Mumbai: Beguiling, Intriguing and In-Your-Face

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February 6th 2008
Published: March 8th 2008
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They say that God works in mysterious ways. Six hours into the bus ride from Tarkarli we were still wondering what force had caused us to choose this horrid bus which would get us into Mumbai after 14 hours. All thru the night we bounced around unable to sleep. Finally, at 4:30 am, just when the dark is at its darkest and strange creatures and stranger humans prowl the streets, we get ejected to the curb of an unlit street. Shaken and stirred, with frazzled nerves and sore muscles, we watched the red taillights disappear around the bend while our eyes adjusted to the darkness. And then it hit us: God does work in mysterious ways. We were dreading the legendary chaos of Mumbai but now the streets were ultra-quiet. But more importantly, the darkness hid the things we didn't want to see; those things that haunted us the most; those things that would definitely be all around us in a place like this. Mysterious ways indeed!

Mumbai, the Maharathi name derived from Mumba (a goddess revered by the Koli people, residents of the area in the 2nd century BC) replaced the more popular name of Bombay in 1996. A total of seven islands, now linked by bridges to the mainland, make up Mumbai. The Portuguese won these landmasses in 1534 from Muslim Sultans of Gurjarat who followed after a series of Hindu dynasties who, themselves, were preceded by the Koli folk. But the Portuguese, as part of the dowry (wedding gift) when Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II of England, passed control over to the Brits in 1661. The Brits, in turn, gave the islands over, under long-lease, to the East India Company for a kingly rent of UKĀ£10 per annum. The area, with its natural port, flourished, its design decidedly colonial but was wrested away from the British by the Marathas in 1818.

Whisked away, by an unrelenting taxi driver, in the direction of a barrio called Colaba, we watched the city flash by and the driver straddle the white lines in the middle of the road, just because he could. 100 Rupees lighter and trudging thru the dark Colaba streets searching for a hotel, we refused two touts, junkies no doubt, shadowing us, trying to take us to their joint where they'd get commission. Just after 5 am we found a place with a
Chhatrapati Shivraji TerminalChhatrapati Shivraji TerminalChhatrapati Shivraji Terminal

aka Victoria Terminal, VT
dark cell-of-a-room for 500 Rupees. Too weak to fight too much, we settled in.

Monday descended upon Mumbai like ten thousand thundering typhoons. From 3-storeys above we heard the din. Our hotel was nicely positioned, almost waterside, and within walking distance to the famous Gateway of India. The road leading up to the gateway and overlooking Mumbai Harbour contained the top-end hotels like the spectacular Taj Mahal Palace and Tower sporting Islamic and Renaissance styling (we'd never seen this combination before). The area surrounding the solid basalt arch of the Gateway was crowded with locals, camera-wielding tourists and pilgrims climbing aboard boats bound for the temples of nearby Elephanta Island. Foreigners had, on occasion, been recruited by the gate for parts in various Bollywood productions. It was, therefore, a favorite among tourists who preened and posed hoping some talent scout would spot them. Apparently there were no roles requiring our special looks and talents for we were only approached by the usual collection of beggars and vendors. And speaking about Bollywood (you know, the Indian film industry which cranks out 900+ larger-than-life, longer-than-5-lunch-hours films each year), we had it high on the 'agenda'. Already we had seen the face of Shahrukh Khan, the undisputed king of Bollywood, plastered on high-gloss posters and jumbo billboards literally everywhere. We must hasten to add (before 'Bollywoodies' everywhere tear us apart limb by limb) that the godfather-like, mesmerizing face of Amitabh Bachan was always close by and equally featured in movie promotions and advertisements for every conceivable product. But USD 75 a pop (yep, greenbacks) for a tour embarrassed our pockets and, somehow, taxi drivers shied away from taking us to the set. 'Too far' is what they said.

Mumbai, we find, is best explored from the top storey of a rickety double-decker bus, an old English relic no doubt. Walking in the heat between the crush of (well) everything from hundreds of thousands of people, bicycles, cars, rickshaws and the occasional cows is a recipe for one huge headache. But from above, Mumbai was rather pleasant with neat-ish city blocks and stunning colonial architecture interspersed by pops of green from the roadside trees. A dozen or more cricket teams were braving the sun in different sections of the huge grass patch called The Oval. Indians simply love their cricket! We banked one corner and almost drove into a phenomenally stunning Goth-like super-structure, a mixture of Hindu, Islamic and Victorian styles. Chhatrapati Shivraji Terminal (more popularly known at Victoria Terminal or just 'VT') must be one of the most detailed, bizarre, authentic structures anywhere in Asia. Gargoyles, spikes and spires and sharp edges defined its form but did nothing to limit its function as Asia's busiest terminal. VT handles over 1.5 million travellers everyday. Despite the organized chaos, we managed to grab onward tickets without hassle from a specially-designated 'Foreigner's counter'.

