Updated: May 16, 2022
I have never been one of those Mumbai romantics. The ones I have seen in films obsessing over the beauty of the Mumbai rains, waxing eloquent on the City that never sleeps, painting a picture of Mumbai as a place where all dreamers go to dream. I had adequately nice dreams set in the backdrop of the City of Joy, thank you kindly! Growing up in Kolkata, all romanticism I had was restricted to this beautiful city, its lanes, its parks, the places I had been to, and the ones that I hadn’t. Of course, growing up under the watchful eye of a protective mama hen meant that the places I hadn’t visited far outweighed the ones I had. If anything, the lure of the unexplored beauty of Kolkata means that I am even more curious about how the city really is. Adds to the charm.
So when I got the date for an interview for the Development Studies course in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I wasn’t greatly excited at the prospect of visiting Mumbai for the first time. Instead, I spent my time deciding on how best to cook up a believable story to tell my shift supervisor about why I needed to visit Mumbai on such short notice. I decided marrying off an unknown friend would be my safest option. It could explain the lack of pictures on my social media (because I hardly post stuff from social gatherings anyway) and would fit perfectly with the 2-day timeline I had. It was a curious, if stressful, time. I did not want to show my erstwhile employers any cards that I was looking to move towards higher studies, because I did not want to jinx it before it actually happened. And I also did not want to sell my position in the company short in case I needed to continue there. (Sorry, folks, if any of you are reading this! If needs must, you know?)
I turned to my trusted trip advisor friends, Rachana and Somdatta- who had already been to Mumbai- to point me in the general direction of places I needed to visit. Sure enough, Somdatta told me about all the cafes she had been to, and Rachana told me about the beaches and the museums, and my greedy ass told me to visit them all.
The time leading up to the Mumbai trip is a haze, more or less. Preparing for the interviews a bit, working in the shifts, travelling back and forth between Kolkata, hunting giant spiders in my Kharagpur room, planning all the interview dates and the excuses I would need for each of them, the 48-hour sleepless run I would need to go on to balance two night shifts in the plant and an afternoon interview in Kolkata...And that was just the last couple of weeks of February!
In the lead-up to the interview date, I came to know that a junior of mine from work was also going to TISS to interview for the Human Resources program. Let me be brutally honest here and say he did not really feature in my Mumbai plans, and I wanted to keep it that way! There was nothing wrong with him, but I wanted Mumbai…all to myself… You can understand why I cannot name him, so let’s call him Guddu Bhaiyya.
March 8, 2019
I had a night shift that day. And I imagine it went pretty much like most night shifts. A dinner at the plant canteen till 10.15 pm. Trudging up to Blast Furnace 2 alone, waving cheerfully at the people from the previous shift, the truck drivers, and any and all dogs which happened to cross my path.
Pudding the dog, and other night-time things
A bit of small talk with some of my shift people who would be pretty curious about the state of affairs in my life. Going into the deets of the shift work would take up a fair bit of space and time, so why don’t we park that for a sunnier day? I imagine I also slept an hour or so, curled up as I used to be on the floor with my fire-resistant jacket substituting as a mattress. Fuel to get through the night.
'Bedroom' with a view
March 9, 2019
And, sharp at 5.30 am, one of the people in the shift, presumably Dipak Babu, the contract workmen’s supervisor whose only job was to tell his workers who would get work that night and then sleep through the rest of the night, would have taken me and my giant bags to the Gokulpur station on his bike, where I would have thanked him and hopped off with a ‘See you in three days’ time’, gotten myself a 30-rupee ticket to Howrah, and boarded the Medinipur-Howrah local. And chugh chugh home in 2.5 hours.
The morning local
I had another interview that day, actually, for an HR program in IIT Kharagpur. They have a building in Salt Lake. I went in there in the afternoon in a suit that was one size too large, and boots that looked like they had gone out of style 10 years back (they had- my father had lent me a pair), and a sleep-deprived pair of eyes and stifled yawns. The interview was nothing much to write home about. I said India has 49 states, and that I knew ERP was Tally, and that HR analytics was one of the very many HR areas I was very passionate about and could not follow that up with the reason for my unbridled passion. Let’s just say it wasn’t my brightest hour. I came back home, shed the weight of the formal wear, changed into my Rooney t-shirt and went to Quest Mall.
En route home
Rishav and I had planned to catch a second-day evening show of Wonder Woman. After the initial chest bumps and awkward poking of each other’s tummies or something to express affection, we went about exchanging notes on what we could be expecting from the movie, and how many icecreams we should be ordering, and whether the veg noodles could be forgiven for being veg, and whether we should order the popcorn now, or during the interval after making short work of the icecreams and noodles and momos at the start.
Rishav dropped me home after the movie, and that was pretty much my last-minute preparation for the Mumbai interview.
Artistic selfie with Rishav's car...because we took no other picture!
March 10, 2019. I got up (or may have been dragged up by my mother) at 3.30 am, got ready, took my large purple bag (stuffed with God knows what for a one-night trip) and my backpack (an HP laptop bag, if memory serves me right), and bundled myself into a cab at 4.30 am. You’d think, looking at my schedule for the last couple of days, that I would probably be tired. Nuh uh. I was going to Mumbai. That doesn’t happen every day. I could get tired every day.
