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A row of vegetable vendors is nothing out of the ordinary in Mumbai. But if you’ve been away long enough, the most routine matters make you pause. The vendors generally overflow in large numbers and variety on almost every street in Mumbai. A lone vendor is a rare sight. During peak hours, the band of vendors turns into a raucous collective, shouting out prices for a kilo of potatoes or offering a discounted rate on green chillis.
She was the first vendor on the track, parking herself right after the drop off points for the latest guests in town. She would see families step off their vehicles and look for their luggage in frantic shrieks, watch the elderly helped onto hand-rickshaws, and sometimes catch the little ones cleverly use their default cuteness to get out of walking to town. They would, instead, climb on the hand-rickshaw or into the arms of a willing parent.
It could have been the NRI (non resident India for the uninitiated) in me or the curious passerby, but I stood there marveling at the row of roadside vendors. The vendors set up day in and day out, follow the same arrangement of their goods, install ingenious contraptions to withstand unfriendly weather and sit for hours in the same spot and position. All in the hope of standing out in a sea of others like them, just like the rest of us.
Railway trails. Matheran
Matheran is a little town, or hill station as it's called in India, outside Mumbai. A quick getaway for the city’s residents, Matheran is known for its leather footwear, chikki (an Indian bite-size dessert), and an impressive choice of scenic viewpoints. My family and I visited the place years ago, making this trip a worthy addition to my itinerary of revisiting places in the country.
A pleasant morning drive concluded in a drop off on the uneven roads of Matheran bathing in an afternoon blaze. The only way to the centre of town was by foot and through clouds of red muddy dust. Earlier, a toy train would take passengers to the centre of town. That service had been temporarily suspended for a long while, turning the decommissioned train tracks into a pedestrian trail.
I strapped one of my two backpacks against my chest and swung the other on my back to begin the trek to town. There was something odd about walking on defunct railway tracks. As if the town had tried new technology and decided they were better off in their old ways. Technology is designed for easy use and easier life. But, maintaining a technologically savvy existence requires regular reboots, toil and time.
In a way, walking on the railway tracks helped retain the charm of a certain world. That world where our thoughts served as the only distraction, and for entertainment we made games out of broken train tracks. How long would we last in this world today? Maybe that is what makes Matheran an ideal step outside the city. It imposes a set time away from the chaotic world we otherwise create for ourselves.
The vendor. Matheran
Line up. Matheran
I'd like to believe we as humans, have a natural inclination towards building a life of ease in every possible way. So, when you get to a town that’s given up on the railways and walking long distance is a strenous undertaking, you discover modes of transport to help you to your destination.
Matheran has its own set of old school transportation with the hand rickshaw and horses holding top spots. Sometimes, the handler walks the horse towards you in hopes of gaining your service by demonstrating the amount of effort required to get from point A to point would be zero. The horse is such a popular way to get to town that it’s become part of the tourist agenda and Instagram posts. #Instahorse.
From a previous trip to Matheran only two lasting memories remain. The first is of leaving a bag of newly purchased Matheran shoes in the passenger seat of our homeward bound cab. The second is watching an uncle terrified of mounting a horse, mount one, and promptly fall off.
Horses. They always make for great stories.
Comedy sanctum. Mumbai
After Matheran, it was time to return to Mumbai. Now was when the experience of revisiting home really began. I made a list of things to do, places to go and people to meet. More often than not, one of the greatest joys of coming back home is to have something new and incredible appear unexpectedly. Stand up comedy was this exact something.
In all her paradoxical glory, India offers delicious material for stand up comedy. The stand up revolution in Mumbai was a long time coming. The closest thing to stand up comedy when I lived in India was Johny Lever - the go to guy for slapstick sides in 90s and early 2000s Bollywood, who’d put up one-man shows all over the country and entertain families in sold out auditoriums. Then there was the Great Indian Laughter Challenge and other TV shows focused on stand-up comedy. YouTube's arrival gave many aspiring comedians the perfect platform to post their routines. Before I came to Mumbai, YouTube videos were the only way to catch my favorite comics' latest jokes. On my first night back, I heard a stand-up open-mic night was happening in town and immediately headed there. This open-mic featured some of the current best comics.
Growing up, topics like sex, dating and menstruation were subjected to whispered conversations or discussed only when it was safe i.e. without prying aunties or nosy uncles. The comedy space, however, seemed to give permission or, rather, build a sanctum for all points of all topics. That night, a typical routine took the audience through school stress, sexual misadventures, dating tumbles, and then to arguably the greatest source of pressure - the Indian family.
In India, there always was material for brilliant comedy. Now, we are joking about it publicly.
Tiny treasures. Mumbai
Places always change. New buildings, new residents, new cafes and new memorials rotate in presence. I last came to Carter Road promenade to meet a group of friends in 2012. Barely taking in the place, I rushed to a nearby restaurant to catch up with the group.
With crashing waves of the Arabian Sea and relatively quiet streets, Carter Road has served as a track for early morning joggers, a recluse for lovers, a playground for kids and an incomparable view for all the restaurants and apartment buildings lining the promenade. There’s a memorial to one of Mumbai’s proudest sons, Sachin Tendulkar, in the form of a giant cricket bat. Further down the sidewalk, Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, finds his own spot. Perfectly balanced on the tip of a plant, his idol looks to the sea in refined contemplation. A closer look and it appears he has been there for years.
At home, we were never too religious. There was a small mandir (temple) of mini idols and images of other deities. On birthdays and special occasions, we would say an extra prayer or walk to the neighborhood temple. That's also where sweets were given as blessings in return for prayer.
In India, religious rituals fuse seamlessly into cultural practices. Religious symbols are a part of the country's fabric as well. But this Ganesh idol, perched on a leaf, overlooking the Arabian sea was a sight out of the ordinary. Sometimes, you have to look closely, or below eye level in this case, to find tiny treasures.
Brewing local. Mumbai
Whether it is desi daru (country liquor), foreign spirits or beer, India has strong and ancient roots in distilling and consuming alcohol. The microbrewery culture is a relatively new addition to the country. Doolally, Pune’s first microbrewery and the first in the country to get a microbrewery license, opened its Mumbai outlet in 2015. Stouts, ciders and ales alongside tasty bites are on the menu. A choice of MadLibs, Taboo or, Jenga are a part of the experience too.
