick to the tested northern formula.
Bombay is a resounding exception. You'll find restaurants serving regional dishes—Goan, Kashmiri, Keralan, Tamil, Hyderabadi—that are as far from tandoori chicken as coconut curry is from coq au vin. One of my favorite places, the hopelessly named Oh! Calcutta, specializes in the strange and delicious Bengali cuisine, so unlike other Indian food. (Bengal is the only region where a bowl of mustard is found on every table, as at French bistros.) The exotic catch at Oh! Calcutta is flown in daily from India's east coast. Betki, a freshwater fish that spawns upriver on the Ganges, is deep-fried and served as fish-and-chips. Hilsa, a delicate whitefish, is smoked (another preparation unique to Bengal) until the taste and texture recall a tender barbecue.
And you thought you knew Indian food.
(11) The duck that isn't a duck Even now, after centuries of land reclamation along the waterfront, Bombay is defined by the sea. The original community of Koli fishermen remains intact, although their bungalows are now shadowed by high-rises, their colorful boats dwarfed by freighters from Yokohama and Peru. The Kolis still ply their trade at Sassoon Dock, laying out racks of prized Bombay duck to dry in the blistering sun.
"Bombay duck" is not, in fact, a waterfowl, but a foot-long, slimy-looking fish, more accurately known as bombil. The nickname was borrowed from a term for British residents during the raj—"duck" was a corruption of the Latin duces, or ruler. (See what I mean about the names?) What bacalao is to Barcelona, bombil is to Bombay. The dried, salted fish are fried and served whole, and have an alternately crisp and mushy texture, reminiscent of the best soft-shell crab. Get it at Konkan Café, a terrific seafood restaurant in the Taj President hotel.
(12) Kwality ice cream Well, the name, for one—you've gotta love the name. But it's the rose water—flavored ice cream that makes the Kwality brand so beloved. Who cares if it's the nutritional equivalent of a Bollywood film?You can find it at stands all over the city for just a handful of rupees.
(13) That amazing thali joint you'll never find again Even more remarkable than the variety of cuisines is the range of places where you find great meals: high or low, under chandeliers or fluorescent bulbs, either way, the food in Bombay is fantastic. I had one of my top-five lunches ever at a humble Gujarati joint called Thaker Bhojanalay, hidden off an alley in Kalbadevi. The windowless dining room seats about 40, almost all men who work in the bazaar. A giant factory-floor fan roars away in the corner. Give the door guy 100 rupees (two bucks) and take a seat at a long communal table. Servers make their way down the line with big pots of rice, dal, chutney, and curry—drizzling butter over your puranpuri (a puffy wheat bread filled with sweet lentils), refilling your glass with velvety mango juice. They'll keep ladling it out until you say "Stop." Which you won't.
(14) Pan-seared rawas at Indigo The beau monde heads for dinner at Indigo, the best restaurant in town. Executive chef Rahul Akerkar worked as a chef in New York for a decade, and then returned to Bombay in 1989 to take over a lovely old mansion on a Colaba side street. With its candlelit dining room and terrace shaded by frangipani trees, Indigo could get by on looks alone. Thankfully, the East—West fusion menu measures up. A green tea—scented duck breast arrives with delicately grilled shiitakes and a tart black-grape sorbet. Another sorbet, tomato and olive, accompanies tequila-cured tuna tartare. But it's the pan-seared rawas—a type of salmon native to India—that you came for. It carries a hint of anise and is served with artichoke hearts and coconut-braised spinach (really, it works).
(15) Classic Parsi cafés This is, above all, a city of immigrants, and no group has made more of a mark than the Parsi community, which emigrated from Persia. Though small in number, they have dominated society and industry; many of Bombay's richest families were Parsis. (So was Freddie Mercury from Queen.) Their wealth and influence is on the decline, but traces of the old Persian culture remain at so-called "Irani cafés" like Brittania in the Fort district. Neighborhood workers drop in for tea, conversation, and Persian staples such as "mutton and berry pulau," a sweet-and-savory blend of lamb, basmati rice, and sour cherries.