I reached the airport, and once all the mandatory checking was done on me and my belongings, and the security personnel were convinced I was not a terrorist in any shape or form, I looked around to see what food places were open at 5.30 am. Guddu called me, and said he was pretty hungry, and wanted a Subway sandwich. If you know the first thing about me, I am always hungy for a Subway sandwich, and I merrily agreed with him. Once the sandwiches made their way into our tummies, I popped an anti-heights and anti-puking magic pill, and we made our way to the aircraft.
I am normally not someone who has had a good history with aeroplanes. Think back to a one-year old me being sick all over the floor when we were going to Chennai. Or a 24-year old me repeating the same feat in the washroom of a flight to Mauritius in the middle of turbulence. Or...you get the drift. But today? Nuh uh. I was going to Mumbai. As indicated, that doesn’t happen every day. I could get sick every day. I had the perfect medicine in mind. Listen to music on my earphones loudly when the plane was taking off, and then turn down the volume, squeeze my eyes shut for two hours and sleep for the rest of the flight! And would you believe it? It worked like a dream. I opened my eyes just in time to see uncles of various shapes, sizes and dresses standing in line on the aisle, while the aeroplane had not even finished taxiing into its designated cubby hole in the airport.
I looked outside- it was all different……... ah, well, let’s be honest, it wasn’t. It looked pretty much the same as any other airport, so I levelled with myself that the magic of Mumbai probably started where the walls of the airport ended.
And it did. The air smelled different. I had been to Goa the previous year, and it smelled like that. Salty. Warm. And nice. Or perhaps that was just my brain desperate to make crazy connections!
I was wearing my favourite blue denim shirt, no doubt looking like the hottest thing to set foot on Mumbai that day, with my sleeves buttoned up midway to my arm. Guddu and I booked a cab at the airport which took its own sweet time to make itself visible in front of us, and then off we went. The plan was that Guddu would drop me at my location, and carry on in the same cab and go to a relative (or was it a friend?)'s place for the day.
Don't say I didn't warn ya
It is strange in a way, that all metros in the country have these bridges, flyovers and nice roads, but each city still looks different. I have now been in Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai and Kolkata in my adult life, and if you blindfolded me, spun me around 7 times, and flown me to any of these locations, I would be able to tell you which city is which! I don’t know if it is the buildings, or the factories, or the billboards, or the sky.
A different Mumbai?
The hotel I had booked was the cheapest I could get close to the TISS campus while hitting the sweet spot of ratings as well, and it was 4500 rupees a night! It was in an area called Chembur, in a nice, relatively quiet neighbourhood. I don’t know why, but I had always imagined all of Mumbai to be this busy, bustling place full of markets and malls, and people all around. But I guess a part of that has to do with the fact that my own house in Kolkata is right beside a main road, which is alive with sights and sounds till midnight. Not all parts of Kolkata are like that. The cab circled a roundabout-affording me a 360 degree view of a large black horse in the middle of the road, and its master, Shivaji, plopped on top of it- before pulling in front of a South Indian restaurant. “This is the location, Sir”, the cab driver said in perfect English, throwing water all over my hopes of hearing him announce something in the Marathi I keep hearing in every single Bollywood film based in Mumbai: ‘Amchi location aahe’, or something. Pardon my Marathi. It isn’t as good as my imagination.
I bid Guddu goodbye, disembarked with my luggage, and peered into the narrow lane beside the restaurant to realise that the hotel was a few metres ahead. I was feeling a bit hungry, but not hungry enough to opt for sambar and idli, which weren’t on top of my must-haves in Mumbai. I trundled along the lane, and saw a hospital to my left, and called my mother to tell her I had reached, and that she had nothing to worry. If my stomach were to get upset by having the sambar at the South Indian joint, I could pop into the building next door. The 4500 rupees had already started justifying itself, and I had not even set foot into Hotel Plaza!
It was a narrow building, not much of a looker, but not shabby either. The man at the reception was either a man of few words, or he took offence at my asking him if I could leave my luggage in the lobby the next day when I went for my interview. A neatly dressed staff member escorted to my room, which on first impressions looked way too small for the 4500 I had paid. But the bed was nice and large, the washroom was clean, and there was a TV in which I could watch the United-Arsenal game at night, and I anyway would only be spending the night in the room, so I wasn’t really complaining.
The hotel room
I showered, changed into my Rooney T-shirt, locked my room, asked where I could get an auto and left the hotel. Left to see Mumbai.
The cab driver asked me where I wanted to go. Gateway of India, I replied. That is like the first thing you have to see in Mumbai, duh. He wasn’t the most talkative of drivers, but he did point out a few things that he thought could interest me. Of course, that may have had something to do with the fact that I told him right after boarding the cab to tell me interesting facts about the areas we were passing through. I don’t remember much of what he said, other than the shape of Mumbai he tried to explain, and a beautiful Goanese church he showed me right before he dropped me off.
