Making the most out of quick work trips is an art. I’d like to say I’m rather good at it. In the first week of January, I made an overnight visit to Mumbai for a meeting. I was fortunate, since the meeting was in Cuffe Parade, to be out up at the quaint old-world Sea Green Hotel right on Marine Drive.
Bombay, especially the central and southern parts of the city, is a big part of my growing up years and always has the effect of sending into a wave of strong and happy nostalgia. Marine Drive and Worli Seaface are those iconic places in the city that are on every Bombaywalla’s list of favourites. Mine too.
The Queen’s Necklace is regal and sweeping, its panoramic view and feel having the effect of slowing down your heart rate and making you open your eyes wider as you feel your face ease into a broad smile. And so I found myself waking up in eager anticipation early enough to get in a morning stroll along Marine Drive before I needed to leave for work.
From eager fitness enthusiasts, to cavorting canines. From excited shattering tourists to practiced office goers who looked like they had just stepped off the train and were catching their moments of calm before plunging into the madness of the day. And lovers, everywhere. Young couples lost in themselves, their backs to the world, their gazes out at sea. Exchanging gifts and silences. Sharing conversations.
A city of love, a city of excitement and noise and energy, and of poignant silences too. Bombay, it’s impossible not to love you.
Rohan Patankar is a Delhi-based architect who loves to read, listen, draw, write and delve into the realm of creative spaces, both in terms of function and value. He presently works at Co.Lab design architecture studio and also initiates Delhi Dallying, where a bunch of interesting people write, organize walks, workshops and interactive events. This piece was originally published in The Scribbler.
Comment: Rohan’s fluid and evocative drawings combined with his quirky observations about his experience of Bombay were much appreciated, with one judge practically swooning at the quality of his artwork! As for me, I really like the twist at the end….
In March 2014, I was in Mumbai for a short solo vacation in the city. The intention was to just absorb some energy from the city; draw of it and draw from it. After these few years of Delhi Dallying, being vaguely familiar to Bombay and its local language, I meant to quickly break the touristy ice and get some local flavour.
Still doubtful about what it was exactly that I wanted to do walking around town all alone; my uncle jokingly insisted that I could never get the real feel of Bombay until I spent a night on a footpath. Having lived in the city for almost all his adult life, he claimed to have never even wanted to get this “real feel” of the city for himself. While I decided consciously to have no music playing in my ears when I was out, I was listening to Avishai Cohen’s Gently Disturbed in all the off time I got. He seemed to be getting the vibe of the city quite well; articulating an underlying structure that one can surely sense but cannot decipher completely.
I began with visiting the ancient Sassoon docks, followed by some landmark eateries and public squares in South Bombay. The fresh catch from the sea, the morning flowers and the market of ordinary things by the docks made for one of the most (overwhelmingly) memorable sensations of this trip. Walking through the buildings of colonial lineage at Fort and Ballard Estate, I sensed this comfort for the human scale. The formal building edge, the generous footpath and the sufficiently wide road seemed to really make it comfortable for people and cars. The synergy in the city felt home-grown and deliberate, and somehow, far more mature than what I experience in Delhi usually.
The vivid neighbourhoods and market streets of Dhobi Talao and Bhuleshwar were full of diverse building features and shop signs reading in many many local languages. The public space seemed to have been owned and claimed by people since forever. The threshold of the big Krishna temple at Bhuleshwar had me teleported from this busy transactional hub to a humble un-urbane courtyard. The chatter of the old Gujarati women and men seemed to be suspended in time across all of this space.
Walking along Marine Drive, I was quite surprised to see that many Gymkhana Maidans along the Marine Drive did not have any real boundary wall facing the main street. In an instant, the street felt wider and the open space more public. The Banganga tank in Walkeshwar; this ancient urban oasis seemed unchanging in the face of all the bustle and transformation of the city. It appeared to anchor all the temples that marked the edge of its steps, holding together the essence of the neighbourhood.