Making comparisons between India and my other homes is a helpless byproduct of my travels. These comparisons sometimes lead to mocking responses i.e Are you really surprised XYZ happens in India? Do you really think the US has it all? With Cleveland, Ithaca and DC as past hometowns, I have been spoilt with quality local brews. It was time to compare the tastes as a consumer connoisseur.
At my first Doolally tasting, I reluctantly shared my wonder on the growing microbrewery culture and the heavenly taste of the beer. Thankfully, the table of Mumbai natives and fellow drinkers smiled and agreed. Excited tones took over as we huddled over what could be next, the possibility of flavors, and new taprooms. Turns out, a good pint results in hours of conversation, consumption and bonding regardless of location.
Technicolored skies. Mumbai
Makar Sankranti, the kite flying festival is a colorful cue to spring’s arrival. As Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Uttarayan in Gujarat or Magh Bihu in Assam, variations of this ancient Hindu festival are celebrated across India In the west of India, families and friends turn terraces and rooftops into sparring sides — the sky their battleground, the wind their most powerful, though rarely loyal weapon and trees become their involuntary captors. Flying a kite usually requires two people — one to let the line and the other to fly the kite. At the end of it all, snipped kites fall to the pavement or find a home in the tree branches that trap them. I have been kite flying before, but never in Mumbai. This time around, I decided to change that.
As I entered the terrace of my apartment building, I almost stepped on a pile of kites. Typical of celebrations in India, food, family, friends and Bollywood music filled the scene. I dodged a mother teaching her child to fly a kite only to almost trip over the line. That evening was a lot of "almosts".
The line is generally coated in glass and that’s what helps you cut somebody’s kite. When you go for someone else's kite string with your kite, the glass coat helps you snap the other kite out of flight. I barely even took my kite to flight, so cutting another's was a far possibility.
Though, not entirely successful, I finally did go fly a kite in Mumbai. Going home is as much about reliving old times as it is about filling up the memory bucket with new ones. In that way, our reasons to revisit are forever replenished.
Original legacy. Mumbai
No matter how long you have lived away from home, when your home is hurting, you feel the pain. The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks happened when I was studying abroad in Amsterdam. Over the next three days, the live TV broadcasts captured the crumbling of some of the most iconic structures in the city and the lives lost there. I preferred reading the news updates rather than join the jarring media frenzy covering the attack live. Amid the resulting sorrow and distraught, I selfishly realized I had not been to any of the places that were attacked. I also realized that I may never get to see those places after the attacks.
The bullet hole at Leopold’s Cafe is now a memorial to the attack where at least 179 people were killed. Seven of them were shot through a window at Leopold's. Before the attacks, the cafe featured in every guidebook to Mumbai for a medley of reasons. One of the oldest Irani cafes on Colaba Causeway (a popular shopping lane), Leopold's extensive and flattering mentions in Shantaram, the epic memoir by Gregory David Roberts, attracted tourist and fans. For reference, Roberts is an Australian fugitive who found refuge in the streets and slums of Mumbai and documented much his tale in Shantaram's 936 pages while sitting in Leopold's .
In acknowledgement of its venerated status, copies of Shantaram are stacked at the cashier’s desk by the phones. A Ganesh idol is placed on top of it, a picture of Sai Baba above that and then a clock above Sai Baba’s image. Everytime you pay your bill or look for the time, Leopold’s original legacy - one far from terror and pain - stares back.
Flags & dosas. Mumbai
There are two confirmed days in India where the offices and school are shut, the national flag is hoisted, and the country is celebrated. On August 15th, it is Independence Day and Republic Day on January 26th. The former marks the country’s independence from the British Raj, and the latter commemorates the signing of India’s constitution.
As kids, my friends and I woke up early, headed downstairs to meet the rest of the apartment’s residents, sung the national anthem as the flag was hoisted, and then waited patiently for a candy bag to make its way around the group. Two candies were the individual allowance. We would, obviously, always sneak in more. The kids would spend the next couple hours playing outdoors while the grown-ups sat in a circle, reminiscing about how they used to celebrate the occasion. Most of them were around when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru gave his speech signaling India’s Independence. For the kids, it was just a chapter in the history book and another holiday.
This year during Republic Day, the events were grander and tastier. A different apartment building than the one where I grew up, Republic Day began as usual with a call to hoist the flag and sing the national anthem. What followed was a spread of dosas (rice and lentil crepes), idlis (steamed rice cakes) and vadas (fried rings of savory dough) on live stations. The kids, meanwhile, readied themselves for the games that were about to begin — 100 meter sprints, relay, tag etc. Unsure of where to align myself in a scene so distinctly from my childhood, I found refuge in the line for dosas.
As we watched the cook masterfully spread one dosa next to other with designated fillings — cheese, potatoes, or both — I chatted with the others in line, reminiscing about how we used to celebrate the occasion. The days when we would only have two candies to celebrate, or three if we were lucky and very sneaky.
Tracked step. Mumbai
You cannot get away with saying you have lived in Mumbai without taking at least one trip in the local trains of the city. Starting at 4 am and closing at 1 am, Mumbai’s suburban railway system is the oldest in Asia. The number of travelers per day adds up to 7.5 million commuting over 465 kilometres. It is the easiest and fastest way to get around the city. For first timers, it is also the most intimidating way to cover city ground.
The entry and exit doors for each berth in the train are open during working hours. The centre of each doorway is anchored by a metal pole. During peak time, it is not uncommon to catch commuters hanging off the poles, sticking their head out for air before pulling it back in. Sometimes, that is the preffered option four people are crammed into a three person seat inside.
The true test of traveling in the local occurs while getting on and off the train. Most jump on and off as the train approaches the stat.ion When the train stops, the platform turns into a maze. The sheer number of people mounting and dismounting simultaneously is not a sight for the weak. Room to breathe is a gift and not missing your train the first time around is a skill. An ominous gap between the train and tracks undergound does not help your speed. A hard elbow nudge is the closest version of "Excuse me". But if you fall, the helping hand of another stranger magicallys appear to lift you off the platform and onboard the train. The struggle is equal.
