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City Breaks: The Witching Hour in Colaba

The small town charms of Mumbai

Some cities leave their best secrets for 6 AM in the morning

Chasing Dreams in Colaba

Talish Ray is a lawyer who imagined  that one day she will run her own firm and earn enough money to travel for vacations whenever she wanted and where ever she wanted . She got her wish. She runs TRS law offices and has a new address called midair somewhere . Only, she find herself trapped in between client and court tantrums with no time to see or feel the place . She is presently working up her courage to dump her firm, sell every belonging and run a shack in Goa where the feni will be free and the conversations by invitation only. This of course  will  happen if her new career avatar as a  bespoke history guide takes off enough to give her the wings. Till then she makes the most of every minute in a new place. In this sporadic column she will share her suggestions for the very best short cultural immersions to pack into a business trip anywhere in the country. Today, she gets lost in a part of the world that is best seen before sun break.

If you are stuck in Mumbai, and not from Mumbai, then you’ve probably faced such a night! Or you will!

It always starts with that one client whose work is guaranteed to keep you in office through the  night. All night long!  And then-since you are in the party capital of the country- someone you absolutely have to meet calls.  You head out to Toto’s Garage or a similar den.You resolve to leave in an hour after you ‘just grab a bite’  but time moves on and it soon its 1 AM.  Discipline and commitment forces the slave in you back to the file. Before you can say sunrise, it is 6 am. There’s the familiar grit in your eyes, the rasp in your throat and the slow pound at the back of your head. Your body has been bulldozed. At that moment you can crash for the rest of the week. But then again, there is the 11 am meeting you hankered the previous night for. Odds are you will do anything to clear your head,  but sleep is not an option.

There are the straight jacketed folks that hit the hotel gym and pool (Do these A types ever have such night; I suppose their ilk leave Toto’s at 11 pm as planned). Or you could head out and explore. With all the water flowing from the Mithi into the Arabian Sea, if you are in South Mumbai, there are always things to be rediscovered.  Get out of that hotel room because truth be told they are all cramped in space, veritable nests by the rest of India standard . Go smell the sea, feel the balmy air at the nape of your neck and start walking. The beauty of the Fort is you are never too far from the sea. It has tons of fantastic nooks and crevices to be explored before the trade hour, before the famous CST ‘local train’ scenario overtakes the town. Smell the air once again, sense the faint smell of salt of the drying fish from the ‘khadi’ once again and  start at one corner from the Afghan Church.  It is a peaceful oasis in a city that’s otherwise on cortico-steroids. Hidden behind thick foliage of bushes and trees with only its spire visibly from a distance, the church is open from dawn to dusk. If you haven’t fixed a time with him and the entrance is closed, you can always ask the verger who stays next door to open the entrance for you. This Church of St John the Evangelist owes its origins to the first Afghan War, no less. It was built to commemorate those that fell at this war fought in 1838. Of the 16,000 men sent, only 3 returned to tell the tale of a war that recorded one of  the heaviest losses suffered by the British army anywhere in the world. Hmm, so what is so special about entire structure? Nothing saves a few ghost stories and a space to sit back and breathe. And breathe again. Oh yes! If Dan Brown is a part of your literary landscape then do explore the cult of white brotherhood that uses this church and its near identical architectural twin in Mcleodganj. They solemnly believe that Jesus visits a cave of light in the Himalayas.

From the Afghan Church start walking down the Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg (Quick question, did Bhagat Singh ever visit Colaba in his life ? And for that matter did  MK Gandhi might ever visit Tenali or Kushinagar?)  past Wodehouse Road and all the familiar Colaba landmarks which are waiting for the sun to rise. All except the street vendors. The batata sandwich vendors are still a while away. If you feel you’ve fallen into a wormhole you will always be brought back to the cobbled street by the fisher folk who use the pavement at this hour to mend their nets. They even sing a ditty in a low hum the tune of which you can never quite recollect but sounds familiar. Do continue at a leisurely pace and let your all your senses rule. The smell, the breeze, the salt, the cool and within the hour you will find yourself crossing the Naval Dockyard building.

Halt Sailor! Ponder on the fate of Sardar Kanoji Angey who originally held his sway over the island of Colaba. That he finds a 10 second representation in the Pirates of the Caribbean has no bearing on the fact that almost nothing is written about this buccaneer pirate/ general in the History books.

