I had heard people say Mumbai is a city of contrasts and I’m finding this to be true. Mumbai is full of dreamers and vendors. Starlets, beggars and stray dogs. Gangsters and priests. Artists and servants. Crorepatis/Millionaires and hipsters. It boasts the grandest colonial architecture in the world. Food that’s tangy, sweet and spicy. All at the same time. It’s home to both, some of the largest slums in Asia and the worlds most expensive home. Everywhere you look, your curiosity is ignited, your senses are shaken and your definition of personal space is re-evaluated. This is a part one memoir on Mumbai, India. A city of full of contrasts.
A city often referred to as the Gateway of India. Vibrant, heart-warming, soul wrenching. Bustling, in-your-face and full of colour.
Gateway of India
Much of what I knew about India was what I’d heard people say and what I’d read in the book Shantaram. My own journey began with a noisy taxi ride from one side of Mumbai to the exact opposite. Trapped five rows deep amidst a convoy of hooting, tuk tuks, clearly demarcated Bodhisattva trees and a thick musky smell in the air, I look outside. I’m greeted by a round smiling face. It is the face of a woman on the back of a scooter, and she is literally an arms-length away from me. Forehead filled with beads of sweat, she leans closer and shouts, “you people are coming from the airport nah? I see your luggage in there. Very nice. Where are you staying?”.
Puzzled, I turn to look at our driver. He is not phased. To my right, I don’t look. But I’m convinced that there’s an all to familiar smile from my beaming fiance. Welcome to Mumbai, Madam. It was from that moment on, I could tell that Mumbai was not afraid to toss up the unexpected. Luckily, I could also tell that embracing her unpredictability is the very key to embracing her soul. So in that moment, fell in love with this giant pulsating metropolis that re-invented itself every time I blinked. I should have noticed earlier, but about an hour into the car ride, I realized that it’s true what they say. You have to possess Jedi powers to drive here.
Hostessing at the IPL 2017. But first, Tea at the Taj Palace Hotel in Colaba
Mumbai is multi-layered and multi-faceted. I wanted to get lost in every nook and crack. At the heart of the city, you will see the grandest colonial era architecture on the planet. On the other side, extravagant Hindi and Islamic style architecture whipped into an imposing structure of domes, spires and stained glass. Explore more and you’ll uncover unique bazaars, hidden temples dating back centuries, hipster enclaves, and some of India’s most premier restaurants and nightlife.
View from the Dome – Rooftop @ Intercontinental Hotel Mumbai – Marine Drive
Nighttime visits to bustling markets give a whole new meaning to haggling as an array of beautiful trinkets, exotic smells and shouting voices echo. Shop owners offer a cool drink and some shelter under the fan. Locked into conversation each time, it dawns on me. The soul of this city lies in its people. In their search for your experiences of their beautiful country. They are delightful. They are proud. In the evenings, locals gather on street corners sharing conversations and piping Chai served with with Vada’s (fried snacks) and various Chutneys. Super cheap, super quick and super tasty. Others gather on Marine Drive for a brisk walk beside the beautiful 3 kilometer long road, famous for its beautiful sunsets and for having the Arabian Sea all along on one side. The curved shape of this road, combined with the beautiful lighting at night looks like glistening diamonds, and has earned the title of ‘Queen’s Necklace’.
When in India
I spent one entire day exploring the origin of the Hippie culture in India. We explored the suburbs of Navi Mumbai, Andheri, Bandra and Colaba (we even had lunch at the Leopold Cafe made famous by the book Shantaram). One of the things I observed was that one of the greatest themes pervading Indian life is social interdependence. In fact it’s astounding. Various crucial linkages connect each other. People ask strangers to take photographs and it’s not creepy. It’s actually to be shown to friends over Masala Chai at Khau Ghali (literally eating valley) later. People aren’t afraid to compliment (be it my Hindi or style of dress). Every single Taxi driver has not hesitated to lecture me about life, mortality and the present time. In the process, seamlessly connecting the dots and histories of various Gods and Goddesses. Realigning my mind to the concept of magic and a time when the lives of men and Gods were intertwined.
Lord Ganesh – Son of Lord Shiva & remover of all obstacles.
In an individualistic Western world – it’s arguable – but happiness comes from self realization and perhaps to a certain degree, through the accumulation of material wealth. In India, it comes by serving God as well as other people. The concept of Seva (selfless service) is believed to bring forth the utmost form of contentment, good Karma and peace. I’ve often heard people say India is a spiritual hot spot, a place where the pursuit of happiness starts to have meaning and relevance.
As the rays of the setting sun glisten upon the Arabian sea, it exposes the Mumbai skyline by night. Beside me, a woman in a sari shuffles. She is about to light a wick nestled amid bright flowers and hand cut leaves beside the road. As she chants, I see this as a celebration to honor God- a God who Hindus believe can manifest in any form. “We are just an instrument, Memsaab,” she tells me, as if she can read my thoughts. “When you find yourself, you live with a purpose.”
The poverty in Mumbai is pretty serious though. We witnessed a couple ‘setting up for the night’ on one of the railway station platforms. They had a blanket on them, two mugs, a packed satchel and an old radio for entertainment. There are people sleeping on the streets, heaps of trash and beetle-nut spit marks everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, there is indeed this reality to face.
Although there are no boundaries of personal space, energy flows with graceful felicity. Every evening, we would get lost in this energy and rhythm as we walked home after watching a sunset on Marine Drive and a late night dinner thereafter. After dinner, we would stop along the way to eat some more.
Vegetarian Thali, Pani Puri (a hollow crispy fried ball filled with potato, chickpeas, onion, and sprouted lentils, then dunked into a sweet-and-sour mix of tamarind and brown sugar syrup), Vada Pav (fried potato patties mashed with garlic, chilies, and coriander on a buttered roll and sprinkled with coriander chutney, and chili powder), Kesar Badam (Saffron & Almond) Milkshake. Nimboo Pani (Lemon water) and Sugarcane juice to quench the raging thirst. We would observe shopkeepers luring people to their stalls, whilst in the background, incense sticks burn before framed pictures of Lord Ganesha (destroyer of obstacles) and Maha Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth).
Sunsets of Marine Drive
Let’s be honest, India isn’t always aesthetically or aromatically pleasing. Initially, the dust and roadside decay, and the lack of my possessions (my baggage arrived 2 days late) troubled me. In Mumbai, it’s practically impossible to shield your senses from sensory overload. I mean, brimming with more than over 22 million people, its difficult not to find yourself overwhelmed by the colours, aromas, and bustle at all hours of the day — and of-course, the fact that at any given time – you’re not alone.
But as I looked beyond these superficial things, I found unexpected beauty in everyday things. Tiny temples and shrines on the roadside, the rich smell of frankincense and camphor that weaves its way through the air at dusk. Bright sari’s and colourful Kurti tops. Looking out my window and noticing an older lady living across, sipping her morning tea on the balcony. I think of the spontaneity in the streets where I received a lesson in Rangoli art. So many shapes, colors, patterns, forms, contrasts and moments to capture. In Mumbai, you are sure to find a city that is as materialistic as it is spiritual. As futuristic as it is grounded in tradition. A bustling metropolis that challenges your assumptions, opens your heart and confuses you. All at the same time. A city as dynamic and imposing as its wonderful inhabitants.
Yes, I’m aware that de-mystifying India is a perceptual work in progress, but for now, I’m honestly falling in love with such joyful mayhem!
Stay tuned for India – Part 2 <3