Though I had never stepped foot in Mumbai, I had already been there. I had been transported the city by the excellent book, Shantaram by Gregory Roberts. It is the story of an escaped Aussie convict who eventually gets involved in Mumbai’s underworld. Along the way he contemplates life, love and how we relate to others. One of the key themes of the book is Roberts’ complete and utter love for Mumbai. He can make you feel the sights, sounds and even smells of all the corners of the city he discovers. Nathan and I are big Shantaram fans so it was with great anticipation that we arrived to Mumbai’s central train station.
From the train station we worked our way south to another neighborhood described in the book, Colaba. It is dotted with fine architecture such as the Taj Mahal hotel and the India Gate, providing evidence of the colonial influence. We walked further along the tree lined streets, passing the World Trade Center, which also plays a role in the story. The construction of the center spurred the creation of an adjacent slum that directly contrasts with the wealth of the area. Roberts actually lived there during his time in Mumbai and seeing it helped bring the story to life. One more important stop in Colaba was Leopold’s Cafe. Many friendships and conversations take place in this ex-pat cafe which was bustling when we stopped in for a drink. It was fun to finally be there in person but it wasn’t quite what I had imagined. It was far too bright, airy and even commercial to contain the dubious characters from Shantaram.
Another day, we made our way north, where Roberts would head to chill out. Compared to more central areas of Mumbai, Chowpatty Beach and the surrounding neighborhoods are quite tranquil areas. At Banganga Tank we observed ritual bathing at this sacred spot, which was created when Lord Rama pierced the ground with his arrow. We then made our way to the hanging gardens which were flush with butterflies enjoying the budding flowers.
In his visits to Mumbai, Gandhi would stay in the Chowpatty area. We stopped by a small museum dedicated to his life and ideals. It is hard to imagine someone with more inner strength and charisma. At the museum we read glowing recommendations from contemporaries such as Einstein. A small portrait of Gandhi on a bicycle caught my eye. He was obviously showing his support of non-motorized transportation modes! (Hey, a transport planner can dream, can’t she?)
Towards sunset, the beach comes alive with families and teenagers enjoying the bit of open space. It is a festive atmosphere amid the piles of trash. The vendors at the beach are known to specialize in behl puri, a snack in which crisp rice puffs are covered with potatoes, onions, chutney, and sev (crispy noodles).
Visiting the city created in Shantaram was exciting, but it was time for our own Mumbai. With this in mind we took a train north to the working class areas of Mahalaxmi. Just outside the train station you will find Dobi Ghat, the laundry machine of Mumbai where workers wash sheets and clothes by hand in concrete basins. Standing from a lookout on the bridge an endless sea of clothing sways in the hazy sunlight. We walked around the markets surrounding the ghat and observed the typical streets of urban India – dirty, trashy, and crumbling by western standards but ultimately millions of people living on and using them each day. And from what I saw they are still better off than many of those living in the slums.
At night, the dirt of the city was hidden by shadows and colorful lanterns filled the air. The reason for the lanterns was Diwali, Indian new year. It was a time of great joy and, of course, deafening fire works.
It also meant crazy traffic so with great difficulty Nathan, our friend Anu and I made our way to Goa Portuguesa. This somewhat kooky restaurant actually had character and ambiance, which isn’t always easy to find on the Indian restaurant scene. The chef had scouted dozens of recipes from Kerala in India’s deep south so the food was all new to me. Banana curry, tender coconut fry up, and a beans in curry dish were coconutty delights. I really liked the crispy, bowl shaped appam to scoop it up with.
Besides the crazy traffic, markets were also hectic because Diwali is a time of gifts. kind of like Christmas. But wait, hectic isn’t the word. India is hectic year round. Try pandemonium. So many vendors, stalls, foods, clothes, knickknacks, and of course the odd cow in the mix.
You need a snack to survive the market. After shuffling our way through millions of people we had a Mumbai specialty, vada pav. This is a carb lovers dream – spiced potatoes floured and fried stuffed in bread with chopped onions and chili powder. Yum. Another time we jumped between neighboring food stands for dahi papdi chaat (chips with potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt and chutney), pani puri (fried puffs stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas, and tamarind chutney all dipped in mint water), and a Bombay sandwich (tomato, cucumber and cheese toasted).
We mixed up the street food with a few restaurants. For breakfast we were making our way through the myriad of dosa choices at the south Indian eateries near our hotel. Set dosa, rava dosa, masala dosa…what’s this paper dosa? We ordered it and as it came to the table we suddenly remembered. Yeah, it’s the giant thin crepe we had at Udupi Palace in Berkeley that one time. An unintentionally big but delicious breakfast.
Have room for dessert? We did so we created a falooda face off. Falooda is a sweet creamy dessert filled with jelly noodles and rose water. It is rich, cool and refreshing. We sampled some at Badshah which also had excellent kulfi (a denser, creamier Indian style ice cream). This competed with the falooda of New Kulfi Centre near Chowpatty Beach. My verdict – I liked the stronger flavors of Badshah, but when eating falooda everyone is a winner.
Mumbai is a delicious mix of people and foods. We loved the markets; the chaat (snacks) such as mirchi kachori (fried lentil balls covered in chili yogurt sauce); the choice in thalis (mix plates); the better infrastructure (sidewalks!). But most of all, we loved finding our Mumbai.