A midnight jazz medley, the chaos and smells of Mohammed Ali Road, Love & Longing – where else but in Mumbai?
Mumbai is immortalized in Indian cinema through the imagery of young Govindas climbing the Dahi Handi on Janmashtami, a mob crying ‘Ganpati Bappa Moriya, Mangal Murti Moriya’ during Ganpati Visarjan, or an immaculately dressed Don puffing away at his Marlboro. But if you are in Arkansas or Charlottesville, being a Mumbaikar is akin to being a Slumdog Millionaire, and that’s unfortunately how a lot of the world sees Mumbai today.
The reality, as always, has many more shades. The charms of Maximum City extend way beyond Bollywood, Dalal Street and Dharavi. There is the cultural melange of the Kala Ghoda Street Festival, jostling for a toe-seat on the 6:30 “local” (train), the regional plays at Prithvi, the famous Dabbawallas who set off the chain of events in Lunchbox, the migratory flamingoes of Sewri, the “let’s get on with it” attitude which is so well captured in the Mumbaiya slang (Boss, Pakane Ka Nahin), and above all its people whose celebrated spirit has withstood repeated attacks by nature and by mankind, all with the same smile and never-say-die attitude.
It is impossible to pick one definite Bollywood movie for Mumbai, since most of them are shot in and around the city! If you look hard enough you will notice the majestic steps outside the Asiatic Library, the thousands teeming outside the CST, or the solitary green running track in Bandra in every second Friday release. But few represent the duality of the city as beautifully as Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420. Though often marred by a preachy tone, the movie expertly lays out the ability of the city to transform a person’s soul with its daily rigour.
Another movie that beautifully depicts the everyday life in Mumbai is Sai Paranjpe’s Katha. Behind the squalor of the chawls is a melange of inhabitants that may weave in and out of each others’ lives, but are always there when needed.
For a representation of the city’s constant desire for urban mobility and the all-consuming need to own one’s own “aashiana”, look no further than Bhimsain Khurana’s Gharaonda. Watch the young lovers, Amol Palekar and Zarina Wahab, enjoy the simple pleasures of Mumbai life – sharing a coconut water (with two straws no less), and running after pigeons in easy abandon here:
From the more recent movies, there is a special spot in my heart for the love-in-a-local-train sequences of Saathiya, the dense alleyways of Mohammed Ali Road from Dhobi Ghat, and the pulsating Ganesha Chaturthi sequence from Shor in the City. For if the city must be defined by just one of the five senses, it is surely the aural majesty of Mumbai that stays with you the longest?
The song of Mumbai is a midnight jazz medley. A live performance at Hard Rock Café, sax at The Blue Frog, laughter at the Comedy Store, the lone pianist at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the crashing of the sea, the blaring of horns at a traffic signal and Bollywood songs blaring from the century old Fiat cabs. One song which I think captures the spirit of Mumbai is Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the song of a people who have stayed resilient in spite of floods, riots and terrorist attacks.
Like Delhi & Kolkata, Mumbai’s platter is an assortment put together from colonial gymkhanas, Parsi kitchens, the plains of Gujarat, the Konkan and Malabari coasts or a secret recipe stolen from a Khalifa’s kitchen across the Arabian city.
For a taste of Mumbai, there is so much more to explore beyond the insanely touristy Leopold or Mondegar at Colaba. Do taste the fondue at Moshe’s, bite into the yummy sandwiches at Candies, kiss your lips with Elco chaats, and tuck into the giant crabs and lobsters at Trishna or Mahesh Lunch Home. For Goan food, try Martin’s or Goa Portuguesa where the host will come to your table and engage you in a lively chat, take your name and give you his card. If you miss the homeland, head to Madras Cafe for great idlis & kapi, Oh! Calcutta & Hangla’s for the Bong “cushion” , Busago for Pan-Asian, Nido for European fare and Kurry Club for Mangalorean food.
But the real taste of Mumbai is found in its streets (isn’t it true for any Indian city?). Vada Pao, Missal Pao, Pao Bhaji , Chinese Dosa, Idli Sambar, Veg. Sandwich …it’s a feast on every street. And the best street food in Mumbai is during Iftaar time at Mohammed Ali Road. The road is transformed into a Moulin Rouge set with a looming mosque, fairy lights, the melting smells from competing eateries and tables filled with Mumbaikar’s rejoicing in their city.
Finally, a Mumbai culinary experience is incomplete without a visit to an Irani cafe. Head to Kyani & Co. for an eggiliocus breakfast and the city’s best brun maska (toasted white buns drenched in melted Amul butter, and best enjoyed with endless cups of the city’s famous Cutting Chai ) at Yazdani bakery.
So many books have tried to capture the soul of this city that never sleeps. Vikram Chandra has made the city his muse (Love And Longing in Bombay, Sacred Games); Suketu Mehta has chronicled its history, geography, culture and people in the eminently readable Maximum City; Kiran Nagarkar has depicted the lives of its famous chawls in Ravan And Eddie; and Fawzan Husain has captured nearly three decades of the city in Between Bombay & Mumbai: 25 Years In Pictures Through a Changing City. Mumbai is a city that turns a convict into a saint (Shantaram) and a petty crook into one of the most wanted criminals in the world (Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of The Mumbai Mafia)
In the words of Murzban F. Shroff, the author of Breathless in Bombay, a collection of short stories that captures Mumbai’s cliches and contradictions, its principles and prejudices:
Perhaps there is no other city in the world where the struggle spills so vividly and unabashedly out onto the streets…. How many trades? How many dreams? How many journeys can a single city take and deliver?
Each of these books provides a different perspective on Mumbai, but if you had to choose just one, I’d go with Ravan And Eddie, a hilarious story about Ravan, a Maratha Hindu, and Eddie, a Roman Catholic, growing up to adolescence on different floors of the Central Works Department Chawl No. 17 in Bombay. The story starts off when Ravan is not yet born & Eddie is barely a year old. It then follows them through the twists & turns of growing up, the pleasure, the pain, the horror, the angst, the guilt, the questions … are all there in the book.
Supriya Da’Silva is a retired senior History & English teacher from The Bombay Scottish School, Mahim. Her friends and “soul” live in Mumbai, while her body is currently exiled in Calcutta.