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 Palace 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.
"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.)
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 as 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 chain of espresso bars. Bandra's branches are packed with teenagers playing Scrabble—and, yes, the word chaiwallah (21 points) is acceptable.
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.