Mumbai’s magical madness
Take a hat, some sunscreen, your camera, a bottle of water and a deep breath, then head off into Mumbai’s backstreets for an exploration of this most exhilaratingly frantic of Asian cities.
Every working-day morning a little after 11 am at Mumbai’s Churchgate Station, an extraordinary spectacle takes place. A slender white-clad man steps from a suburban train, balancing on his head a long tray holding a row of steel containers, many of them wrapped in cloth sleeves and bags.
The man makes his way to Maharshi Karve Road, dodging the black and yellow taxis and stepping over the barrier, before placing his load gently on the pavement. Suddenly, the station area is full of similar figures weaving their way through the other passengers. Soon the pavements are a carpet of glinting tins bearing coloured codes and numbers. At the wave of an invisible wand, another team appears and loads the containers onto carts and bicycles. After ten or 15 minutes, the street is once again flooded with its normal frantic traffic and the men and containers have disappeared.
You have just witnessed the Mumbai Tiffinwallahs – also known as Dabbawallahs – who make up one of the most efficient distribution networks in the world. Each day hot packed lunches or tiffins are prepared by city workers’ spouses and collected from their suburban homes by a wallah, who then takes his allotted meals into town. The meals are sorted according to the codes on the containers and delivered to the appropriate workplace. Later, the containers are collected and returned.
There is no better example of the method that underlies Mumbai’s apparent chaos. An estimated 175,000 meals are delivered in this way each day; only one meal goes astray in 16 million deliveries every two months.
An enthralling hubbub
Such statistics seem all the more incredible after a day or two immersed in the daily frenzy of Mumbai’s street life. This is the city renowned for its multi-billion-rupee Bollywood movie industry, for glitzy Indian chic and swanky night clubs. Mumbai is an enthralling hubbub of activity, a concoction of urban surprises of which the Tiffinwallahs are one of the best known examples.
Opposite the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai’s most famous and opulent five star accommodation, the first passengers are arriving for the boats to the ancient caves of the Elephanta island, a 45-minute voyage away from the dockside arch of the Gateway of India. Jump on one of the first boats and you will avoid the crowds that head for the island later in the day and especially at weekends to escape the tumultuous heat of the city.
Plunge back into the urban furnace to continue a rewarding exploration of daily life. Mumbai is built on a long island jutting into the Arabian Sea, and a short walk towards the southern tip of the island from the Gateway of India is the Colaba Causeway with its cafes and hippy jewellery shops.
North of the Gateway of India, a cricket match is starting up on the Oval Maidan. This strip of open parkland, together with the Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan, forms a wedge that prises apart the hot clench of the city centre, where taxi drivers take a break to watch the games and office workers sprawl in the shady periphery.
Take in a temple
Tucked away in the nearby bazaars north of the Central Station, incense drifts from temples and street stalls are laden with gaudy bindi stickers, with which worshippers decorate their foreheads, and temple offerings. Leave your shoes at the temple door and step to one side as the devotees approach the shrines, lifting their babies to be blessed and offering flowers amid a cacophony of chanting and bell-ringing.
When you emerge from the nearby flower markets and bazaars, escape in a black and yellow taxi to the other side of the central isthmus. Head for the rocky bay at Breach Candy and feel the full throb of the Mumbai sun as you cross the causeway to the Haji Ali Dargan mosque, built on an islet and isolated at high tide. Walk up to the Mahalakshmi Mandir, a Hindu temple overlooking the sea, dedicated to the goddess of wealth and, in a city where the absence and presence of wealth are similarly prevalent, treated with special reverence.
From the temple, it’s only about a kilometre to the Mahalaxmi railway station, indistinguishable from one of many busy local stations except for the panorama of flapping coloured flags spreading out from one side of the track. Take a closer look from the bridge crossing the line and you’ll see that these are clothes and sheets, not flags. This is the site of Dhobi Ghats, a peculiar but essential Mumbai spectacle, an outdoor laundry where items are washed, wrung, thrashed in concrete tubs then hung out to dry in endless, pristine rows.
Later on, head for the cool streets on Malabar Hill, a headland forming the northern rim of broad Back Bay. Take in the late afternoon view of Marine Drive from the Hanging Gardens and Kamala Nehru Park before heading down to Chowpatty Beach to enjoy the golden sunset in the midst of a relaxed and friendly beach party. Chowpatty is the setting for the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in August or September, a procession of effigies portraying Ganesh, the elephant god. But every night has a festive air on Chowpatty, as the locals converge with their picnics, the ice cream vendors patrol the shoreline, and the children splash in the water and roll around in the sand.
There’s only way to finish your Mumbai adventure, and that’s with a Bollywood movie at the art deco Regal cinema. But before settling down for your three-hour movie marathon, treat yourself to an ample snack of bhelpuri, Mumbai’s spicy signature salad, at the stalls on Chowpatty’s southern end, as the last flame of daylight flickers over Malabar Head.