India’s Big Apple

Sampling Mumbai’s vibrant street culture

By: Michele Kayal

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 cover.

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
91-22-5632-4343
www.hilton.com

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.
91-22-5665-3366
www.tajhotels.com
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