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How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Bombay

(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.


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