Having spent most of my life in Vasai, I am always confused whenever somebody asks me where my home is. While Mumbai is a sufficient reply for outsiders, Mumbaikars themselves will tell you that Vasai falls well outside the city limits. True that, any time I had to go watch an English movie or pick up clothes from a mall, the first thing I would have to look for is the next convenient local train from Vasai. Don’t get me wrong, Vasai retains a quaint, old world Portuguese charm that will remind you of Goa in more ways than one. But it is simply a case of so near yet so far.
My father came to Bombay during the late 60s as a young, eager lad seeking a job in a city that was even then, known as the land of opportunities. He tells me that his first proper accommodation was in the railway quarters that you can still see near Matunga railway station. Upon a lot of pestering, he speaks of the charm of those days. Matunga was still developing into a fledgling hub of the south Indian diaspora in those days. It had not even been a decade since the trams had been taken off the roads in Mumbai. Local trains would run empty, even during peak hours. The rotating floor of the Ambassador hotel, visible from his office toilet at the Churchgate station western railway premises, would actually rotate. Cricket was still played at the Brabourne stadium. And you could actually photograph the Gateway of India and the Taj hotel without another soul in sight.
(Watch some fantastic photos of Bombay from an earlier era here.)
My earliest memories of the city however, are from the 90s.
Twice a year, my parents would see that my sister and me were fast outgrowing our clothes and we would go to Dadar to shop for new clothes. This trip would also conveniently be undertaken near the summer and Diwali school vacations so that my mother could purchase a few gifts for our relatives down south in Kerala, whom we would visit in the ensuing holidays. Dadar west specifically, used to be a teeming mass of humanity, all of them jostling to sell and purchase things with equal vigor even then. Suvidha on Ranade road would usually be our first stop, followed by a multitude of smaller retail shops on the same road. Bargaining and haggling was a given back then and my mother had developed into quite the expert, sometimes walking out of the shop and being called back by the exasperated shopkeeper willing to sell it at her price. My own opinion of these dresses was solicited sometimes, but it didn’t quite matter in those days. I digress too much, but once shopping was done, our next stop would be Visawa restaurant on the adjacent road. Now this is one Udupi joint that curiously enough, I haven’t read about anywhere. Queues here would extend long enough on a Sunday and we would have to wait our turn in the sun to get a table for four. Our typical order would be 3 South Indian thalis with me having to share a thali with my sister who would take it upon herself to polish off the Gulab Jamun entirely.
Sometime during my vacations, my father would take me to his office at Churchgate which would be my first real sight of town, as South Mumbai (how I wish they had retained the name Bombay. It sounds so much grander than its present moniker) is popularly known. He would point out Wankhede stadium from the outside (One day cricket was only just becoming the cash king of Indian sports then). Churchgate railway station itself, with its huge raised ceilings looked magnificent to my eyes. As did the railway headquarters bang opposite it. Eros theatre would look out from across the road at both of these buildings. Sometimes, we would go to fashion street to strike a good bargain on some clothes, if need be. However, we would most surely take a stroll down DN Road and sometimes even Colaba whence he would point out various land marks (the Azad Maidan, the Oval Maidan, the huge VSNL headquarters, the police headquarters and the BMC headquarters, the gateway and the Taj hotel). I would stop at the book sellers on the pavement and peer at the tall columns of books. Once we took a taxi ride to the grand Victoria Terminus station which, I took for another one of those grand buildings built by the British. The fact that there was actually a railway station inside would astound me no end. Evenings would be when we would walk on marine drive. The setting sun, the strong breeze, groundnuts and coconut water would be a perfect complement to the experience. A few months ago, I was literally dying of thirst in Halebeedu in Karnataka when we saw a few coconut vendors outside. The coconuts, priced at 15/- each were enormous, the biggest I’d ever seen in my life and the sight of a little boy, unable to finish his coconut water elicited quite a few smirks and laughter, taking me back to the times on marine drive when my own stomach was too small to accommodate something similar. I also have faint recollections of visiting the Kochu Guruvayoor temple in Matunga as a kid and partaking of their ‘annadaanam’ (lunch).
It was only when I grew into my teens that I saw a bit more of Mumbai. Morning classes at Agrawal’s on Dadar TT would mean walking on the streets of Dadar, passing by Pritam Restaurant and eating the delicious, piping hot samosa at Damodar Mithaiwala. Mock tests conducted at a school near Podar college would mean walking through the charming bylanes of Hindu colony dotted with pockets of greenery on which the morning sun would cast an ethereal glow. Engineering days meant hanging out with friends at quite a few places in Mumbai. A bunch of us computer geeks would head over to Lamington road to shop for computer accessories. From Lamington Road, once we had to go to meet a relative of a friend and the taxi we caught drove through Kamathipura. For the first time in my life, I witnessed the seedy underbelly of Mumbai, a memory that even today, drives me sick at the depths of human depravity. Happier memories pervade though, with a sunny evening spent with friends at the Haji Ali promenade, wolfing down grilled sandwich and juices at the Haji Ali juice centre. I also remember battling heavy rain, slowing trains and clogged roads many a time, but particularly when once, 3 of us, hopeful of catching Spiderman 2 at the enormous Dome theatre in Wadala, found the shows house-full for the next 3 days. (It is only recently, that I managed to catch a movie at the Dome, travelling from Bangalore to Mumbai to catch The Dark Knight Rises, that too a show at 0700 in the morning on a Monday) Outsiders may balk at the level of flooding Mumbai faces every monsoon but I honestly feel that the city is at its most beautiful when it rains.
The reason I am smitten with these beautiful memories are because of two fantastic blogs (1 and 2) that I came across the other day. A quick Google maps view of the city confirms my fears – I still have barely scratched the surface of Mumbai and that too, after living for a quarter of a century in its vicinity.
Therefore, I have made a list of a few things that I want to experience before they die out or before life takes me to some other place distant from Mumbai. Listed below, in no particular order are some of them.
1. Eat in one of the few Irani restaurants that still dot the city landscape, at one of the famous South Indian eateries in Matunga and also try the buttermilk-in-beer-bottle at Bhagat Tara Chand as well as the lunch at Mahesh Lunch Home and Chicken ala Pouse at Samovar, Jehangir Art Gallery among others
2. Throng the crowds during the annual Ganeshotsav immersion ceremony, and watch the human pyramid formation during the Vijayadashamai celebrations in pockets of Central Mumbai
3. Take in the waves during the monsoons while walking the complete stretch of Marine Drive
4. Go to the Worli/Bandra fort and look out at the shimmering lights of the Bandra-Worli sea link as the sun goes down
5. Visit the Bhendi Bazaar – Mohammed Ali Road stretch during the nights of Ramzan…
…By no means is this a bucket list that seems to be bandied around by most people on social media these days. This is just my hope of a journey, rediscovering a city that I have tremendous respect for.
There are a great many of these things to discover in Mumbai and if you, dear reader, can contribute just one of them – well known or obscure, i’ll add them to the above list.