Technically, I was not a first timer on the local. But, there was always someone else to nudge and push me through the impenetrable cascade of commuters. Now, I'd take th ride on my own.
I found the platform for my train and prepped myself as I descended the stairs. I brought my backpack to the front to protect my body and my belongings in a crowded railway station (directions from seasoned, wiser female commuters). I went through my mental notes of how to board the train and where to stand if I could not find a seat. I also planned my exit, looking at the metro map multiple times in order to not miss my stop.
I heard the train before I saw it. Like a clueless child, I followed the others as they expertly move around the platform to position themselves in front of the best berth. The train screeched to a stop. Holding my backpack and centering my balance, I climbed on. I took two long strides to one empty seat in the window. The train jerked into movement as commuters dribbled down the stairs to catch the train. The skilled jumped in with deceiving ease. The others made it with a little help.
The Mumbai local experience is like the city itself. Chaotic, stressful and adrenalizing at once. But when you figure out the system, you find your center and move along.
Permanent portals. Mumbai
Sometimes when you revisit a place at home, flashbacks flood your memory. The scattered pieces of a blurry photograph scram to find each other. You wonder if it is a product of your imagination or your need to make sense of every place you visit at home. My trip to Hanging Gardens and Kamala Nehru Park was a foggy combination of both.
Situated across from each other, both parks are located in the plush Malabar Hill neighborhood. Kids in school uniforms, harrowed teachers chaperoning the field trip, cackling families and a slew of vendors fill these landmarks. To get there, you pass the Tower of Silence, a burial ground for Zoroastrians. Per religious tradition, bodies of the dead are exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds to rid the body of all impurities. The road to the garden is already void of noise. The Tower of Silence amplifies the quiet, adding a heavy undertone of eeriness to the route.
Once I get to the entrance of the Hanging Garden, however, the eeriness sheds. Time also stops.
The flashback floods commence while snapshots of past picnics and lawn games take over. In between those flashbacks, an oversized shoe makes a repeated appearance. I looked around the garden to match the laced up shoe in my memory to one on the ground, but found nothing. There are shrubs groomed to the shape of horse-carriages, a statue of a compass and a walkway covered in gorgeous blooms. But, no shoe.
While looking for the shoe Hanging Garden, I heard children across the road at Kamala Nehru Park. I ventured over, wondering if the shoe was real or not. At the receiving end of squealing children and in between the tall trees there it stood, magnificent in size and an exact match to my memory. What a joy it is to piece together scraps of a forgotten photograph.
For most in Mumbai, the Royal Opera House is a familiar structure. To me, it was a discovered gem as I walked past the Opera House en route to Girgaum Chowpatty. Hidden behind a set of iron rod gates with architectural odes to the British Raj, the Royal Opera House is a striking stop in the neighborhood landscape. I was utterly clueless about its existence and turned to Google to find the name of the building when I came upon it.
In its initial days, the Opera House hosted plays and film screenings. It was a gathering of the elites and and the regulars, a venue for lovers of art. When films were screened, five to 10 rupees would buy you a ticket. Slowly, as is the case with most gems, the Opera House began to fade. Literally and figuratively. A waned facade with memories of glorious evenings was all that remained of the Royal Opera House.
The Opera House was restored in October 2016 and is now a heritage building. The place is not open to tourists unless you buy tickets to one of its shows. Besides plays and performances, the Opera House recently hosted the comedy specials of few of India’s most popular stand-up stars.
Stealing glances into the Opera House's ornate ground level offices, I listened to a representative share plans of starting a cafe and regular tours of the venue. She talked about how the original facade took years of restoration and of the work that remained. The building felt like a remnant of times so far behind that even imagined evenings of ball gowns and tuxedos felt surreal. But, those evenings did happen and this structure was still around to tell those stories.
A city's physical spaces go through motions of being built, dismantled, rebuilt and restored. These external structures answer our call to time travel in an instant. Every structure, for as long as it stands, can conduct a swift induction into nostalgia laced reflections of a time only hear of. In their existence, these structures are the present day keepers of history.
Calculated love. Mumbai
This trip to Mumbai, I learned of the math plaguing lovers in the city. It is a dire plight. In a city and country with record setting population and conservative views on public displays of affection, the search for privacy is a recurring roadblock. Eager for some alone time, couples flock to the seaside, secluded streets, oversized trees or a generous friend’s empty home to snag a few hours to themselves. Girgaum Chowpatty (or Chowpatty) is one such prime spot.
I had not been to Chowpatty before, and taking a stroll under the blaring sun was not the best decision. But, I had sometime before an early evening appointment in the area. The seaside was not crowded except for groups of friends, young couples and a few vendors .
There appeared to be an unspoken code between the couples. Every twosome maintained three couples worth of distance between each other. With heads turned to the seaside, their faces were hardly visible. If one happened to turn around, then their hair or a dupatta (scarf) concealed their identity. Those passing by were also in on the code, keeping their eyes on the road and not to the covert actions on the side.
The strangeness of surveying seaside lovers was not lost on me. What must it be like to fall in love, crave privacy and then only find it in the anonymity of public spaces?
Like most things here, even love thrives in a cloaked paradox.
Memory scraps. Mumbai
Hidden heritage. Mumbai
An over 200 year old Portuguese style heritage village is all I needed to hear to visit Khotachiwadi. Built in the late 19th Century, Khotachiwadi is a neighborhood of vibrant two to three storied bungalows snuggled into the streets of South Mumbai. The city’s chaos begins to retreat once you enter Khotachiwadi. Grabbing you by your hand, the silence steadily steers your attention to the colorful homes with wooden stairways, the narrow roads, aging storefronts and fading murals.
A contrasting sight from most of the city, Khotachiwadi also represents a familiar conflict between the old and new in Mumbai. Once a sprawling neighborhood of 65 distinctive houses, Khotachiwadi is now home to high rises, 27 bungalows and a handful of activists in constant tussle with desperate realtors eyeing ripe land. Then, there are the landlords worn of fixing ancient infrastructure in an attempt to modernize their homes.
Though I called Mumbai home, this was the first time I heard of Khotachiwadi and visited the neighborhood. In a city as large and busy as Mumbai, creating bubbles of isolated existence doesn't take much. Besides, the reasons to step out of those bubbles are few and far between. It always takes a different kind of effort to find the hidden rooms in your own home.