Lower Parel was quite a heady mix of the old and the intervened, with many elegant multi-storey glass buildings abutting grimly old low lying neighbourhoods. This looked like a story of aggressive urban transformation that I think would have had equally powerful social consequences. My taxi cab driver told me that most of these towers were built on mill sites. I walked through the Mathuradas Mill Compound where most mill buildings are converted into clubs and restaurants. The adaptive reuse was interesting indeed, but the establishments in this compound just felt disconnected from their setting, almost oblivious and opaque. It felt like the city here had been de-urbanized and reduced to architecture; mere buildings in cement and steel to work with.
I then went to Bandra to meet my architect friend Pallavi who showed me around. After lunching at the maze like Candies, we walked to the villages of Chuim and Ranwar. Starkly different from the intense urban villages of Delhi, this was pleasant. Walking across the main bazaar street selling fruit and everyday things we reached the back lanes that housed quaint cafes and pretty homes amid street art. There were many people and houses, rich and poor; young and old, but essentially ordinary and comfortable.
And still every bit of urban space appeared to be well defined and utilized skilfully. Elsewhere in the city, I had also noticed the seating created on the edge of buildings, places for potted plants by the windows, large doors that could also work like windows when opened partly. But, Bademiya in Colaba surprised me and inspired me in a whole new way. The main kitchen and seating area in this landmark restaurant are separated by a motorable main street! So it functions like a take-away and a dine-in place with its service circulation space being the most public. I hadn’t seen such sharp intensity in a long while.
I remember when we were at Bandstand in front of Salman Khan’s home (whatte landmark!), Pallavi and I were talking about this thrifty spirit that I sensed everywhere in the city. She felt that it comes from how perhaps everyone comes to Bombay and struggles for years, working really really hard. Only then does life get a little comfortable. So it is never embarrassing to have less money. It’s just an ordinary humble life that one shares with most other people in the city; sharing public space and transport. There appeared to be a sense of celebration in this struggle (couldn’t you see the cliché coming?).
I was found myself back in Bombay a few weeks ago, this time though, considering whether I would want to move to the city for work. And that thought changed a whole bunch of perspectives. Much of the romanticism was washed away instantly and the city suddenly felt like a dense mass of fast moving objects, racing against time. Architecture could actually be reduced to floating geometry that sits back and observes the city unfold through its people and their transaction.
I realized pretty soon that my experience in the city would keep changing every time I would explore it since all of what I saw outside had much to do with who I was within at that point in time. I would still be just another blind man forever looking at Bombay as the fabled elephant.
I cannot stop gushing about my weekend trip to Mumbai with the kids and I truly apologize for those who are getting sick of it. But there are a couple of more fun things that are share-worthy, so bear with me!
After the Elephanta trudge, Rachna introduced us to this really neat place Bombay-ites speak of fondly. LPQ is La Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain started by Alain Coumont with the simple objective of serving healthy, tasty, fresh bread. The food was delicious indeed, supposedly locally sourced and organic, superbly put together and subtle in its flavours. We ate tartines, grilled fish and lots of bread plus the delectable apple crumb, entrenched in the memory of my taste buds!
But what really stood out was the experience of communal dining that LPQ offers. They asked us if we wanted to sit at the communal table when we entered and it seemed like a fun idea. I didn’t expect much, however. Perhaps being a Dilliwali I thought it would just be a formality with people continuing to interact within their own groups. Boy, was I wrong!
Within the first few minutes, I had made my first eye contact with a dignified lady who was eating alone near our seats. I think she was amused by my smart-alecy reply to Aadyaa’s smart-alecy question, I forget what it was. Many smiles flew back and forth.
After a bit, a young mother and her cute son moved from a separate table onto the communal one. Soon enough, the kiddo was commenting on what we were doing and saying. Then he threw some question at Aadyaa, she answered back with some help from me on how to frame sentences in English, Hindi being her first language. Soon, the two kids were chattering away and strolling through the space and they had successfully broken the ice for the grown-ups to chat. An elderly couple (European, I thought) across from the young mommy wanted to know what she was drinking, and a lively discussion on drinks ensued with us listening in.
