Dadar Market, now one of the largest in south Mumbai, has been selling cheap, fresh vegetables for over 100 years. It was set up to cater for people rehoused there in the 1990s to relieve overcrowding in the plague-afflicted city center.
Mumbai – Long Read

India’s richest city – where dreams come to life

Photo by Maciej Dakowicz

Mumbai – Long Read India’s richest city – where dreams come to life

Hello Mumbai, where the British-built Gateway to India still welcomes visitors to India’s richest city, once known as Bombay. A city where dreams come to life, it has grown from a fishing community spread over seven islands into India’s commercial hub and center of the Bollywood film industry.

Sheema Mookherjee
Sheema Mookherjee Travel Writer

I AM savoring my tap beer at Café Mondegar in Colaba and staring at the people seated around me. That’s something you can do in Mumbai without shame, even when within elbow-touching distance, as nobody here is bothered with anybody else’s business. Space is at a premium, and so is time. So everybody goes about their work in these close confines, detached but focused on what they are doing.

A student turns the pages of his CV and explores his job prospects eagerly with an older man. Three colleagues are taking a lunch break, while going over the discussion they have just had at a client meeting. A group of women friends file in with shopping bags and sit down to pore over the menu stuck securely under the glass tabletop.

The only person at a loose end is a distinctly British gent. I take the liberty of asking whether he’s here as a regular or a tourist. It happens that he’s come on a recommendation by a guidebook, since Mondegar is a south Mumbai landmark, along with the neighboring Café Leopold that was made notorious by a terrorist attack in November 2008.

I prefer Mondegar to Leopold because the atmosphere is more laid-back, the waiters more friendly, and the walls more bright with a larger than life mural by the late Mario Miranda, India’s favorite cartoonist. I order a spicy, cubed steak or “pepper steak boti” but note sadly that the meat is stringy buffalo rather than cow. There has been a recent ban on cattle slaughter by the state’s right-wing government. The jukebox is a popular feature here and favorite Mumbai melodies by Michael Jackson, Jim Reeves and other pop legends waft through the air.

The King only got to see its cardboard model

From Mondegar, I stroll down the busy shopping precinct of Colaba Causeway to the Gateway of India. I am retracing my steps from here to my alma mater (Elphinstone College) a 500-meter walk that bristles with Raj buildings, and has been declared a special heritage zone. The Gateway of India is an enormous basalt archway that sits on the harbor front overlooking the Arabian Sea. Built to welcome the arrival of King George V in 1911, it is probably one of the last structures erected to kowtow to a British monarch. However, the regent only got to see its cardboard model, as the final structure was mired in red-tape and completed only in 1924.

It still stands as an iconic tourist draw and is dotted by hawkers selling balloons, street snacks and plastic souvenirs. Facing the gateway square is the Taj Mahal hotel, another Mumbai legend built by the wealthy Parsi entrepreneur, Jamsetji Tata in 1903. The Gateway, Leopold Café and Taj hotel are now sadly strung together in public memory due to the three-day siege by the terrorists who killed several innocent people on their premises.

I wend my way past an impressive gallery of buildings: the Police Headquarters, David Sassoon Library, Prince of Wales Museum, and my old Elphinstone College rubbing shoulders with the Mumbai University Building and the High Court. These are just the important edifices, but every other building down this avenue (Mahatma Gandhi Road) displays an architectural style from the early 1800s neo- Classic to the late 1800s Victorian neo-Gothic, and the early 20th century Indo-Saracenic.

He actively welcomed trading communities

Deepa Krishnan, who runs walking tours company Mumbai Magic, is an expert on the history of India’s richest city, once known as Bombay. “The entire area from Colaba to the Town Hall, further down from Mumbai University, is known as the Fort Area,” she says. “However, the Fort does not exist anymore as it was demolished in the late 17th century as business expanded. Gerald Aungier, the second governor of Bombay (from 1672 to 1677) is credited with turning the city into a great center of commerce. He actively welcomed trading communities, such as Parsis, Jews, Armenians, Jains, Marwaris, Sindhis and Bohris, to settle.

“At the same time he built up a police force for security and ensured that all communities were seen equally in the eyes of the law. As shipping and trade grew in Mumbai, so did financial activities, and the Bombay Stock Exchange was set up in 1875 (the first-ever in Asia).

“The original inhabitants were fisherfolk, weavers and other tribal communities but, as these various other communities arrived and settled in, they created a culture completely unique to the city revolving around commerce. However, at a basic level, the character of each ethnic group has remained and it is the different communities that I love about Mumbai.”

