Once you get over the shock of crowds, the humidity and the tangy sea breeze mixed with the smell of dead fish and sewage that permeates this megapolis, it is easier to open your mind to what Mumbai offers. To make sense of this vast throbbing mass of life you have to get to know it from the ground up and like all great cities of the world, the best way to discover Mumbai’s neighborhoods is by foot.
South Mumbai or “downtown” has traditionally been the drinking hole of the rich, the famous and the artistic. The newer districts around Bandra raised the bar in the recent years, but this area retains its sense of old world charm with style. A great place to start your downtown exploration is at Churchgate station, the terminus for the city’s western line. Try not to be overwhelmed by the numbers of commuters as you observe the chaos around the station where vendors sell everything from sandwiches to flowers to discarded flight headphones. If you can stomach it, I highly recommend having a cup of piping hot masala chai and dosa from a vendor. For something more fashionable, step into Gaylord Bakery across the road. I have never had their coffee, but their breads and pastries are the best in town.
From Churchgate, the Veer Nariman Road will take you to the Marine Drive promenade. Meeting ground for joggers, college kids skipping classes, lovers and retired old men, this is the place for quiet contemplation as you gaze at the vast Arabian Sea and the curving skyline of Mumbai. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts here.
After some soul searching head back on Veer Nariman Road towards Flora Fountain. This detailed sculpted fountain was designed and built by the Britishers pre-independence and in recent decades been the heart of a sprawling secondhand books market that lines the nearby pavements. More recently, the municipal corporation, in it’s over enthusiastic bid to keep the city clean, has been waging a war against street hawkers. As a weak sign of protest, few vendors can be spotted selling college textbooks and pirated books. But gone are the days where crossing two blocks would take you as many hours because with every step your eyes would fall on a book that you must own.
At the Fountain, take Mahatma Gandhi Road towards Colaba, but first spare a few minutes to admire the gothic architecture of the Mumbai High Court buildings and Mumbai University. The university clock tower is Mumbai’s own Big Ben and is one its most photographed sites.
MG Road ends in the Kala Ghoda arts district. Lined with galleries, restaurants and theatre this is the venue for the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival where hundreds of thousands of people turn up to attend free movie screenings and open air concerts. On other days, it’s pretty quiet and the only two people that I always see posted outside the historic Jehangir Art Gallery are a palm reader and a guy who will write your name on a rice grain (why would anyone want that?).
Next door is the Prince of Wales Museum, which is now known by its much longer Indian name. I know museums are not for everybody, but I have always enjoyed ogling at the exquisite ceramic and pottery collection on the third floor. Sometimes I wish the glass casings would magically disappear and I could claim some oriental jade pieces.
The Shivaji road from the museum will take you straight to the most important landmark monuments of Mumbai – The Gateway of India and The Taj Mahal Hotel. Both sites have seen devastating terror attacks in the past decade and while there are no apparent scars, it’s impossible to stand here and not think of those tragedies. I see hundreds of people milling about as if nothing has ever happened and I wonder if this is resilience or apathy.
At the docks, you are bound to be accosted for ferry rides. My advice, don’t take them. They are only fun if it’s a party on the boat and you are getting drunk.
By now you are probably tired of the heat and have just had enough of Victorian architecture. Gulp down a few cold beers at Café Mondegar, kickback, relax and watch a game of cricket.