The narrow roads are calmer than usual because it’s a Sunday. But normally, Girgaum, the old, traditional part of Mumbai in the south of the city, does not have space even for a straw.
On this Sunday, stepping into a small lane off the main road into Khotachiwadi opened up an entirely new world. Home to a small community of east Indians, with art work on walls, exposed wrought iron pillars and quaint Portuguese villas and bungalows, this does not seem to belong to Mumbai, yet is integral to it.
This was my first visit to Khotachiwadi, though I have lived in the city for several years. It’s because I have never had a reason to visit this place nor have I been a “tourist” in Mumbai.
One of the centrepieces here is the residence-office of designer-activist James Ferreira, surrounded by pathways wide enough only for two-wheelers. The bungalow, dimly lit from the inside, had us straining to peek in—ignoring respect for privacy and common etiquette—because it looked unbelievable.
When we have visitors—tourists actually—to Mumbai, it usually sets me off on panic mode. What do you show people that can be termed “touristic”? For all its wonders—the people, the bustling energy, the entrepreneurship, the scale of the city—there is precious little that can engage a sightseer over an afternoon.
Once the guest has seen the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal hotel in front of it, maybe the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales museum) and the Dhobighat in Mahalaxmi—intriguing for a foreigner, a giant laundromat for the unimaginative—the evening is over. Day One has ended with nothing left for Day Two.
Or so I thought.
But Bombay—as the city is still referred to by residents out of convenience and habit—has historical and architectural wealth hidden behind its street-side vendors, parked cars and millions of people.
A chance meeting with the passionate and knowledgeable Bharat Gothoskar of Khakhi Tours some months ago set off an idea. So when I had visiting company some weeks ago, Khakhi Tours’ four-hour open jeep tour seemed like a good idea to show off the city to the uninitiated.
As I was to find out, it was a chance for the initiated as well—like this long-time immigrant resident of the city—to discover it and find out its secret treasures. The tour took us from the steps of the Asiatic Society—forever under renovation—through the formerly walled city, the area called Fort. This was followed by drives through Kala Ghoda, Colaba Causeway, the city’s famous maidans, Rajabai (clock) Tower, the art-deco buildings of Marine Drive, Walkeshwar, Hanging Gardens, Baanganga, Khotachiwadi, Girgaum and Bhuleshwar. I have seen and been in many of these places but with Gothoskar providing titbits about different neighbourhoods and buildings, the most inane localities transformed into places with stories.
Like, for example, the round building that houses the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute close to Lion’s Gate was once used to store ice—imported from the US for the British—and was called Bombay Ice House. A German castle inspired the design of the Bombay High Court building.
You need to look at these places through filters—that fade out urban chaos and the garbage that lines up on street sides. Banganga, for example, a place of religious significance, is a landmine of plastic bags, decaying flowers and other such symbols of neglect. But its surrounding temples, the myth behind the arrow and the pond, and old-world charm can transport anyone to an era bygone.
Many of these places are not friendly to the elderly—walking is not easy, there are not enough places to rest and public facilities are not convenient. Neither are there appropriate signposts. So if one does not have a guide along, you could get mixed up. But as I told our visitors: here, you ask people. Conversations with strangers sometimes can be most stimulating.
There seems to be a considerable effort of late to make this city more approachable for tourists. Khakhi Tours is not the only company offering a glimpse or more of the city—others include Food Tours of Mumbai, Namaste City Tour, Mumbai Magic, Raconteur Walks and Beyond Bombay, to name a few. A delightful new book for children, Totally Mumbai by Pereena Lamba and my friend Miel Sahgal, lists out other things to do and places to see—with history, pictures and anecdotes.
A few weeks before the Khakhi Tour, in my continued quest to rediscover the city, I went again to the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, a stunningly restored heritage structure with uninteresting displays. With ornate stairwells, painted ceilings and patterned floor tiles, the building, built 1872, is itself a place to see. Its ceiling is still, in parts, covered in 23.5 carat gold, according to Totally Mumbai.
Right next to the museum—and contrary to normal behaviour—we ventured into the zoo at Rani Baug to look at the city’s latest, wasteful, cruel and highly-entertaining imports—the Humboldt penguins.
A drive over the Eastern Freeway later gave an aerial view of the city—Sewri, home to the migratory flamingoes who fly in at this time of the year, the chemical-spewing factories of Chembur, the gigantic dockyards of Mumbai Port Trust, the monorail over Wadala and salt pans.
Last week, at the Royal Opera House, restored and opened to the public for a year now, there have been some new developments as well. The Quarter—a jazz bar, a wine bar, a café and a restaurant—is much more than a bunch of F&B outlets. It’s a chance to reconnect with a centre that was once the hub for theatre and cinema. The grandeur of the Royal Opera House itself makes you feel like you should have worn more formal clothes befitting the occasion of being present there.
The Sassoon Dock Art Project started on Saturday and will run till 30 December. The art project by St+Art Mumbai is reminiscent of the Kochi Biennale and uses the large warehouses of the docks and transforms them into works of art. The installations here are inspired by the local community of fishermen and women.
Many months ago, we walked from the Mount Mary Church, built in 1570, to the Bandra Fort, where many canoodling couples distract you from the view of the ocean and the setting sun. But I am due another “touristy” visit to Bandra, to see the oldest resident of Mumbai: a 450-year-old baobab tree on Waterfield Road.
A trip sometime back to Jaipur—that city of palaces, forts and onion kachoris—gave me an indication of what’s possible if public and/or public-private partnerships can work together to transform a city into a tourism hub. While Jaipur offers attractions different from Mumbai, it sells them better, so you feel your two-three days are spent well, wandering. This does not mean Jaipur does not have its share of urban problems, but its also able to focus on its heritage.
Mumbai’s a city in which the beautiful co-exists with the ugly—like every other city I suppose—but it’s also a city that likes to camouflage what’s endearing about it. One of the country’s oldest inhabited castles lies behind the Asiatic Society, inaccessible to civilians. King Edward VII’s statue with him on a horse—which gave Kala Ghoda its name—lies at the Veer Jijabai Bhosale Udyan while a new, random horse statue occupies its place, as we try frantically to erase our history—particularly colonial history—and pretend nothing ever happened.
Mumbai does not have the climate or open spaces to lounge at a picnic on a lazy afternoon—even if you did, you would probably get hit on the head with a cricket ball. Therefore, we tend to gravitate towards the malls, restaurants and cinemas for some sanitized entertainment. But in the process, we end up learning little about the place we live in or its people.
During one of our “city tours”, as we passed by the new statue of the dabbawalla opposite Haji Ali, our house guest wanted to know what it was. I offered my wisdom from what I had read and seen of the lunch carriers, increasingly proud of what roughly 5,000 men (according to Totally Mumbai) achieve on a daily basis—distribute 350,000 identical dabbas over an average of 65km through a code of numbers, letters, colours and symbols, with the chance of error at one in six million.
In our daily life, we often fail to appreciate what we have, instead focusing on what we could have. A tour to these places does not mean that your eternally bored teen will look up from his/her gadget, but you will feel satisfied for having made the effort. It will also teach you to pause, look up once in a while and wonder.
It will help you like the city a bit more than you do.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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