The church, or thereabouts
Walk down the road, where everyone is headed, and you will reach the Gateway, he said. I cheerily got down from the cab and made a beeline for it.
Some little old gate
Ah, iconic Mumbai. Hundreds of families criss-crossing the area in front of a giant arch, enthusiastic middlemen trying to sell me a boat ride to the Elephanta Caves, photographers asking me to immortalise my visit there with a 50-rupee photograph.
How a'boat' it? (Yeah, I am not proud of this pun!)
I did not have time to go to the Caves and be back in time for lunch, so, a quick couple of rounds circling the Gateway it was, I decided, marvelling at the view of the sea, the sun, the monument and the iconic Taj (which I recently learnt was built 10 years before construction of the Gateway started!).
I remembered the part about the need to immortalise my visit there with a picture, and promptly did an exaggerated take on the hold-the-monument by-the-pointed-top and chuckled to myself at my own private joke. Where to next?
I think I got it right
A coffee and a pastry sitting alone at a table at the Taj would be nice, even properly regal. The guards apparently had different ideas when I ambled towards the front entrance. The side entrance was for someone who was not there for a business meeting, vacation stay or lunch, they announced. So be it.
Once I walked in, however, it became quickly apparent that spending 600 rupees for a pastry and a coffee just for the sake of feeling like a King would be pushing it a bit much, and I contented myself with walking through the corridors, seeing the exhibits in the museum thingy they had set up in the ground floor leading up to the coffee-shop, before slinking away from the hotel.
My tummy, slighted from the lack of pastries from the Taj, started indicating that it was time for brunch in Cafe Mondegar. It took a bit of walking and some help from Google Maps for me to get there. It was an old-worldly place, a scene out of the 70s, with checkered floors, high top tables, a bar-top selling beers, and merchandise with pop references hanging from the walls. The waiter asked me if I would like a hookah and would be interested in the smoking lounge.
I asked him if I could sit there anyway and not take a hookah (it looked jazzier), and he looked at me with disbelief, and then politely said No. I settled for a table by the wall, ordered a beef steak and a watermelon juice and downed it while looking over my shoulder at people who were there with families and friends, enjoying a Sunday brunch.
My next stop was at another cafe for macarons. I walked up and down the street 5 times, hovering around the area that Google Maps was pointing towards, and could not find the darned place!
The street leading up to the alley
I peeked into the Leopold Cafe, which was probably famous enough anyway, but now bore the dodgy distinction of being one of the spots where the terrorists had opened fire on civilians in the Mumbai terror attack.
The cafe was jam-packed. You wouldn’t know, looking at those walls and those seats that it could have been witness to what it had, but I guess that is the beauty of walls and time- they hide their stories well.
While I was on my 5th lap, I heard the sound of people singing. It was coming from a church where Sunday mass was on. I have never attended mass, and I guess today’s as good as any day for it to be my first time. I walked in, and stayed near the door so that it wouldn’t look bad when I would need to leave midway through the service.
The pastor and a few women showered a fair bit of praise on the Lord and his mysterious ways, and I drank all of that in with awe not because I am notoriously god-fearing but because of how everyone seemed to believe in what they were singing and how the sounds were filling up the high ceilings of the church.
I came out of the church, still in pursuit of the mysteriously-hidden cafe, when I saw a man with long scraggly hair coming up to me. “Bro, you want anything?” What a nice man, I thought, and yes indeed, I want to find a cafe. What a Godsend! “Excuse me?”, I said. He replied,“You want any stuff? Ganja? Hashish? I have everything, bro”. I quickly scurried, thanking him for his kindness and his interest in me. Did I have stoner writ large all over my face, I wondered, amused. Or maybe he was a policeman covertly working to bust drug rings. Well, thank God I hadn’t agreed to purchase anything from him just for the adventure, or else I would have had to add an unexpected item on my visiting list that day- the friendly neighbourhood police station.
I crossed the road leading away from the cluster of cafes and the church, and found myself staring at an imposing building, which looked old but not in an ill-maintained way. It had huge glass windows, a large white facade, and a nice portico of sorts. You could immediately tell that it was a museum or a library or something. It turned out to be the former. The National Gallery of Modern Art, read the letters above the wrought-iron gates.
The guards at the gate checked for any cameras I may have, and lazily handed me a ticket in exchange for 50 rupees. I have never been in a modern art exhibition gallery, even though I have seen pictures of plenty of such exhibitions in newspapers and in social media. The first thing that hit me when I entered was how quiet the place was. It was a fairly spacious two and a half storeyed area, but the space looked larger because of the clever way they had set up the exhibits on each floors- almost a maze of sorts. I knew I wasn’t to photograph the exhibits, but no one had said anything about photographing people.
Oops! I guess I lied. I did sneak in a picture or two
And that is exactly what I started to do, and almost got a perfect shot, but the guard at the far end of the room signalled to me to lower my weapon, and the shot got botched and my spirits slightly dampened.
But I shook that off soon enough as I wandered through the gallery, spotting art pieces that I honestly enjoyed more than I thought I would have! I have never been one for being able to understand the point of a lot of modern art (something that I have tried to reverse over the last few months), but looking at those pieces, and the people sitting on a row of benches in front of paintings, engrossed in them made me think of a sentence I had read some time back: you not understanding modern art does not make modern art any less good; it just means you have some catching up to do.
