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How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Bombay

(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.


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