Another 'gaga' sight for us was the 136-year-old Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. More than a thousand concrete boxes held the water into which millions of articles of clothing are dumped, soaked and then washed. The largest human-powered 'laundromat' anywhere on earth sees hundreds of dhobi-wallahs thumping the devil and days of muck (and certainly more than a few buttons) out of heaps of clothes and other linen. After the article has had a good dunking, the washer gets a spiral going smacking the cloth against the concrete. It had never crossed our minds that watching dirty clothes being abused would so impress and mesmerize us. Only in India! Only in Mumbai!

But India never lets you forget. Our toughest test was on the 'pilgrimage' to the mosque of Haji Ali. It is told by legend that Haji, a Muslim saint, died during a pilgrimage to Mecca and his casket floated back and landed at this spot. The mosque contains his remains. Located 2 km out into the Arabian Sea, the picturesque mosque is accessed, and only during low tide, via a raised concrete platform. Properly sandwiched between thousands, we inched along the pathway. But on both sides of the platform, the city's less fortunate congregated hoping that the religious-minded pilgrims would lend a helping hand (in the form of Rupees, no doubt). The rib-cages of the children stuck out so far that they looked set to puncture skin. Big eyes that had seen too much burrowed deep into our souls. Groups of men with horrible, multiple amputations lay prostrate chanting 'Allah, Allah' in an agonizing, gut-wrenching, never-ending chorus. The deaf, blind and those deformed from birth or otherwise (we had heard stories of deliberate mutilations to generate greater sympathy and increase begging returns for the masters) flocked to the crossing. One little girl sat on the hot afternoon concrete staring away towards the phallic, gleaming high-rises of Marine Drive - India's Manhattan. We don't suppose that she is aware that the world considers India a rising economic powerhouse; that the IT industry alone generates more than USD 10 billion each year (estimated to double in 2 years).

Just before the entrance to the mosque, children and adults alike waded in the ripples of the polluted sea and appetizing odors wafted up from makeshift restaurants. Inside the mosque was a cavalcade of colors. Worshippers mixed and mingled, sang and prayed but, alas, we had no heart to enjoy it. Our heads throbbed because of what we had just experienced and at the thought that we must cross the same way we came in. Back on the mainland, we decided against a visit to the nearby Mahalaxmi Temple and retired to a late, silent lunch.

Seeking a respite from that onslaught, we rode a taxi 4 km to the upscale neighbourhood of Malabar Hill. There, we stopped by the highly-touted Hanging Gardens but found the adjacent Kamala Nehru Park much more appealing. It afforded us a panorama over the Marine Drive area including the graceful curve of Chowpatty Beach. Then we propped up our backpacks and collapsed under the shade of a tree to watch children play in a huge Mother Hubbard shoe-house.

Mumbai, we both agree, was much nicer than we expected it to be. Diverse, energetic, trendy and traditional, it did have a certain appeal that's rather difficult to explain. But time was up. With allowances for traffic jams, stampeding cows, road closures on account of religious processions, flat tires and every other conceivable event, we arrived at VT and our designated departure platform almost 75 minutes in advance. And there we stayed up until 10 minutes before the slated departure time. But the train did not come. From our vantage point at Platform 14, we watched other trains pull in, load up and pull out. An official in the nearby office of the Station Manager confirmed, after looking at our ticket, that we were in the right place. Another couple of minutes passed. Frustrated, we walked off and asked a pretty non-descript loafer if he knew why our train was not here.
'Nasik?', he queried eyeing our oversized backpacks. We nodded. 'Platform 10. Leave in 3 minutes. You better run!'. 😊

Thanks to:
😊 God, he works in mysterious ways.
😊 The "pretty non-descript loafer".

Additional photos below
Photos: 38, Displayed: 28


Hand cartsHand carts
Hand carts

Human-powered transport
Entrepeneurs on the walkwayEntrepeneurs on the walkway
Entrepeneurs on the walkway

to Haji Ali Mosque

10th March 2008

10th March 2008

Thanks for India
Hey there, great to read about India. Thanks. Hopefully I will get to travel there soon. Check out my travel blog and let me know what you think
11th March 2008

Right Words!
Hi, youtwo, you used the right words to describe Mumbai. Thanks for the trip.
13th August 2010
Chhatrapati Shivraji Terminal

They don't build them like that any more. The words splendour and grandeur will dissapear out of the English language soon.

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