Long ago I entered a place of enchantment. It was the Sea Lounge of the Taj Palace Hotel with large bay windows overlooking the Arabian Sea. Reliving that memory, I recently spent an afternoon savouring the delights of this hotel. And while the tea was of the finest quality and the cakes quite divine, the best part of the High Tea was the Bombay Toasty, a Mumbai comfort food made to perfection.
From a fishing colony to one of the world’s largest cities, Mumbai is bursting with industry, commerce and finance, while the creative output of art, design and cinema has a global presence. The Portuguese who landed here in 1534 called it Bom Bahia or the ‘good bay’ that has since morphed into a colossus, the sixth largest city in the world.
Arriving at the stunning new airport and equipped with a prepaid voucher, I found myself led past the sleek new taxis to a black and yellow taxi that couldn’t nudge the speed dial beyond slow. After two hours we arrived at the Regal Cinema near to where I was staying.
With the Gateway of India, the 26 metre-high stone archway erected to welcome Queen Mary and King George V in 1911 standing sentinel over the sea, Colaba, on the Mumbai waterfront, is the heartbeat of the city and a major tourist destination. It’s also a great area for shopping, the mainstay for the city’s glamour set. International boutiques have prominent placement, but it’s the local purveyors that shine. Colaba Causeway is the main drag busy with some great cafes including Cafe Leopold and Cafe Mondegar, but it’s along the side streets that you’ll find upscale fashion boutiques and restaurants. Further is the graceful arc of Marine Drive, the seaside promenade also known as the ‘Queen’s Necklace’ due to the twinkling lights at night, and leafy Malabar Hill with its fine mansions and India’s most expensive home.
I soaked up the culture of Mumbai University, the High Court, Oval Maidan, Rajabai clock-tower, and the many museums, libraries, parks and galleries of the Fort area, the commercial hub of Mumbai with the finest collection of heritage buildings in the city.
Mumbai’s CST or Victoria Station is a splendid example of Gothic architecture with buttresses, domes, turrets and gargoyles peering down. Further north is Crawford Market, designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father and built in 1869, that has everything from household gadgets to fruit and vegetables. Across the street is Mangaldas Market, cramped and chaotic; a sprawling maze of lanes brimming with fabrics and saris. The heavens opened with the onset of the monsoon so I took refuge opposite at Badshah where I had a delightful lassi and idli vada while families enjoyed ice-cream and other sweet treats. North of Crawford Market is the Muslim quarter where agate minarets mingle with residential towers.
Finding it quite impossible to give good coverage to a city of such huge proportions, I returned the next day to explore more of the Fort area. Mumbai’s art scene is exploding, and a good place to discover it is at the Kala Ghoda Arts district. I visited Britannia Restaurant in the Ballard Estate with Parsi dishes, but found I’d lost my appetite once I found it. “You must at least try some of our Pullau berries from Iran,” said Boman Kohinoor handing me a small bowl before showing me with considerable pride a letter from Queen Elizabeth’s aide. Iranians settled in India in the 10th century from Persia to escape religious persecution, and Boman, whose father founded the restaurant in 1923, still takes the orders.
Behind the bustling boulevards are narrow alleys where goods are sold, haircuts are given and the city’s frenetic traffic occasionally comes to a halt because of a wandering cow. The art of discovering Mumbai is to explore its different neighbourhoods and atmospheric streets such as Perin Nariman and Bora Bazaar Street where I bought fine cotton towels and drank flavoursome tea made by a street vendor helped by his two sons.
Along Mahatma Gandhi Road, lined with curb side vendors, you’ll find Kitab Khana offering a fine selection of books and Fabindia with a wide range of kurtas, saris and homewares made of soft cotton fabrics coloured with vegetable dyes. Back near my hotel on Tullock Road a long queue was forming. The legendary Bade Miyan has a meat kebab stand rolled with paper thin flatbreads and a vegetarian stand well worth a detour.
As I left for the airport in a sleek white taxi that sped along the expressway passing Chowpatty Beach and towering modern apartment blocks, the Taj Palace Hotel receded in the background. The industrialist JN Tata built the hotel, now one of the world’s finest, after he was refused entry into the now defunct Watson’s Hotel. Revering its rich history while simultaneously grasping at a modern globalised future, Mumbai is a colourful vibrant city that offers so much I keep coming back for more.