The capital city of Maharashtra state has grown from its original seven islands to sprawl more than 60 kilometers along the coast. This expansion into Greater Mumbai and New Mumbai was achieved by linking islands with bridges, reclaiming marshy land, and filling up farmland with concrete high rises. It still attracts people from the hinterland, some who don’t know where their next meal will come from, but in a miraculous way find succor in the teeming slums and marketplaces. The dream of prosperity and finding one’s fortune in this city lives out in repetitive clichés.

A warren of muddy lanes lined by shanties

Dharavi, Mumbai’s biggest and oldest slum, sprawls over two square kilometers. It is a warren of muddy lanes lined by low shanties, some in permanent concrete, but most in makeshift corrugated iron and plastic sheets. Open drains line the alleyways, but splashes of color come from potted plants and wall paintings advertising small businesses.

Fahim Vohra, a Dharavi resident and founder of Be the Local, shows me around. “My grandfather emigrated from Gujarat and settled in Dharavi, opening a grocery store, and we have lived here over three generations,” he says. “I was born here and went to a school nearby. My world began and ended here. I did not know I lived in a slum when I was a child.”

A person can spend a lifetime in this city of contrasts without ever knowing how the other half lives. “I got a job in a tourism company as a local guide, but never felt comfortable with the alien way in which they treated Dharavi,” says Fahim. “So I thought why not start something myself, along with my friends?” That’s how Be the Local was born, and now young local people show visitors (mostly foreigners) around this micro-universe.

“We customize our tours according to what visitors want to see,” says Fahim. “Some want to observe the enterprise and small businesses. Fifty per cent of Mumbai’s waste is recycled here. Dharavi is full of small scale industries that turn used plastic, cardboard and glass into reusable items. A large part of the population work at manually sorting the garbage before it is channeled to the workshops and factories. Dharavi is also known for its leather products and ready-made garments.

“Other want to see the life of the different ethnic communities that live here: Muslims, Tamils, Gujaratis, Marwaris. But universally people are amazed by the courage, determination and sense of achievement that our locals have.”

I ask Fahim what makes his home unique. “It’s the sense of pride that Dharavi is the most productive community in Mumbai,” he says with absolute conviction.

Farming no longer provides a good living

From Dharavi, I jump in a cab for my next destination. The city’s metered cabs are highly affordable and I use them for longer journeys, with auto-rickshaws for shorter rides. I invariably ask the cabbies which part of India they are from. Most turn out to be from the states of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar in the Gangetic belt up north. Farming no longer provides a good living, so the men migrate to Mumbai and other cities. They live in cramped quarters and send the hard cash needed for survival back home.

“Who did you vote for in the last election?” I ask my driver. He is guarded in his reply. The right- wing Bharatiya Janata Party has won a majority for the first time in Maharashtra state, and I sense he is a supporter of the Congress, India’s former oligarchic party that is now fading into oblivion. “Rahul Gandhi [Indira Gandi’s grandson and the flickering hope of the Congress] is a good man, but he should marry – he’s pushing on to 46,” he says.

The elite of this city have long broken out of the arranged marriage mold, and are open to live-in relationships, public smooching and skin- revealing outfits for the fashionable women. But the mainstream still upholds “traditional family values”, although most of the working class goes about its business ignoring the flamboyance of the rich. That is a major draw for the liberated intelligentsia here who can lead their lives in relative privacy with no one judging.

My cab ride down the busy Tulsi Pipe Road past the wholesale vegetable market of Dadar takes me to an amalgam of the past and the present coexisting in a strange medley. Like all overpopulated industrial cities with a long past, Mumbai has converted its unused mills and warehouses to bustling hangouts for the elite. The old textile mills in the Lower Parel district have been replaced with swanky malls and multi-storey residential towers. Other factory premises have become restaurants, bars and boutiques.

Café Zoe is typical of these new spaces, with the high factory ceilings affording an enormous sense of space that is lit up by the original skylights. Exposed ventilation ducts and electrical pipes add to the industrial ambience, along with the old brick walls. The brasserie and bar is packed from breakfast till post-dinner drinks.

“We fill a need in the fast-paced life of people in this city who are constantly on the move,” says Chef Viraf Patel. “Everyone’s in the rat race in Mumbai, but that is the intoxication. Eating out from breakfast till dinner has become a necessity, so we do breakfast, lunch, cocktails, private dinners as well as business meetings. We hold events like jazz evenings or photography exhibitions to add to the cultural vibe.”

My choice of food is Braised Beetroot Carpaccio and a John Dory Burger. I am indulging the gastro snob in me, as none of this is typical Mumbai food. “Even 15 years ago, nobody would eat out in Mumbai,” says Viraf. “Everyone preferred the simplicity of home-cooked food. But incomes have risen and people are travelling all over the world. With this has come an awareness and appreciation of international food. We can now also get every possible imported ingredient with ease, so my cuisine here is contemporary European.”