We must have spent two hours plus there, nibbling away at our food, chatting, laughing, just being. Got me thinking about how insular we are usually, going out to eat and only talking to the people we already know really well. Sometimes even hesitating to smile at strangers, avoiding eye contact even; or rather, not bothering to seek out contact. I am always having fun smiling at strangers and seeing how they will react. Some return surprised hesitant smiles, some broad ones and others just stare back. It’s entertaining. At LPG, however, things are set up so you broaden your social world and it’s a great thing! I found this article about communal dining that lists its pros and cons, for those of you who want to know more (there is an entire coffee table book on Alan Coumont’s philosophy at LPQ, fascinating!). Personally, I quite enjoyed the experience and would be excited to try out other communal dining restaurants in my future travels.
Seeing as we had missed going there last time we visited Mumbai thanks to the rains and because Udai had heard of my childhood visits to these caves, he was raring to go. He had put down his demand to visit Elephanta on Day 1 of his solo Mumbai trip to stay with Rachna, who my kids fondly call Bossy (Bausi actually, which is half bua and half mausi, for those of you interested in the etymology of this strange term). It also sort of fits with her, we joke, but in reality she is a softy and a sweetheart.
Anyway, on a super hot summer day, the kids and us- Rachna, Nupur (mausi to the kids) and me- boarded the ferry boat to Elephanta which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an experience pulling out into the sea, seeing the majestic Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel getting smaller and smaller as we headed out. Yes, I’ve been here as a child with my cousins and the ferry ride was the most thrilling part of it. This time, I noticed how many locals there were on board carrying vegetables, corn, coconuts and other goods to the island. These sea-people, for whom now tourism was a lifeline, intrigued me and I wanted to know more…
Anyway, many ship-sightings, lifebuoy-countings and sunburns later, we approached the densely forested island, locally known as Gharapuri but named Elephanta after the stone carved elephant that was discovered here and now stands in the Bombay Zoo, or the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the zoo premises to be precise.
It’s a hot walk and climb to the caves (you can also take a cute chugging train till the steps), but all worth the effort. Sweat streaming, we enter the dark caves to be utterly fascinated by the sculpture, the architecture, the sheer monumentality of these caves, built between 450 and 750 AD. The trimurti- Brahma,Vishnu, Mahesh is exquisite and so are the several sculptures of dwarpals, shiva, shiva-parvatu, ardhnarishwar, etc that adorn the first large cave.
For Udai and Aadyaa (and perhaps for all who visit), the fact that someone (in this case Portuguese traders) had shot at and maimed the sculptures was the main concern. they had read the Amar Chitra Katha comic about the caves and knew some of the history. So are those who did it bad? No? Then why did they do it? A long discussion on intolerance and how it is routinely practised, to the detriment of the human race, followed. An excellent opportunity for me to drill in my own philosophy of liberalism and tolerance, and appreciation of all cultures. I was to get the opportunity again, with much more impact, up in Mcleodganj in the context of Tibet, but more about that later.
The caves offer many photo opportunities and we took them all! On the way back, we decided to wait for the mini train to go back to the ferry. Sitting there, eating corn, I got the opportunity to converse in Marathi with the locals who run all the touristy knick-knack and food shops on the island. They were farmers and fisherfolk before, but now the monkeys have devastated all the crops and they rely on supplies from the mainland. They still fish and bit, do boat repair work etc, but are largely dependent on tourism fir income. The young do not stay here, leaving the island to study and work. I got the sense of despondency, rather than excitement. Would like to know more. When we declare something of heritage value, how does that change the loves of the people who have lived there for generations? Do they have links with the dynasty that carved the caves or are they later settlers? Is there any other way they can be involved to contribute to and benefit from the tourism that the island attracts? Is there any other way the trip the island can be enhanced? Through cultural interpretation centres, art displays, some non-invasive development around the island’s natural lakes and lagoons?
These were the thoughts going around my head on the ferry ride back. As the magnificent city of Mumbai came back into view, these thoughts faded and the excitement of walking around South Mumbai became more palpable!
The best part about my friend Rachna’s apartment in Mumbai is the view. It looks out at sea past the endearing clutter of Sewri and you see these enormous ships like little dots in the distance. The less I say the better, for here are the various moods of the sea from Rachna’s living room balcony! Udai, who spent a week with her all by himself is vouching for the restorative powers of this view, which he clearly enjoyed to the fullest!