Asiatic Society

Soon enough you will reach the town hall which houses the Asiatic Library. Yes those fantastic white steps of the Greco-roman structure have been romanticized beyond proportion in countless movies. Forget that for a moment and we might get to it eventually. Stand with your back to the steps  and you will behold what started out as Elphinstone Garden but was renamed as Horniman Circle Garden. If the Horniman Circle has an animal spirit it will be that of the chameleon. When the surrounding shops are shut, it resembles an English country town square but when open, there you have Mumbai itself – a pulsating buzzing hub of commerce and action. As you walk along the circle you are likely to have your senses assailed by the smell of baking adding to the chaos of the salty humid smelly air that is quintessentially Mumbai. This time, please follow your nose. You will be led into an incredible magic alley to Ye Olde Bakery which opens early enough to feed a wandering soul. If you have a stuffy nose, just ask around.

Yazdani bakery opens at the crack of dawn and the few people around that hour will lead you straight to this place.  Step inside and walk into a different world. Yazdani is what’s called as an Irani bakery. If you are a regular like me, the owner and the crew will greet you like a wounded returning from the Afghan War itself.  Started in the 1940’s by Iranis (array baba, I said Persian Iranis and that is a little different from the Parsi bawa log). It is not strictly an eatery. You get chai and brun maska and bun maska and biscuits and cakes and the pies. The bread pudding and the apple pie are to die for but it’ll be a while before it is ready.  These are served with unlimited conversations should you be polite enough to tender exact change (please carry that!  Their rates are pre liberalization but they sniff down on higher denomination notes).

Manned by one or the other member of Zend family, each one is a more delightful rogue than the other. Start with the Brun lathered with the freshest salty butter that Amul can supply. The Brun is hard and goes well with the sweet comforting milky tea. Cleanse your palate with the fiery ginger biscuit. It is spicy with just a hint of sugar. If its fieriness needs chasing, try the warm just out-of-the-oven cupcakes. There is an assortment of vegetable puffs, light as air with a generous filling which bursts in your mouth at the tiniest bite.   Plonk yourself on the sturdy wooden benches and over buttered brun you can discuss everything from the state of decline of Guajarati theatre, the performance of the local police commissioner, the latest dual taxation treaty and the gold medal winners of World Boxing Champion in the year of the Lord 1969.

“Have you been working all night again “

“In my days, I could have fought Jack Dempsey himself,  I can show  you how to deliver the perfect left hook “

“Where is that charming young man you brought with you the last time, Rascal came by two weeks back and said you were his wife”

“ These people are not allowing me make any  repairs! All they want is bribes but me,   I will not give them one ginger biscuit for free “

“Have a brownie, they are fresh out of the oven”

“My wife she said to me, now Mr. Zend you will be a flirt till the end“

“Did you see that nice pink newspaper that wrote about us “

“The rum and raisin cakes are ready,  promise me not to eat them and drive “

“You do something about your hair and dark circles and I will work on my moves and we will go out dancing next time you are here “

This then is the cacophony that makes an all night slog at the desk session worth it. Give it a try

Essential information

If you don’t know how to get to Mumbai or where to stay please contact me directly.  I am currently working on a photography collection featuring ignoramuses and you will be the star in the collection. You may not have heard about the khurja pav at Prabhadevi or Pansheekar’s Thali Peeth or the toffees at Parsi Dairy Farm or the Rustom ice cream sandwich etc etc. I can tell you Kharvas is overrated but then that is another story.

Oh and that meeting went very well. The Client loved the breads from Yazdani!!!

Featured Photo Credit: mckaysavage via Compfight cc
Asiatic Society Photo Credit: Mat Booth via Compfight cc

1 Comment on City Breaks: The Witching Hour in Colaba

  1. What a delightful read! I know exactly what I want to do during my next visit to Mumbai and since it is coming up during Xmas and New Year this year, I feel the festive season might add to the magic.
    Talish, what a fantastic storyteller you are! I loved every bit of it. I was as engrossed reading this as I was listening to you give us the history of Ujjain the day we drove to Ujjain, last month.
    I look forward to more of your travel blogs.

    PS – I was in Macleodgunj in September this year. The resemblance of Afghan Church to the Church in Macleodgunj is uncanny!

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