My inner eye was evidently not the only thing the art gallery had helped open up- as I walked out of the museum, crossed the road and wandered into the alley, my literal eyes also seemed to have received a fresh dose of life as I suddenly realised that I was standing in front of Le15, the one I had been seeking for the last hour.
I looked at the signboard in disbelief, and up and down the length of the street to work out how I had managed to miss it. It was probably something of a Room of Requirement, revealing itself to someone only when they are truly hungry, and not before that, I consoled myself as I walked into the petite shop, my eyes immediately drawn to the irresistible macarons behind the glass counter.
The smiling man behind the counter asked me what I wanted. What did I not want was the more pertinent question. I ended up ordering 5 macarons and a tart of some description, and proceeded to demolish them with the fervour of a person who had not had a steak for lunch just an hour or so ago.
Once I was satisfied that I could not possibly stuff my face with any more of those soft and chewy bites of goodness, I made my way out of the cafe, and onto the bougainvillea-laden streets.
Destination, Marine Drive. The roads were fairly empty, which was understandable because it was a 3 pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The only people out on the streets would have to be tourists like me, and Tiktokers or over-enthusiastic locals out on a day trip to these parts of the city. The wall graffiti reminded me that I was in the city peppered with gully boys, and also spelled out an invitation for some kind of rap showdown a week from now, as I walked onto the road that led up to the Marine drive.
Ah! The famous Queen’s Necklace. I closed my eyes for a minute, smelling the salty sea air, and imagining how the place would look like in the rains. Pretty much like I have seen it in every Mumbai-rain-depicting Bollywood movie ever, I reassured myself, and opened my eyes.
The stretch of sea looked something like an envelope, enclosing a letter that was visible only to those who sought it, all alone, on windy summer evenings beneath the twinkling stars in the sky and the ones dotting the horizon from all the thousands of man-made structures.
It was beautiful...and that was probably the first time I felt...a bit lonely. I stepped down from the high ledge and hailed a kaali peeli. Where to? Prithvi Theatre, I told the cabbie. He did not know where that was. Thankfully, Google Maps did, and it showed me an area close to Juhu Beach. The beach was some place the cabbie did know, and we were soon on our way. I checked my phone for messages, shot a few of them across to my mother and to Shivani, a junior of mine from work who had left TML a few months back and was staying in Mumbai. Shivani and I were supposed to meet for a cuppa later that evening. The cab driver’s voice made me look up from my phone. “Do you want to take the Sea Link, Sir?” “Oh yes, absolutely!” “It will be a hundred rupees extra, Sir. We will have to pay the toll fare.” “Yeah nah, that’s fine.” Hundred bucks seemed a fair bargain to get on the most famous sea-link expressway in the country.
I will be honest- in the afternoon light it did not really seem that spectacular. Yes, it was a fair few metres of solid concrete and steel on top of a surprisingly-calm Arabian Sea, and the entire stretch looked beautiful, but something made it less beautiful than it could have been- maybe the weight of my expectations on it. The cab driver showed me Amitabh Bachhan’s house and Ambani’s monstrosity of a house as well, and I made a mental note to come back to AB’s house even as the trip came to an end, and I got down in front of a quiet church in a deserted lane. I asked a shopkeeper about the whereabouts of Prithvi Theatre, followed his instructions and walked towards the spiritual home of Indian theatre. The road leading up to the theatre was dotted with some exquisitely humorous little signboards. I don’t remember all of what they said, but I do remember chuckling to myself.
The theatre itself did not have magnificent writ large all over it. In fact, if you hadn’t been told there was an auditorium there, you probably wouldn’t have known. But the place certainly had an air about it. It smelled of wood-panelled stages, and greenroom makeup, and old times. Or was it just my imagination?
There was a cafe there, but neither was I hungry, nor did anything look particularly inviting, even though the cafe itself looked pretty- an open-air half-crowded place, people chattering in small groups.
I was thirsty, though, and I was all out of drinking water. I bent over the counter, where all the waiters were pretty busy, and got myself a bottle of the good stuff after a couple of minutes of patiently waiting for people to mention extra cheese on top of their cheesy fries.
In between the theatre and the cafe was a small bookstore.
Glass windows, a small counter, the bookshelves full of what seemed like a pretty eclectic bunch of books (which was explained soon enough when I got my hands on a few of them- they were donated books. I don’t know about you, but I love books which have clearly been read by someone, maybe years ago. What are they doing now? Did they receive it from a loved one? Did they like it a lot, or did they perhaps not like it at all? Had they gone to sleep for days on end with the book in their hand? Had they spent lazy birthday afternoons and chilly winter nights reading them? That’s a lot of history packed into a small thing with a few pages!). The man behind the counter was saying something as I walked in. I assumed he was speaking on the phone. As I leafed through a few of the books, I saw a tree in the middle of the bookstore!