(16) The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association They emerge at 11 each weekday morning: thousands of white-clad dhaba wallahs, scurrying out of Victoria Terminus, Bombay's busiest railway station. The suburban trains have just arrived, and with them, lunch for some 175,000 office workers.
Each meal is prepared at the worker's home that morning—by a wife, a mother, a servant—and packed into a tin lunch box, or dhaba. These are then collected door by door, loaded onto trains, and, upon arrival at V.T., distributed among the dhaba wallahs for delivery to offices. (Since many of the deliverymen are illiterate, colored markings on each box indicate its destination.) The mtbsa, as the dhaba wallah union is called, charges about $4 a month for this service—which also includes picking up the tins after lunch and returning them to their respective kitchens, hours before the commuters arrive home themselves.
The sight of a dhaba wallah bearing down on you with a rack full of lunch boxes balanced on his head is one of the great thrills of a Bombay morning. "Lafka! Lafka!" ("Hurry up!") he cries, running headlong into traffic.
(17) A trip to the island From the wharf beside the Gateway of India, boats cast off every half-hour for Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbor. The 30-minute journey is half the thrill, all cool breezes and skyline views. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Elephanta is famous for its ornate cave temples and devotional carvings, hewn from basalt rock some 15 centuries ago. (The Portuguese named it after an enormous stone pachyderm that once stood on the shore.) Just keep an eye on the 10,000 brash monkeys that patrol the grounds—and hold on to your camera.
(18) The other side of Bombay The neighborhood of choice for fashionistas, film idols, and the just plain rich, Bandra is an hour from downtown by car, give or take five hours in Bombay's notorious traffic. Seaside condo towers and trendy taquerías give Bandra a vaguely Californian vibe, and Regent recently opened a hotel on a swath of oceanfront. It's not as polished as it sounds—the streets are lined with rubble and filled with fume-sputtering auto rickshaws—but it's a welcome escape from the urban core.
Bandra's nightlife and shopping are also big with the young middle class, who flock from the city center on weekends. Their parents may have been happy to drink tea from roadside chai wallahs, but this generation goes for icy "Brrr-ista" coffee shakes at Barista, one of a new chain of espresso bars. Bandra's branches are packed with teenagers playing Scrabble—and, yes, the word chaiwallah (21 points) is acceptable.
(19) The dance floor at Athena "We don't have weekdays," says the designer Azeem Khan. "In Bombay, every night is a weekend." There are an insane number of wild nightspots, yet no place is quite like Athena, hidden in an old warehouse in Colaba. With a resoundingly white interior divided by sheer white curtains, it recalls a Greek temple. The men in the crowd are suitably Adonis-like. Bollywood starlets gyrate to the hypnotic rhythms of tabla guru Talvin Singh and other Indian trance artists. Athena's VIP bar is technically members-only—dues start at $2,000 a year—but even non—Bollywood icons can dine at the adjoining Mediterranean restaurant and drop into the club for dancing afterward, provided they look the part.
(20) Marine Drive at twilight As the sun sets over the Arabian Sea, the lights come up on Marine Drive (a.k.a. "the Queen's Necklace"), the broad, horseshoe-shaped avenue that runs along downtown's Back Bay. On a clear night you can gaze across the water to Malabar Hill, one of the wealthiest (and greenest) enclaves, rising beyond the sparkle and flash of Chowpatty Beach. It's evenings like this that bring out the Hollywood in Bollywood, with a touch of the Riviera.
Take it all in from a window seat at the Oberoi hotel bar—or better yet, walk right out on the bay-front promenade, where half of Bombay seems to gather every night. Turbaned Sikhs in maharajah costumes offer rides in their chrome carriages, which resemble horse-drawn spaceships. Bhelpuri vendors draw lines of women in saffron-colored saris and men in white cotton dobhi outfits. Along the rocky shore, children toss sticks of incense over the water, their flames spiraling like fireworks through the balmy night air.