Postcard history. Mumbai
At the centre of a moving tourist crowd, there is usually a lone local with a camera around his neck and a book of glossy postcards in his hand. He has two primary jobs. One is to gather the entire family/traveling troupe in front of the tourist attraction and take a photo. The second is to sell a collectible i.e. the photo he just took, a postcard or a book of postcards. When I reached Kamala Nehru Park and stood overwhelmed by a park full of strangers surrounding an oversized shoe, catching the eye of a gentleman with the camera and book of postcards was a relief. I walked over and sat by him.
He figured I wasn't buying, so instead we started talking about the places in his postcard book. Mani Bhavan, he insisted, was a place every Mumbai tourist always visited. Mani Bhavan used to be Mahatma Gandhi’s residence in Mumbai. He began the Salt March at its footsteps and marshaled India’s revolutionaries on the terrace to write the country’s independence movement. The three storied building is now a museum with exhibits documenting Gandhi’s life and commentary on peace and non violence.
On a street full of colonial buildings, the house is an inconspicous presence. But a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the entrance and a consistent flow of large tourist groups help the museum stand out. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the residence in the 1950s and in 2012, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama signed the guestbook.
Like any other museum, there are captioned photos and installations recreating Gandhi’s life. His room is also kept intact — a spinning wheel alongside a mattress, a wooden floor desk, and a punkah. The double doors to the terrace are latched except for a slight crack in the centre. You cannot see much, but after walking through three floors of photos describing Mani Bhavan, it is easy to imagine the rooftop conversations between the men and women of India's history books.
In between the crowds, cameras and chaos of being a tourist, a moment of solace to process where you are is incumbent. The man with the book of postcards led me to Mani Bhavan. Those latched doors to the terrace of Gandhi's home, then, told me how much of the city's history I had yet to uncover.
Wooden boxes. Mumbai
Museums do not bore me one bit. Drowning myself in history, pretending to live in earlier times or admiring the genius of others is a favorite pastime in a new city. Considering my track record of visiting Mumbai landmarks, I had not been to the city’s oldest museum - the Victoria and Albert Museum aka the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad City Museum.
The museum opened to the public in 1857 and shares a compound with Jijamata Udyaan (Byculla Zoo). After a five year restoration project, the museum reopened in 2008 and launched its transition to a contemporary space for exhibitions, performances, and workshops. The day I walked in, the guards, docents and front desk personnel were the only other people there. I entered with low expectations.
The museum was “conceived to dazzle the citizens”. And it did with splendor. Once you’re past security, you have to pause and take in the High Victorian design of intricate ceilings, Doric columns, tiled floors and charming windows. The exhibitions featured contemporary photographers, sculptors, and artists. While there was so much fit into the limited space of a two floor museum, a mysterious vertical wooden box was a recurring motif.
Nailed into the wall or placed upright by the artwork, the wooden box had an open top with three internal horizontal shelves. Each shelf carried a laminated sheet of paper with English, Hindi and Marathi descriptions of the art on display. There was also a spiral bound book of more information on the museums and exhibits. A few more people walked in while I toured the museum. As we waded in and out of the exhibits, each of us approached the wooden box and picked the language that worked best for us.
There was a delightful novelty in reading off laminated sheets of paper instead of squinting close to little squares of artwork description typically screwed into museum walls. When everything is digital that tactile experience felt like it belonged in a museum too, a consummate fit in a place documenting history.
Whistling exits. Mumbai
I only had an hour at the City Museum before it shut. Upon leaving the building, I joined a group of visitors looking for an exit. The guards of the compound rushed us out with verbal requests first and then squealing whistles. They needed to lock the gates. The gates through which we entered could not be used as an exit, so the only way out was through the zoo that shared the Museum compound.
Ranichi Baug or Byculla Zoo, now the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, was known as Victoria Gardens (hence Ranichi Baug after Queen Victoria) and opened to the public in the late 1800s. When I entered the grand gates unusual for a zoo, the zoo was approaching its closing time. There were hardly any people and the place looked like an abandoned, old-time garden.
Walking around, I watched a group of people peering over a pool. While the guards continued to blow their whistle, I heard shouts of “Hey! Look, there’s a fish!” and “What’s that?” in English, Hindi and Marathi. I hustled past them, feeling sorry for the guard who had to push them to leave and getting irritated at the loud whistles they triggered.
While nearing the exit, there seemed to be an elephant trunk at the end of a fenced lawn. I paused to confirm what I saw. Soon, I heard the guard's whistle. My confirmation process raced against the guard's footsteps and increasingly loud whistle. By the time I confirmed I was indeed looking at an elephant, the pool crowd had caught up with me.
At the end of it, I too became the frustrating tourist to the annoyed guard, who could not scrambling to the exit soon enough.
Fabled ground. Mumbai
In every hometown, there are spaces that spur a collective sigh of nostalgia and longing in the town's locals. A park, a cafe, or a street could be the place where generations worth of memories were created and new ones faithfully made. Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre or, simply Prithvi, falls into this esteemed cohort.
Named after Prithviraj Kapoor, a Hindi cinema stalwart, the theatre was built by his youngest son and actor, Shashi Kapoor. Over the years, Prithvi transformed into one of the most revered and loved centers of theatre and creative expresssion. It still belongs to the Kapoors while the attached cafe and bookstore remains popular.
As a teen, I went to Prithvi for its live theatre shows and creative skills workshops. When I returned, I saw what it could have become had I stayed in the city. While performances fill the night, during the day the cafe is an open space for students on a break, artists in practice, meetings for the nine-to-fivers, silent day dreamers and a snug spot for lovers. There is no Wi-Fi in the cafe, turning the sounds of Prithvi into a combination of loud chatter, silverware scraping affordable plates of food, smacking gulps of Irish coffee, and deep discursions on life.
For generations, Prithvi's grounds have bred creative masterpieces and nurtured precious dreams. When you enter Prithvi, whether knowingly or not, you feed into the legendary stories reverberating through the cafe, bookstore and auditorium. To turn legend, a place must immortalize the past and welcome new memories. The locals' longing for Prithvi is a summons for those moments.
