If New Delhi is India’s Washington, then Mumbai is its New York.
The city formerly known as Bombay is a place of contrasts of
tin-roofed huts butting against luxury hotels, of gray-black
pollution against carnival-colored temples and shining silk saris.
It may be tempting to skip this commercial capital on the way to
somewhere else, but the city should be experienced for its energy,
hipness and history. Mumbai’s Markets
My favorite part of any city is usually the markets, and Mumbai’s
are an endless tumble of color and chaos people and animals
crowding the alleys and passages; giant sacks of bright-red dried
peppers or dirt-crusted potatoes being carried on heads. I braved
the hot, crowded city bus to reach one of the city’s most famous,
Crawford Market. Mumbai’s buses don’t actually stop, but only slow
down, and I jumped off while it was still moving, just missing a
fetid pool of watery mud, only to find the market closed. The
merchants were protesting a new tax. (Bus strikes, protests and any
number of other gripes may close down one part of the city or
another on any given day.)
But the impromptu market on the street outside was just as good.
Muslim men in knit caps and long, white pajama-like garments sipped
tea atop burlap bags of onions. Hindu women in saris maroon, green,
aquamarine, pure red haggled over eggplant, cauliflower and
dark-red carrots. A goat, apparently right at home, stopped to
nibble a taxi tire. All of it went along well until a police van
turned the corner and all the merchants apparently illegal
hurriedly rolled up their sacks of cabbage and ginger and ran for
Though sprawling and apparently disorganized, the best way to
tackle Mumbai is on foot, one neighborhood at a time. From Crawford
Market it’s just a five-minute walk to stolid remnants of British
rule, like Victoria Terminus. Completed in 1887 as the headquarters
of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway Company, the building’s
grand Gothic architecture conjures 19th-century London (but hotter)
as modern Indian commuters, many in suits and ties, bump and jostle
you on their way to work. From there, I walked through the Fort
District (yes, an old British fort once stood here), its book
stalls crammed with texts in English, which almost everyone in the
city speaks, and its gorgeous, decrepit art-deco buildings,
decaying quietly among the Victorians.
Schlepping around in a pair of broken sandals, I headed to Fashion
Street, a clothing market, where inexpensive kurtas (long, often
embroidered Indian tops), jeans, shoes and bags overflow from every
stall, and stall-keepers call “Look, Madame, look, look! Madame
just have a look,” as you pass.
If you like to bargain, this is the place. And the rule of thumb?
Start by offering 50 percent or less of whatever the merchant tells
you the item costs. A pair of sandals for 700 rupees ($16)? I got
mine for 250 ($5.75). They’ll gasp and gag and tell you they’re
insulted and say they absolutely can’t do it, but walk away, and
they’ll come after you. On the Waterfront
I followed the shady, tree-lined streets of the Fort District to
the Gateway of India, perched on a peninsula that juts into the
water. An Islamic-style victory arch opened by the British in 1924,
the Gateway today doesn’t welcome visitors to Mumbai as much as
entertain them, with a bustling scene of hawkers, cobra charmers
and bewildered tourists who make great fodder for people watching.
A few blocks farther lies Marine Drive, also known as The Queen’s
Necklace for the way it curves gently along the Arabian Sea, its
luxury hotels and spectacular art-deco buildings shimmering like
jewels at night. And that’s when the real fun happens.
Indians are great strollers, and in the evening they ply the
seawall at Marine Drive, men in kurta, women in saris or salwar
kameez, hawkers selling peanuts, roasted lentil snacks, balloons.
After a brisk constitutional, the best idea is to grab a few
hundred grams of kulfi, the creamy Indian ice cream, and plant
yourself at Chowpatty Beach at the end of the Drive.
Chowpatty is not a beach as Americans know it not a place you’d
even think of swimming. But at night it becomes a carnival, with
camels, game booths and thousands of people eating and socializing.
A walk through Mumbai and an evening on Chowpatty Beach are perhaps
the best ways to get a primer on India’s Fellini-like character,
its organized chaos, as well as its contrasting charms.
|WHERE TO STAY|
Hilton Towers Mumbai:
The Hilton’s clean, cool rooms, richly appointed in royal blue and
burgundy, are a sweet respite from the city’s dust and noise. The
hotel has 550 rooms on 32 floors, and a two-story shopping arcade
with 350 boutiques. Doubles from $305
Taj Mahal Hotel:
The Taj has long been a beloved city landmark. Across from the
Gateway of India, the majestic hotel conjures the time of the Raj.
Doubles from $275.