Now it is the heart of happening Mumbai

I drive on northwards to Bandra, down the swanky Worli Sea Link bridge that makes the commute smooth and short, but benefits only those who can use private transport and pay the pricy toll. I meet an old friend Maryanne Fernandes, who was born here and continues to live in her ancestral 19th-century villa. “In my childhood, in the 1970s and ’80s, Bandra was a suburb,” she says. “We used to say ‘We’re going to town’ when we went to Colaba. Now it is the heart of happening Mumbai, where the Who’s- Who live and the hip people flock to shop and eat.”

There is a special vibe that makes Bandra so loved, and that is provided by its “East Indian” heritage. Embracing education and Western mores, East Indians were the forward-looking people who lent Bombay its liberal color. Maryanne belongs to this community and tells me about them. “Our fore fathers were the indigenous inhabitants of Mumbai who converted to Christianity from the 15th century onwards,” she says. “We appealed to Queen Victoria to be called ‘East Indians’ to distinguish ourselves from the Goa Catholics who owed allegiance to Portugal. Throughout Mumbai there are East Indian villages with heritage houses, churches and crosses built to ward off the plague.”

A significant part of Bandra’s charm is this built heritage. A walk down its main artery, Hill Road, takes me past several historic churches, cemeteries and convent schools. St Andrew’s Church was built in 1575 and has an atmospheric cemetery through which I walk down to the seashore to the remains of a Portuguese fort built in 1640. The chapel of Mount Mary (1640) stands on a hilltop providing calming views of swaying coconut trees and the waves below. St Stanislaus is another convent started as a “native boy’s” orphanage in 1863 and now a busy high school, while St Joseph’s Convent, celebrating its 150th anniversary, is the best-known girl’s school in the area. All these school building and chapels are heritage structures and make for a nostalgic stroll.

The social buzz of Bandra, however, is found in Pali Hill, a leafy residential area that houses old Portuguese-style bungalows and the swanky private villas of film stars along its slopes. The crowded and narrow bazaar road here has the trendiest restaurants attracting an evening and weekend crowd that makes it groan under the strain. Hanging out at Pali Hill are the advertising and media crowd, people on the fringes of the film and television industry, and anybody who aspires to be part of the urban legend that is Mumbai.

Some have sold their houses to outsiders

Another East Indian village is Matharpacady, tucked away behind the narrow lanes of the Mazgaon Docks. Unlike Bandra, this little enclave has been left behind in the development race and wears a derelict look. Many residents have emigrated overseas, while some have sold their houses to outsiders. However, a handful of residents stubbornly cling on to their heritage and I delve into this emotion by talking to Julius Valladares. A marine engineer by profession, Julius has sailed to every continent of the world several times, but he refuses to move out of his grandfather’s house named “Keepsake”. This is a yellow bungalow with high ceilings and Burma teak rafters, original floor tiles from Portugal, thick stone walls, and the typical sit-out facing the road.

“This was a village of seafarers since it was close to the docks,” he says. “Everyone had something to do with marine trade. My grandfather worked for a Glasgow-based shipping company and my dad and I followed in his footsteps.” I ask Julius how long he will continue to stay here with his wife, Melanie, and three young sons. “I have no intentions of moving,” he says, although a slight shadow of worry crosses his brow, since the future of the village is threatened by a new urban redevelopment plan.

A unique feature of the village is the Clubs – actually not for sports, but more to provide communal lodging for young men who came from the interior to work at the docks. Now, although most of the youth work in other trades, they continue to lead a Spartan life here, by storing their belongings in teak chests and sleeping on them. At 8pm the devout recite the rosary around the club altar, but it’s a dying tradition. Matharpacady struggles for existence with its 30-odd homes, crumbling clubhouses, an oratory cross from the 1875 plague, and an ancient well, to remind people of a life long past in Mumbai.

The city may have forgotten its seafaring past but the sea always calls out to me. Having left Mumbai 20 years ago, I still enjoy the ocean view each time I visit. Sunset at Bandra’s seafront along Carter Road is my favorite time of the day. Busy Mumbaikars (as the locals are called) hurry home at the end of a long day, with little time to appreciate the sight. Commutes are often 60 to 90 minutes long, mostly in the packed local trains or red buses. Those who have cars resign themselves to a slow crawl in the unending stream of traffic. In this city, where so many come to chase dreams, and some come true, we are often too busy to enjoy its real life charms.


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