Cubed miracles. Mumbai
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, has been a city icon since the 17th century. Better known as Mount Mary Church, the chapel brings together locals and visitors in prayer or in transit. The church is based in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai with the trendiest restaurants and many of Mumbai's wealthiest residents. Mount Mary also overlooks the Arabian sea, delivering tranquil moments in this city that rarely switches off.
Before entering the church grounds, I walked past a number of vendors — a customary view outside most places of worship. Vendors selling rectangular blocks with “Happiness” or “Passport” written on it, however, are not as commonplace. Each block is made of thermocol with a wish inscribed on it. Those seeking divine intervention in work, travel, money, or love are ideal customers. To make the block, a sheet of thermocol is first cut into cubes. Once done with the inscription, the cube of thermocol is dipped in wax, left to dry, and eventually become an offering by a faithful worshipper.
Like the vegetable vendors, stalls selling thermocol wishes also file in rows. At peak time, no stall is empty. Before entering church, congregants gather around the baskets, prioritizing their prayers, sorting through the wishes, and hoping at all times for their own little cubed miracles.
Work home. Mumbai
Thirty years old and from Bihar, when I asked my building's elevator operator to spell out his full name for our interview, he pointed to the tattoo on his hand. Written in Hindi, he said his name had three syllables - “Dee, Leee, Puh”. How about the second name below his? His wife's, he said.
Dilip is from a village more than 1800 KM from Mumbai. He lived in Mumbai for 12 years where, among other jobs, he worked as a manager in a store before leaving to resolve a family issue in his village. He returned in late 2016 for the same reason many come to Mumbai - work and money. Upon returning, “it was difficult to get a job and I [could not] spend my time just sitting. Yeh bambai hain (This is Mumbai),” he said. He landed the elevator job through the building’s security guard who shared his home village
His day begins at 5 AM. At 8 AM, Dilip is in the elevator and at 8 PM, walks to a building nearby for his second job as a security guard. He keeps his belongings in one of building's offices and between the jobs, he manages two hours of sleep.
Dilip's siblings live in Mumbai with their families, but his wife and three young children are in the village with his parents. So is Mumbai home? “Yahaan toh paisa hain, pyaar to ghar pe hain… kya? (There’s money here, but love at home…right?)”.
Home could be a place, a state of mind, a group of people, a family of pets, or sometimes, a complicated emotion. Nostalgia is a key accomplice in the making of a home. When you build your own home, you bring along traces of your childhood sanctuary whether that is an object reminding you of how you grew up, or a photo capturing a memory from years ago. You sprinkle your home with selected portals to the life you’ve lived, and leave room for the life you’ve yet to live — a nostalgia trip in the making.
This series explores how home and nostalgia inform each other in ordinary realities. I talk about the stories we tell ourselves to remain connected with our version of home and the effect of time on these interpretations. As we uproot and reroot our lives, what becomes of the place where we belong or used to belong?
For the project, I spent the first four months of 2017 in the first place I learned to call home, Mumbai. There are many things I could have done in Mumbai, but these four months were about stumbling into new experiences and seeking out old ones. Every image and the words that go with it are an extension of observations on people, places and experiences. The intention, as always, was to better understand the concept of home.
Archived mail. Mumbai
Except for Sundays, the postman rang the doorbell at the same time everyday with the mail for the members of the house. For outgoing mail, we walked to the nearest mailbox and drop our envelopes. When I was a child, I was allowed to take this walk without supervision. A small win for freedom. The mailbox was a short distance from my apartment building.
Every mailbox had a black top, red body, black flap and a heavy lock on the bottom door. From far, it resembled a mismatched Lego firefighter. To deposit your stack of envelopes, you had to push the flap with just the right amount of force. It took more than a couple tries to master the move and avoid landing your hand and envelopes in the mailbox.
With courier services and email, the red mailbox is being phased out in the Mumbai. Locating one of these gateways to my childhood turned into an unexpectedly difficult task. Google wasn't much help, and neither were the locals. I began to think I had imagined the freedom walks and the mailbox. Then, on an aimless walk in South Mumbai, I saw a stationary red object across the street. Brisk walking pedestrians with briefcases, handbags, and plastic bags blocked my view.
My only solution was to walk over and check for myself. Street crossing in India is of a particular kind. Ask someone who's been there and you'll learn, you do not wait for traffic lights and crosswalks are for those who do not know better. You simply find a break in traffic, and you cross. If a vehicle does come close, stick your palm up as if daring them to move, and continue walking. I have seen five year olds pull this off in style.
Channeling my street-crossing ninja, I reached the other side. Black top, black flap on a red body with a heavy padlock at the bottom. The red mailbox still had roots in the city after all.
Wandering Local . Design by Wandering Local .
Ancestral awe. Mumbai
James Ferreira is Khotachiwadi’s most famous resident. He has lived in same house all his life, and insists on conducting his business out of the 200 year old family bungalow, #47G. Running an eponymous fashion label, Ferrera has exhibited at Lakme India Fashion Week and counts a handful of celebrities among his clients.
His office is on the second floor where walls carry paintings in peeling frames, and shelves are lined with random artifacts. Racks of on-sale clothes occupy the centre of the office. The wooden tables by the wall are strictly for meetings and purchase transactions. An inside room transforms into a workspace where discarded fabrics carpet the floor and new designs await their outfits. Ferreira’s boutique is different from the stores one has come to expect of celebrated designers. The ones where as you soon as you enter, you feel lost and overwhelmed. The space had imbibed the neighborhood's characteristic warmth and been soaked in the house's history.
When buyers and collaborators come home, Ferreira said “they just cannot believe they are in Bombay… they are in awe of the place.” The fashion designer also welcomes passing tourists to his home. When I took a tour of the house, I too, was inevitably awed.
I do not know if my awe was because of the house itself, or because I could not possibly imagine living in one place my entire life; a place where you can map the streets in your sleep and recite stories of your neighbors from generations past.
Loyal defiance. Mumbai
In opening his home to tourists, Ferreira continues a decades’ long fight to insure the village heritage. His hope is that more awareness of Khotachiwadi might result in less interference from the powerful few waiting to replace history with skyscrapers.
“I live here, and I have the time [to fight]. But, when it comes to fighting to buy up places and all, I don’t have the resources, nor do I have the contacts who can help us there,” Ferreira said. The buying, he specified, described the sales made by homeowners to government and corporate representatives.