Well, technically, the bookstore had been built around it. You could sit on the ledge surrounding the tree and read something that caught your fancy but not enough to buy it. I turned back, heading towards the door, and found the man still talking animatedly...to himself. I observed him out of the corner of my eye for a few seconds before he looked up. “You want to buy anything, mister?” “No, thank you, I was just looking through them” “This is a temporary job. I am an actor. I am rehearsing my lines for an audition”, he volunteered the information himself. I smiled at him and asked him if I could click a picture. He obliged, and went right back to his handwritten Hindi notes, rattling off the dialogues with a shade of extra enthusiasm now that he knew I was looking at his performance.
I walked out, sipping my water, and chuckled again to myself looking at the signboards outside. I suspect there were a couple of potty jokes there as well. That was probably the reason why they were cracking me up so much.
My phone was fast running out of charge. I knew I had to restrict usage to a minimum or risk giving my mother a heart attack. I looked on both sides of the street for an electronics shop- someplace where I could buy a charger or charge my phone for a while- but all I could see was people’s homes, with the occasional cafe and grocery here and there. There was, however, a church to my left, where I could recharge my soul if need be, as the signage outside informed me. I decided that my soul was fine the way it was, and instead went into the school adjacent to the church. You’d be pretty darn off the mark if you thought I had not had enough schooling to last me a lifetime- no, what caught my eye was a group of kids racing through the school quadrangle with a football! To be honest, at that point, I was thinking to myself: this day would make a nice movie- there was so much happening, such a lot of things to see, hear, smell and feel. I wanted to get into the thick of things, and tear up and down the pitch as well, but contented myself with being a ball-boy, afraid that I would be messing things up for the players if I started to play.
I glanced at my wristwatch- the last gift Thamma had given me- and remembered for the umpteenth time that it was not working: I had only really brought it along perhaps as a lucky charm, or perhaps because I wanted to feel her presence with me in this new place which I am sure she would have loved to visit. I pulled my phone out, and checked the time- it was past 5 pm, but the skies did not look like they were settling in for a quick night anytime soon.
A helpful signboard on the street told me where to go if one were to want to go to Juhu beach. A fairly large crowd in the middle of the street near a house told me that I was near AB’s house! I would have loved to see AB, but I wanted to see the sunset over the beach a teensy bit more, and therefore kept going.
Juhu beach, for those who don’t know, is hidden from the public eye. Or at least that’s what you’d think, looking at the scores upon scores of pav bhaji stalls (which also advertised every imaginable cousin and half-sibling of the pav bhaji you could think of, as being part of their arsenal).
I didn’t want a pav bhaji, but I did want a phone charger. A man was kind enough to give me a C-type charger. But my phone did not really get on with the charger a lot, and increased its power from 15% to a whopping 16%. I thanked the man and stepped down onto the beach.
I have been to a lot of beaches in my life, but quite honestly, not one like this. But then, come to think of it, I have also never been to a beach in a city quite so populous.
While the 3 pm Marine Drive had been almost empty, the 5 pm Juhu Beach looked like half the city had gathered there! Parents buying their children some balloons, sandcastle-building-tools and tackles, toys...families sitting around on the sand, families shrieking and running through the calm waters...
I half-closed my eyes and imagined the beach without all the hullabaloo. And, couldn’t. I guess this beach wasn’t really a beach as I knew them. It just happened to look like one.
I messaged Shivani, who had by then finished up her day’s work, and she told me to come to the Bandra railway station. The Kolkata boy in me who is used to autos running in fixed routes asked a traffic constable where I could get an auto that would get me to Bandra. In reply, the cop held out his baton, and stopped the first of a swarm of autos coming our way, and asked me to get in. “Kahan jaana hain, Saab?” “Bandra station chaliye bhaiyya”.
One of the best things about Mumbai is the architecture of the old-time things- the stations, the old buildings, some of the cobbled roads...
Something that looks straight out of olden England
I looked at Bandra station in awe when I felt someone punching me in the gut. I looked around, ready to let the assailant get a taste of the choicest of expletives I knew, and instead beamed and said, “Hey Shivani!” “Hi Deep bhaiyya! Kaise ho aap?”
I filled her in on the places I had already been to, and she suggested Bandtstand as a nice sunset view spot. She was the local guide, and I readily trusted her judgement.
Honest to God, the beaches of Mumbai are as different from one as chalk from cheese, and cheese from chocolate.
Bandstand...was beautiful. It wasn’t completely empty, and sure, there were some people milling around, flames crackling all around as corns on the cob kept getting roasted and sprinkled on with a chaat rub for sunset-viewers, but it was beautifully desolate at the same time in some way.
Up till now I have been having a blast in Mumbai on my own...At that moment, however, with the sun going down beyond the orange-red Arabian Sea, and couples treading wearily on the slippery rocks, hands clasped tightly, and the sound of the waves, I had a tiny pang. The sunset would have tasted better with someone by my side. Bandstand wasn’t for the lonely soul, or for a visit with friends!
