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How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Bombay

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.

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