Organizations like URBZ, a local city planning and design collective, and the Institute of Urbanology work regularly with Khotachiwadi residents to build literature around the village’s history. Their projects also help residents and activists resist corporate buyouts of homes.
Maintaining houses built centuries ago demands time, money, patience, and more money. The temptation to sell the old one and build a modern home with the sale's money is compelling. Sometimes, it is the only choice for the residents. The ones who continue to resist are fueled by history and a sense of loyalty to their ancestors.
“It’s [about] taking the life of my parents ahead,” Ferreira said. For him, his fight is his legacy.
Idle chat. Mumbai
With a limited menu of potato chips, cookies and snacks, Khotachiwadi's Ideal Wafers is a call back to the neighborhood store. The store whose owner knows everyone by name and family name, supplies the food for birthday parties, and where all the uncles and aunties stop by for a quick gossip session.
Throughout my trip so far, places and people reminded of my old home. At Ideal Wafers, it was the smell. The smell of baked and fried goodness.
When I was old enough to run errands, I was a regular at two stores. Both were a block down from my apartment building. One was a store with pantry essentials like rice, lentils, onions and potatoes. The other store was next door and sold childrens' essentials like candy, potato chips, icees, and cookies. How clever for the two owners to set up next to each other; Running an errand always resulted in a reward of tasty tidbits.
On a weekday afternoon, Ideal Wafers had a few customers. The owner sat behind the counter while his neighbor and their friend sat across. One stared at his phone, the other had a newspaper open while the owner bagged a customer's items. There was a comfortable silence among everyone in the store, the kind that comes with knowing one another for a long time.
All I had to do was ask them about the history of the shop, before they took over the conversation. We talked about the neighborhood, how festivals of all religions were celebrated, and of the tourists who arrived in groups with cameras. Very few of the tourists actually asked questions, they said, content with a snapshot of an exotic culture.
The topic soon turned to the bungalow demolitions, and the incessant government probing to modernize Khotachiwadi. Many had given in, the trio told me. They too mulled over the potential relief of modern living, a life where the cracks in the walls would be filled.
"But then", one reflected, "Would Khotachiwadi still be home?"
Hazy hues. Mumbai
Festivals in India are as routine as life. They keep on, and sometimes they move past you without a second look. The country’s famed diversity leads to seemingly countless festivals. There are different ones for every religion, sect, caste, community, season, birthday, weddings, etc.
Holi, the festival of color, comes in the spring and is based on a Hindu mythological story of the triumph of good over evil. To celebrate, people burn the evil energy out on a pyre at night and the next morning, celebrate with an arsenal of water balloons, water pistons, and color powder. Fugas, pichkari and rang in Hindi.
As kids, we began celebrating Holi a week before the actual date. The streets turned into dangerous turf, we surveyed our corners while keeping an eye and ear out for the friendly neighborhood goon waiting to drop a water balloon off the rooftops. But on the day of Holi, caution was replaced with bravado.
Holi was the one day every year when the young ones were on even ground with the older kids. Along with them, our neighbors over the wall became our prime targets. Trenches were built on either side of the wall. Buckets were filled with water balloons and pichkaris were loaded with a horrid mix of vagrant water colors before we convened to appoint one bucket to "reserve" duty for our ultimate attack.
When the time was right, we filled the reserve bucket with all the colors on hand, added water and hauled it over the wall we shared with the neighboring building. Anyone on the other side would be doused in the awful mix. I was on the receiving end once, a memory that still shocks me. One Holi, as I prepared a bucket of water balloons, my teeth and tongue bore the brunt of a bucket full of gooey, cobalt blue water pouring down that wretched wall.
The adult version of Holi includes all of this plus bhaang — a drink of churned milk, water and crushed cannabis leaves. Needless to say, the celebrations are of the more bleary kind. Today, the celebration of Holi is kinder. The scarcity of water, the harmful chemicals in rang, and ample complaints against the neighborhood goons restrained the madness.
Festivals in India are as routine as life. While many might pass by without notice, some leave you with hazy, colorful memories.
The South Indian filter coffee or kappi is legendary. Made with the distinctly flavored coffee beans of Southern India, the beans are roasted, powdered and then brewed in the coffee filter in a process similar to French pressed coffee. The coffee filter is a contraption of two metal cylindrical cups with a stemmed sieve-like disc to press the coffee before hot water is poured to make a thick, strong concoction. Typically, steaming milk and sugar are added to a bit of the concoction in a steel tumbler and dabarah (a container). But, what transforms the coffee into kappi is the stretching of the milk between the tumbler and dabarah. Once ready, kaapi is poured from the tumbler into the dabarah at a height and then back in the tumbler to mix the ingredients, cool the coffee and froth the milk.
Vijay Ravindran Nair is the chief bartender at SamBar, a South Indian themed pub and kitchen in Mumbai. He began as a trainee, wiping glasses and observing behind the bar. When the team was curating the cocktail menu, Nair suggested a coffee flavored drink. Born and brought up in Bombay, Nair’s Dad is from Kerala, South India. “When you go in the South, the Kappi Madras is very famous,” he explained. “So we wanted something to give some South Indian flavor.”
Unlike kaapi, making the Capi Madras is less time consuming. Nair takes a cocktail shaker and fills it with an in-house coffee liqueur. He adds vodka, a little bit of spice, then ice before shaking it. He does not drink, trusting his colleagues during taste tests.
“We gave it in a glass,” Nair says of the first time the Capi Madras was served. “It didn’t look that nice. Then the [metal] tumbler was suggested and we tried the stretching to give it the foam.” Like it is for the Capi Madras’ non-alcoholic twin, the stretching turned out to be the game changer in the alcoholic one. “In coffee you have to have that foam,” Nair tells me as a matter of fact.
Every time the Capi Madras is ordered (it sold 500 within the first month), a lungi clad server carries the steel tumbler and dabarah, and pours the drink from glass to tumbler before serving.
Whether consumed for a caffeine fix or otherwise, kappi's legend lies in the way it is poured and served.