I was rudely awakened from my reverie by the sight of someone slipping on the rocks. The sea wasn’t dangerous, and frankly, the rocks were a fair distance from the sea anyway, so it was more sad than scary. When we looked around, however, we realised that this was not a one-off incident. At least 4-5 others in different spots were also falling like ninepins, having underestimated the coefficient of friction of the rocks. That’s when it turned from sad to funny. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but Shivani reckoned the corns on the cob were an absolute must-have at Bandstand, especially since I was already on Strike 1 for having slighted the advances of the tasty Vada Pav.
I guess it was less about the corn and more about the seasoning in the form of the sun-dipped sea.
Time to get a move on. Time for dinner. I don’t remember the name of the restro we went to. Probably because it was the least Mumbai-ish thing I did in Mumbai in terms of how my visit was panning out in its uniqueness.
The waiter smiled at me, “What do you want, Sir?” Well, ideally, I wanted world peace, and puppies, and United to win the treble again, but for now I would satisfy myself splitting a burger and a fiery chicken wings thingy that had a challenge set to it. If you could finish it within 15 minutes, it would be free. Let’s just say, one bite into the challenge, both Shivani and I realised we were not going to be richer by 300 bucks that day- the chilli Gods were not going to be on our side. We spent the better part of the next hour discussing the hits and misses in TML, what our individual love lives looked like at that stage, and generally dissecting people and their stupidity. While we were getting our tummies full, my phone was also having his- the kind people in the restro had hooked him up to some juice on the bar counter. It was around 9 pm when we decided to call it a night and hailed a cab. The plan was to go to the Bandstand train station and go our individual ways. I called up my mother and reassured her that all was well with the world, and I was heading to the hotel. We said our goodbyes, with the usual promise of meeting as and when life would destine us to (perhaps with the knowledge at the back of our minds that we may never actually make plans to meet again, with life trundling along at its own sweet pace).
By 9.30 pm, I had reached Chembur station, and from there it was a short walk back to Hotel Plaza in the bustle of the evening Mumbai streets. As indicated already aplenty, my appetite for good eatables know no bounds, and I flicked through the food delivery apps with the hope of finding a nice dessert while walking. On reaching the hotel, I made a beeline for the washroom, had a quick shower and also perhaps tended to the business of lightening my weight by a few grams. Arsenal v United was on, but I don’t remember much of the game to be honest. Google tells me Arsenal beat us 2-0 that night, and now I do remember thinking then, ‘Well, I have had a plenty fulfilling day, it’s okay if there’s no cherry on top”. I also probably did not see the whole match. It had been a tiring day, and I needed to wake up early tomorrow. Time to hit the deck, I said to myself, as the watch indicated an hour to go till midnight, and coaxed myself out of ordering desserts of any description. Goodnight, Mumbai.
March 11, 2019, 6 am or thereabouts
I woke up to the calming and progressively loud trilling of the phone alarm clock, followed half a minute later by a phone call from Baba, with Ma's anxious voice in the background, urging me to get up and get a move on. I told them I was up and about and got out of the soft me-shaped dent in the middle of the huge bed, and headed to the washroom. I had no intention of paying the hotel an extra 4000 bucks by leaving my luggage in the room, and since they had not been too enthusiastic about my idea of leaving it in the lobby, it was check-out time, and tag-along for my trolley bag with me for the rest of the day.
The streets were fairly empty, with the exception of a few school-bound children and their mothers, and street cleaners with their long brooms dusting down the memories of last night. The hotel receptionist had assured me that I would get autos at 7 am, definitely, and sure enough, I got one almost immediately after stepping out of the alley with the South Indian food joint.
I reached the main gate of the TISS campus in about 10 minutes. Seeing no signboard or nameplate announcing to me this was the place, I asked a couple of security guards where I was, and realised I was exactly where I was meant to be.
The campus gates opened up to a road lined on both sides with trees dense in their leafiness and welcoming in the lazy playful nods of their heads. The road went slightly uphill and there were stone walls on the sides, which instantly reminded me of a scene straight out of Meghalaya. The obviously-olden looking buildings looked like the ones I was used to seeing in my dear old Jadavpur University, unhurried, unimposing and inviting- not a bit like the glass-covered mess a lot of the newfangled educational institutions now are.
A short period of meaningless chit-chat with Guddu later, I was seated in my designated spot ready to take the written test, my bags sitting quietly beside me. The windows opened up to...a hill. Come on! How was I supposed to concentrate on the test with a beautiful goddamned hill staring back at me?
The question kept pinging around inside my head for some time before the invigilator announced that 10 minutes had passed since the start of the test! I snapped out of my reverie and started collecting my thoughts on what I could write in the essay on some topic which I obviously cannot remember now. An hour and a half later, when the papers were being collected, I was still sneakily putting in some parting shots with blue ink on white paper. The invigilator showered copious amounts of disdain on my overall being before snatching the paper from my hands, extending the full stop at the end of my last sentence to a full-blown cockroach leg as my pen lingered on the paper. “You have a break of half an hour. Report to Tower B at such and such time for your interviews”.
As I was heading out of the room to the corridor milling with students coming out of different rooms, someone spread a rumour that the canteen had nice vada pavs and other fare. I channelled my inner Flash and raced to the canteen only to get a plateful of disappointment in the form of a sorry piece of toasted bread and a cup of tea.