On second thought, forget Hollywood, and forget the Riviera. This couldn't be anywhere but Bombay.
Bombay is best anytime but summer, though even on hot days the sea breeze makes it more tolerable than India's inland cities. I recommend beginning with an organized tour of the city to get your bearings. Cox & Kings (813/258-3323; www.coxandkingsusa.com) has been arranging tours of India since 1758; many of their packages include a day or two in Bombay. The very knowledgeable Rashida Anees, who works with Cox & Kings, can also arrange a private tour tailored to your interests.
WHERE TO STAY
The Oberoi Sleek and modern, with smashing views of Back Bay. Doubles from $295. Nariman Point; 800/562-3764 or 91-22/232-5757 www.oberoihotels.com
Taj Mahal Hotel Lovely 1903 landmark overlooking the harbor. Stay in the exquisitely decorated old wing. Doubles from $315. Apollo Bunder, Colaba 800/223-6800 or 91-22/202-2626 www.tajhotels.com
Gordon House Hotel A stylish, newly renovated boutique hotel. Doubles from $110. 5 Battery St., Colaba 91-22/287-1122 www.ghhotel.com
Regent Mumbai A seaside hotel that's oddly lifeless, for all its glitz and glam. Close to the airport. Doubles from $200. Land's End, Bandra West 800/545-4000 or 91-22/655-1234 www.regenthotels.com
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Indigo Dinner for two $35. 4 Mandlik Rd., Colaba 91-22/236-8999
Oh! Calcutta Dinner for two $10. Hotel Rosewood, Tulsiwadi Lane, Tardeo; 91-22/496-3114
Thaker Bhojanalay Lunch for two $5. 31 Dadiseth Agyari Lane, Kalba Devi; 91-22/201-1232
Brittania Lunch for two $8. Sprott Rd., Ballard Estate 91-22/261-5264
Athena Dinner for two $40. 41—44 Minoo Desai Marg, Colaba 91-22/202-8699
Dosa Diner Popular chain serving crisp rice crêpes with exotic fillings. Lunch for two $10. 187 Turner Rd., Bandra
Konkan Café The best place to sample seafood from the southern (Konkan) coast. Dinner for two $30. Taj President hotel, 90 Cuffe Parade 91-22/215-0808
Olive Bar & Kitchen A restaurant-cum-nightspot filled with Bollywood types. Dinner for two $16. 14 Union Park, Khar 91-22/605-8228
Fire & Ice The Studio 54 of Bombay, in an ultracool, converted factory. Phoenix Mills, Senapati Bapat Rd., Lower Parel 91-22/498-0444
Shankar's Bookstall Outside Café Mondegar, Colaba Causeway 91-22/204-7491
Azeem Khan Couture 1 Usha Sadan, Colaba 91-22/215-1028 www.azeemkhan.com.
Ensemble Great Western Bldg., 130/132 Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, Kala Ghoda; 91-22/287-2882
Areesa 2 Om Chambers, Kemps Corner 91-22/368-3311
Malabar Bombay's first upscale boutique (opened in1960): for silk bags, pashmina shawls, antique prints, and Raj lamps. Taj Mahal hotel; 91-22/202-9703
Anokhi A favorite for Jaipuri textiles. 6 Pandey House, Kemps Corner 91-22/382-0636
Crossword Bookstore Amid the tony shops, foreign consulates, and private clubs of the exclusive Breach Candy neighborhood, this Western-style superstore has its own café and the largest book selection around. 22 Mahalaxmi Chambers, 26 Bhulabhai Desai Rd., Breach Candy 91-22/498-5801
Mélange Chic silk and chiffon dresses. 33 Altamount Rd., Kemps Corner 91-22/385-4492
Gazdar Private Ltd. The best jewelry—new and antique—in town. Taj Mahal Hotel, 91-22/202-3666