Spiced estate. Mumbai
Among the many things that changed when I moved to the US, the contents of my lunchbox endured a drastic switch. From tiffins of chutney sandwiches, idlis and roti-sabzi (flat bread with vegetables), I moved to turkey sandwiches, lightly spiced chicken sandwiches or tuna sandwiches in brown paper bags. I already looked and spoke differently from most of my high school. So, if carrying a sandwich with a granola bar and Capri Sun helped the cause of fitting in, then it was done.
Besides, my Indian origin friends and family had first-hand accounts of that one time a non Indian came over and sniffed out a smell in the house. "The smell, what’s the smell?", they asked. To carry Indian food to work was also a delicate matter, lest the strange smell overtook the office kitchen.
The smell comes from the careful doses and sprinkling of the spices we dearly love in Indian cooking. Too much or too little either completes or destroys the dish.
A standard Indian kitchen ordinarily has a round steel masala dabba (spice box). The dabba typically has two layers. Tiny bowls of chili powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, cumin seeds and garam masala (a blend of whole cinammon, cloves, cardomom among other spices) occupy . To keep the spices fresh, a protective cover the size of the masala dabba is placed forms the second layer. A small scoop spoon becomes the third layer followed by the dabba's lid.
On first glance, Indian cooking appears haphazard. It is like watching someone throw ingredients into a pan with minimal calibration and then offer a delectable dish. It is intimidating, and possibly unfair. When I started cooking, I wondered if the scoop spoon could be the reason why Indian cooking appears as if it requires no measurement. You see, the size of the spoon depends on the size of the spice box. When I am told to drop a spoon of turmeric in my dish, I have learned to confirm if the spoon sizes align before adding a spoon of turmeric.
The spices in the US are not the same as the one at home. A regular immigrant case of things in the new home not matching the old one. A trip to India, therefore, ends in a spice stock up, and then awkward exchange with airport officials asking about the powders in your suitcase.
On an evening errand in Mumbai, I came across the smell. It was raw. As I followed the waft in search for its source, the air turned misty. It was a shop of spices where dry red chillies were being pounded to powder. An entirely new insight into the creation of my spices. Until then, I had always touched, smelled and cooked with the end product.
Witnessing the machinery in motion was to witness a new birth. For these freshly ground spices, whose masala dabba would become home?
Borderless chutney. Mumbai
Rajendra Prasad Purohit comes from a family of vendors selling chaat — the delectable street food sold across India and South Asia. Bhel puri, pani puri, sevpuri — these served as my primary bribes while growing up. In my world, no matter the job, a lot could be and can be achieved over a plate of bhel puri. Wrapped in plastic and newspaper, I first tasted Purohit's spicy green chutney in Dubai. It is what led me to his stall in Mumbai.
Purohit has been in the chaat business for nearly 40 years, selling in the same neighborhood for all four decades. He came to Mumbai from Rajasthan in 1987 to join his father and learn the trade.
“There isn’t really a class in this,” he laughed. “My father did it, then my brother, then me and now my younger brother will start”. Purohit is one of four children. The fourth brother stays in the the village running a shop, managing the family land and taking care of their parents.
At 3:30 PM, the stall opens for business. With hardly a moment to breathe, Purohit begins his shift by responding to customers at the stall that range from one to 10 people depending on the hour. Armed with an old Nokia phone - the kind that requires one to press a button three times to get to the letter “c” - and a clip board with lined paper, Purohit also takes call-in orders. At 10 PM, the Bhole Bandar Bhel Puri Stall is disassembled into a box and disappears into the night like it was never there.
Does he take a day off? “I work 365 days a year,” he said. “I take a day off then what will the kids have? There is no other income.” Purohit stays with his wife and kids who go to school. For all the food he makes and the people he serves, Purohit can’t pick a favorite chaat dish. “I like it all… My favorite is what’s being made in my family for all these generations,” he said before listing off the menu on cue.
When I told him the chutney tasting in Dubai got me here, he simply nodded like it was no surprise that his chutney had crossed borders. A while later as he negotiated prices with a middle-aged lady for serving chaat at an event, he threw in his newly acquired market knowledge.
“My chutney travels to Dubai,” he said with a smirk. “That’s great. But still, give me a better price,” the woman promptly responded. The exchange then becoming an essential Mumbai lesson — even if it is a plate of bhel puri, haggling for a good price is a city edict.
Mango vs. Man. Mumbai
India's beauty is of the kind that consumes you long after you've left its land. During my first weeks in the country after months in Dubai — a city of manufactured vistas at best — I cherished everything green. When the trees blended into the city's wallpaper, I found I had transitioned from tourist to local.
The mango trees were in full bloom that summer. If not for the kairis (unripe green mangoes) on the grounds of my apartment building, I would never have noticed. Once fallen, the kairis met one of two ends — smashed by foot and/or vehicle, or gathered in haste to avoid a smashed fate.
It was a quiet afternoon in the neighborhood when clinks and clanks sounded off the streets. Peering out my window, I found a scene set for mango picking. Two middle-aged uncles atop a water tank with a long bamboo shoot prodding the fruit off its branch.
Soon, two more joined the mango picking gang with a khatiya (cloth bed) to place at the bottom of the tree and cut the mangoes' fall. Those on Level 1 gave directions to those on Level 2. "To your right, more right, right..arre too far!". Another joined in to survey the progress from the street. After twenty minutes, a collective glee of victory. Alas, only a single mango had fallen.
With a whole tree to go and the afternoon sun as my shining companion, I settled for round two of Mango vs. Man. India's beauty is legendary. That day, it turned amusing too.
Diaspora reset. Mumbai
As any other metropolis, Mumbai is a sustained mesh of creative experiment. I’d observed the changing culture in Mumbai from afar for many years. This time, the underground was rising into the mainstream whether in comedy, music, or conversation. The making of a new cultural movement was unmistakeable.
When I moved back for those four months, I curated my own tour of the changing culture. The Godrej India Culture Lab was a happy surprise. Housed in the headquarters of one of the country's largest global conglomerates, Godrej Group, the lab is a "fluid experimental space...that explores what it means to be modern and Indian." Through events, festivals and exhibitions, the lab explores gender, sexuality, urban living and innovation. I attended a Feminist Adda (hub) on 'What’s Sex Got to Do With It'. Those whispered conversations were confidently seeping out of closed doors into free for all panels.