The next couple of hours were long and uneventful. The whole interview process was a bit shoddily managed. The staff did not seem to clear on what was to be done, who was to be let in when, what the order of the interviews would be, and so on. I was pacing the long open corridors, feasting my eyes on the greenery looking all dapper in my suit when I became aware...that someone was feasting their eyes on me. “Hi, are you a Bengali?”, she asked. I was, and I responded thus. As you can imagine, anyone who asks that question is also likely to be a Bengali. She struck up a conversation and I politely played along for a while before she asked me my plans after the interview. I do not wish to be presumptuous and assume she was taking an interest in me, but on the off-chance that she was and that I was perhaps unwittingly leading her on, I pulled the plug on the conversation, invented a flight timing that would need me to rush to the airport right after the interview and sidled away.
The attending staff member announced my name. I knocked on the door, and walked into the room, and immediately sensed something was amiss. I was in the wrong room. Well, not quite. This was indeed the room where I was supposed to give my interview. It’s just that the vibe felt far removed from mine. They were what you would describe as hardcore academicians. A tall lean man with a grey-haired ponytail, an elderly lady who looked like she could be the strict principal in a school, and a younger man whose facial expressions were harder to read than a brick wall. And a couple of questions in, they broke me. They could clearly figure out this wasn’t the right fit for me. The ponytailed professor said, “Are you sure you shouldn’t be appearing for the HR interviews happening downstairs? Why do you want to study Development Studies?” The truth was that I did not know. It had just seemed like a good idea. I realised I wasn’t prepared with enough socioeconomic concepts and historical knowhow to even make the cut to be considered for selection. The panel finally decided it had had enough after I fluffed up my answers to their question of how Nehruvian economics varied from Gandhi’s, and which one would be more pertinent in today’s environment. I suspect both Nehru and Gandhi would have heaved sighs of relief that their economics weren’t going to be butchered any further by a random 25-year old in a suit that day.
I packed the suit into my suitcase, and bade goodbye to the campus. Something told me that I wasn’t coming back here. The sun was up, and I quickly sought refuge in the cool insides of a cab. Somdatta and Rachana had both suggested Theobroma for their macaroons and other desserts. There was no rule that said I could not have those for lunch! I told the cabbie my intentions- well, not fully..he wasn’t really privy to my lunch menu, but he did know where I meant to go. I started calculating what other spots I could hit- maybe a movie? An ice skating place? Nah- not really Mumbai-ish places. My hungry tummy told me to make that decision after it was slightly less empty, and asked me to get a move on, and get down from the cab.
Theobroma Cafe looked exactly like I had pictured it- it looked like the inside of a colourful cake! Shades of baby pink and blue and pops of other bright colours welcomed me in as I ordered macarons and some distant cousin of the sandwich family and fries. If memory serves me well, I also brought back some for people back home.
It was almost 3 pm by the time I had finished my Theobroma adventure. Next stop, Chor Bazaar. I didn’t really know what to expect, and the cabbie looked at me with wide-eyed wonder as if to ask who in their right minds would want to go to that place..unless they had some black marketeering of their own to do! It was a fair distance from Theobroma, and I snuck in a few minutes of a power nap punctuated by pictures I clicked with wide-eyed wonder of the city’s architecture (and by that I mostly mean the station buildings!)
Chor Bazaar wasn’t really one place, as I should have realised. It was a spread-out area. The driver took me on a couple of merry rounds of the same place as Google Maps led me on a dog-chasing-its-own-tail ride through narrow alleys. I got down, looking like a complete misfit- dressed in formals, carrying a stroller, and moving through shops selling everything from vehicle parts, old vinyl records, whole goats that you could buy while they posed on unsuspecting people’s bikes, and everything else under God’s good earth.
A shop selling antiques caught my fancy. It wasn’t your everyday antique shop- it only sold what looked like things that common folk such as you and I may have used and thrown away- old brass binoculars, broken locks, Bollywood-poster coasters from the 70s, dusty magazines, cigarette cases, lighters, keychains...Some of the stuff definitely looked a bit suspect- and could easily have been stolen, by the looks of it: their owners would not have thrown those things out just like that...or would they?.. Perhaps they had had enough of them, like we all do sometimes with various things or people in our lives. Or perhaps the owners had died, and these things had been thrown out? Or maybe they were new stuff, intentionally dirtied and broken to make them look old?! Who knows? I considered buying a piece or two, but they all seemed ridiculously overpriced. Chor Bazaar wouldn’t steal from me, no Sir- I thought to myself as I wheeled my stroller and my business away from the shop.
I consulted my watch, realised again it was not working, consulted my phone clock and decided I had just enough time to hit one last destination- the Kala Ghoda museum. If I spent a couple of hours there, I should be able to reach the airport with plenty of time to spare to board my flight.
The area gets its name from the statue of a black horse plop in the middle of the road on a roundabout. The name of the museum actually was Jehangir Art Museum as I found out when I reached. An elderly man had adorned the boundary wall and the edge of the sidewalk with art pieces tiny, small and large.
