Discover This Madness Called Mumbai

Often called the New York of India, Mumbai is a city of extremes. From the airplane window you cannot escape the massive spread of slums surrounding the Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport upon landing. Travel into the city and you will find skyscrapers dotting the landscape including billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s 27-floor personal home which the taxi driver will happily point out. In this city, the rich and the poor coexist in near harmony. From housing the Reserve Bank of India, the Bombay Stock Exchange, Bollywood which churns out more films each year than any other anywhere else in the world to Dharavi ‘a teeming slum of one million souls’, this financial capital of India with its more than 15 million residents offers an exciting adventure for many tourists.

Bombay became Mumbai in 1995. For many still struggling to call it Mumbai, the name change was a political move as with the other name changes of states in India. It was the year when Hindu nationalist party the Shiv Sena won elections in the state of Maharashtra and heading a coalition government decided to rename the city after the Hindu Goddess Mumba Devi, the city’s patron deity. Everyone was asked to adopt the new name. Interestingly, this was a move that the Shiv Sena had long pushed for. They argued that “Bombay” was an English version of Mumbai and therefore an unwanted legacy of the British colonial rule. In doing so, the party believes it has strengthened its Marathi identity.
The Gateway of India, and not India Gate which is in Delhi, is Mumbai’s most iconic structure. A monument built during the British Raj, it is located on the waterfront in the Apollo Bunder area and overlooks the Arabian sea. It is the city’s top tourist attraction. According to Wikipedia, “the structure was erected to commemorate the landing of their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary at Apollo Bunder, when they visited India in 1911. Built in Indo-Saracenic style, the foundation stone for the Gateway of India was laid on 31 March 1911. The final design of George Wittet was sanctioned in 1914 and the construction of the monument was completed in 1924. The Gateway was later the ceremonial entrance to India for Viceroys and the new Governors of Bombay. It served to allow entry and access to India.”

The monument has faced three terror attacks – twice in 2003 and it was also the disembarkation point in 2008 when four gunmen attacked the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. Today tourists also throng the area to look at the Taj hotel where 31 people died; it now stands as a symbol of resilience. But move to nearby Colaba, and you will find the ‘culture square of Mumbai’ where cafes such as Leopold, made famous by book Shantaram, thrive. The area is also reminiscent of old Bombay with buildings such as National Gallery of Modern Art, Regal Cinema, Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum) and Cusrow Baug, a Parsi residential colony, built in 1934, covering an area of 84,000 square yards, which home to over 500 families.

One cannot miss Haji Ali on a trip to Mumbai. A mosque and a tomb built in 1431 by wealthy Muslim merchant and Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, it also contains his body. Hundreds throng the place on Thursdays and Fridays to receive his blessings. Built in the middle of the ocean, you can go to Haji Ali during low tide from a narrow, long walkway. Unfortunately, women are not allowed anymore to enter the shrine’s inner sanctum but they can still visit its large open area.
One of the most interesting places of visit is Mani Bhavan or the Mahatma Gandhi museum located at 19, Laburnum Road. A tiny building and rarely known to even locals, it’s only high profile visitor in the last 50 years was US President Barack Obama in 2010. It was here that Gandhi lived during his visits to Mumbai between 1917 and 1934 and from where he initiated the Non-Cooperation, Satyagraha, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat movements. Libraries, photographs and documents pertaining to Gandhi’s life including his letters to Adolf Hitler and Franklin D Roosevelt are displayed. Closeby is August Kranti Maidan from where he launched the ‘Quit India’ movement against British regime in 1942.
Some call it an embarrassing eyesore in the middle of India’s financial capital but for tourists, Dharavi has always evoked interests for what it is – a unique economic slum with its location making it Mumbai’s hot real estate. People jostle for space and swamps surround the place but many workshops thrive inside it. Some of these are the potter’s colony, tanneries, bakeries, textile manufacturers who add to this diverse environment. The movie Slumdog Millionaire has given Dharavi its share of fame and infamy but tour operators are helping break down its negative stereotypes. Within Dharavi there are guided tours that give an insight of the place that reportedly has an annual economic output estimated to be $600 million to more than $1 billion. Dharavi has been examined in a Harvard Business School case study and dissected by urban planners from Europe to Japan.

• In 2009 the eight-lane, 5.6km Bandra-Worli Sea Link Bridge was completed along the west coast of the peninsula, cutting about an hour off the commute between north and south.
• Bandra, a suburb in the city’s northwest, offers a mix of old and new, with Portuguese architecture, Bollywood residences, high-end restaurants and street markets.
• The Mumbai Suburban Railway transports seven million people every day. It is the trains that make the city run.
• The Mumbai Dabbawallas ferry fresh lunch boxes to office goers. About 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes are delivered every day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. It has been called an organisation with the best time management.
• Mumbai is a melting pot of several cuisines from street food to fine dining. Along the beaches are the famous paav bhaaji, bhel puri sellers. That apart, from Mughlai food to Irani cafes, Parsi eateries and Dhaabas to coastal cuisines, the city is a foodie’s haven.
• Lastly, take a Bollywood tour package and you might run into the stars that make up this gigantic film industry based in Mumbai.

By Indira Laisram