Featuring four prominent feminists and scholars, including the fiery US-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, the panel was an open exchange on gender, sex, discrimination and life as a woman. But throughout the panel, I kept looking around to remind myself this was real.
There’s a tendency for diaspora stamp holders to freeze a version of their home country in time and state. This version binds culture and behavior in a frame. In return, offering a permanently nostalgic take on home. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I partly travel back to India to find cracks in the version I took when I left. That, I am reminded again, requires a timely reboot of the old edition.
Paisa vasool. Mumbai
When it is a matter of ‘ganne ka juice’ (sugarcane juice in Hinglish), there are two ways to source it. Chew vigorously on the sticks until they’re pulp or head to the nearest juicewalla. Once 50 paise or less, now a glass is 10-20 INR - served plain or topped with salt, chili, and lime.
True to the street vendor’s creed, juicewallas are shrewd sellers with ingenious set ups. You can find them next to a savory stall for a glass to sweeten the meal, or by railway stations and crowded street corners for an icy respite from the sweltering heat.
A bulky, grass-green, electric contraption with wheels on either side is used to make the juice. The vendor puts a few sticks through one side of the presser, a bowl is placed at the bottom to collect the extracted juice while the sticks are gathered on the other side ready to go again. We are a culture of paisa vasool i.e. getting the most value for our money. And so, the sticks go through the presser until the sticks dry out.
Like so many mothers, mine attempted to veer me away from street food. My dutiful daughterly dispositions complied. Certain exceptions were made, but ‘ganne ka juice’ did not make the cut.⠀⠀
Now well into adulthood, and parental decrees contained firmly in my childhood, the land of sugarcane juice awaited. Many sticks, one presser and one chilled glass. At last.
BEST transit. Mumbai
Mumbai’s first McDonald’s opened close to my tenth birthday. Like most American exports at the time, McDonald’s was cool by virtue of being American. It came from the West, with sesame seeds on a bun.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
In a miracle fit to dazzle a 10-year-old, my parents agreed to host the birthday celebrations there. My friends and I took the local BEST bus (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) — colloquially pronounced with a swallowed vowel to become the BST bus — to our destination.
I don’t recall riding it anytime after. Stories of the bus not being safe, especially for women was the main concern. I left before I could see for myself. I added it to my to-do list this time around and hopped on with a friend.
BSTs are red on the outside, green on the inside with a diligent ticket conductor as the crowd handler. Dressed in a mud brown uniform, carrying tickets in a satchel, he used a single hole punch to purchase-proof the ticket stub. ⠀⠀⠀
The windows fitted two metal railings in its centre, splitting the view outside. Metal frames and plastic upholstery formed the seats were of metal frames and plastic upholstery, the type that sticks to your legs during a long commute.
As with most transit in the country, seating was separated by sex. Women sat next to women, and men next to men. The front and the back seats of the bus were full. The middle, as always, was the last to be occupied.
Once we found a seat, I grabbed the one by the window for an above ground view of a city that was becoming increasingly familiar. The metal backs of every seat for as far as I could see were carved with inscriptions — declarations of love, self professed greatness, or the classic “X was here”. Each inscription linked by one seat occupied by many strangers.
Buses, trains and public transportations of any form Intergenerational stories are frequently seasoned with transit tales. Parents open with "When I was your age" and grandparents close with, "I didn't have Uber and all this nonsense. I took a bus from X to Y then walked to Z and then took a bus from there to get to…”⠀⠀⠀
Public transportation features in stories of our childhood too — at least for those of us who had access. It is possibly how we might have learned to first travel alone, safe in the crowded comfort of public transport.
Buried chords. Mumbai
In Mumbai, you seldom look to the sky. What’s in front, to your sides and under your feet consumes you. The constant barrage of people, the insane traffic, the turbid air and the urgency of city dwelling form the layers of your attention span. The sky, then becomes a lasting dome hosting the city’s streets.
When you do look upto the sky, the rooftops, skyscrapers, power lines, electrical towers and street lights work as rungs to the final vision on top. One of these rare times, I saw what looked like a raised nest - concentric circles arranged on top of one another, held down by a rectangular building. This was the Ambassador Hotel.
The veneer giving away its yore, this luxury heritage hotel was built in 1939. While in historic archictectural company of neighbors like the Queen's Necklace and the Gateway of India, the Ambassador Hotel was also in historic musical company. The hotel is located on Churchgate Street aka India's jazz strip (now Veer Nariman Road), where music and city elites poured in and out of a legendary coterie of musical paradise that included bistro Napoli, Gaylord restaurant, Berry's, Bombelli's and the Astoria around the corner.
The Ambassador was owned Jack Voyantzis, a flamboyant Greek restaurateur who loved his Havanas. The famed Toni Pinto Quartet was the resident band at the hotel's Other Room, a black-tie social club. The Other Room, according to journalist Naresh Fernandes, got its name "because after the rich and famous had finished drinking at the bar, they’d say, 'Let’s go to the other room'." The rich and the famous were not just the local celebrities. Among others, jazz legend Dave Brubeck was a walk-in when he was in India with his jazz quartet.
A chance tilt upwards, it appears, could sometimes lead to tales buried above city streets.
Basement binds. Mumbai
Writing is lonesome work. More often than not, it is just you, your mind and your tools. I treasure the portability of the process — to be able to pack up and write from anywhere as long as I have my essentials. But, there are days when I need to be reminded of other humans. Those days, a cafe is terrific foil. Crowded, but not too much. Tables, food, WIFI and, sometimes, others like me with mobile workspaces.
I spent much of my time in Mumbai parsing through reviews and recommendations for cafes around the city. Ones where I could spend an afternoon with my work, ones that could maybe inspire the words. I spent successful afternoons in plenty cafes. Then, I found Leaping Windows.
The cafe is folded into the foliage of Versova, a neighborhood in Andheri West known for a clean beach, upper middle-class residents, aspiring actors/models and a great number of bars and restaurants. Leaping Windows, however, was not a typical cafe.
It had the markers of any trendy joint in Mumbai —ample seating, organic food, fresh juices, and yes, WIFI. But the cafe bore a basement secret. A walk downstairs leads to a comic cave where for 50 INR, you get an hour with your favorite comic or pay a fee to become a member to borrow books. ⠀⠀