As I walked through that arty guard of honour, bowled over by the quality of the paintings, the elderly man asked me if I wanted to take any. He had painted these, he said, and had been an art student from a college whose name I now forget. Most of the art pieces would not fit properly in the bag I had-stuffed as it already was with clothes- so I settled for some bookmarks. They cost a bit too much for my liking, but his sales pitch won me over: “Sir, I am an artist. You are paying for my ideas, my time, my art.” Fair point, I decided, and got myself a couple of the bookmarks.
The art museum was larger than the one I had visited yesterday. There were 2 sprawling floors separated by a spiral staircase with large gardens hugging the sides of the building. The first floor was divided into 3-4 sections with what transpired to be separate thematic exhibitions by different artists.
Sculptures dotted the floor in one section dedicated to modern art, flowery paintings had taken up another, paintings based on history had a nice cosy room to itself with a door that led out to the garden and the spiral staircase.
The second floor was mostly a terrace with about a quarter of the space taken up by the art exhibit room. A couple was lying in the soft afternoon sun on the terrace, giggling in merry abandonment and playing with each other’s hair. The sun was too tempting to pass up and I sat down on the floor on the other side of the terrace so that they would not feel intruded upon, and took out a book on royal food history I had on me. 15 or so blissful minutes later, I got up, dusted myself and went into the exhibition room. It was dedicated to wildlife photography- real, raw and jaw-dropping stuff. There was a man of colour standing at the end of the room, talking animatedly with a couple of people. When they left, he came up to me and introduced himself as the artist who had clicked these pictures! He was from Zimbabwe, and had left his job to take up photography full-time, and was touring the world with 1-day exhibitions of his art. I told him I click a couple of photographs myself from time to time, and he asked me what genre I preferred. “A cross between street and life photography is how I would describe it- opportunistic photography!” “I have somehow never been drawn to that. The thrill of the chase, the months of waiting for the perfect shot- that’s what gives me a kick!” he said, while waving his arms at a shot of a leaping lioness with her mouth contorted into a silent roar, eyes glinting with the cold stare of a predator coming for what was rightfully hers, looking directly into the camera. My spine tingled as I imagined the scene and what would have happened afterwards when the lioness would realise she was going to be outwitted by a few steel rods protecting the photographer and have to take her lunch order elsewhere, perhaps in the direction of the zebras that were seen scurrying in the next photograph, raising a giant trail of dust.
He gave me his card and asked me to drop him a line if I ever wanted to take up this line of work. I thanked him profusely.
I came out of the museum, crossed the road and loitered around in front of an old, imposing and magnificent library.
A signboard outside saying ‘Members Only’ however, and the absence of any security guard who I could have requested to let me in (there was a sleepy cat instead who had claimed the guard’s rightful throne) meant that I would have to be satisfied only looking at it from the outside.
I crossed the road again after gawking for a couple of minutes at a corporation vehicle towing away bikes parked on the side of the road: Kala Ghoda Cafe was beckoning!
It was pretty much love at first sight. If the black-and-white marble chequered floor with tall tables and chairs interspersed between cushiony couches around larger tables, and tall windows overlooking the street was the cake, the cherry was definitely Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush playing on a whitewashed wall from a projector!
And as if that wasn’t enough, the menu card had a few blank pages at the end where guests could sketch something, and if they showed the waiters what they had sketched, they could have a brownie on the house! I flipped through the menu, ordered a pork bao, a toffee walnut cake and a spicy drink of some sort.
I left future visitors a mini (and minimalist) sketch of Charlie, passed on the brownie, and spent the next hour or so downing the food with a healthy splash of Gold Rush to wash it down.
I booked a cab for the airport, and the cabbie asked me if I wanted to go to Terminal 1 & Terminal 2. I thought it was an innocuous enough question, and said Terminal 1, even though I was not sure. What difference would terminals make? One would be beside the other, right? We are golden, I thought, and settled back into my seat to listen to some music.
15 minutes later, when I was chatting with Rishav over text (Rishav has lived in Mumbai for 2 years during his M.Tech at IIT-B), I was told that the terminals are 20 minutes apart! And with Mumbai traffic, that 20 could easily balloon into 40, or 60!! And I had no idea which terminal I was actually supposed to go to!!! We are less golden, I realised, while feverishly checking my ticket details.
Phew! Turned out I was supposed to go to Terminal 1 after all.
Bapu in a traffic jam
I settled into the cab seat, taking in the sights, smells, sounds and soul of Mumbai wafting in through the open window even as the afternoon light melted into the evening. Some member of the Ambani clan was getting married, and entire streets were decked up for the occasion, with a huge traffic jam as a by-product.
As the cab raced through the Sea Link (which looked far more magical at night than yesterday in the afteroon), I shook hands with the wind for as long as I could. That was my way of bidding the city goodbye, I think.
As they say, entire months may go by where nothing seems to happen, and then you may have a day or two where you seem to live entire years. I think Mumbai gave me that- a taste of myself.
And for that, I shall be forever grateful…
Thank you, reader, for joining me on this journey. May we meet again, in some part of life-yours or mine- in some other corner of the world, and narrate how we lived a lifetime in hours.