It’s the fitness and fashion capital, home to film city, popularly known as Bollywood. It’s also known as the financial capital and the city which never sleeps, where everyone comes to turn their dreams into reality
Circa 2000: Between Delhi & Mumbai
It was early 2000 and Mumbai took me by surprise, for it was nothing like Delhi. I am a Delhi-ite to the core. I am used to loud voices, bling, colourful words, dal makhani, butter chicken, samosas and tikkis. And I was travelling to Mumbai for the first time. In fact, I was flying for the first time. It was a working trip. I was a clueless bird, trying to learn about conferences and seminars and lost in the world of pros. But the idea of seeing Mumbai was just too exhilarating.
Dreamland, fantasy world, financial capital and glamour land—for every Delhi-ite Mumbai is a curious case of a cat basking in the sun or should I say a beach. It doesn’t gloat and bloat like Delhi. It doesn’t scream like Delhi but it works to create assets.
Mumbai stands for discipline and money. Mumbai stands for Bollywood and you expect to see the stars walking on the road with their Guccis and Chanels. I can’t say I was disappointed for the discipline was surely there. But Mumbai is not an ostentatious city. It does not boast of the money. It does not have endless lavish bungalows. It does not carry the phone numbers of ministers in its pocket (smartphones were yet to invade our lives the way they do now).
I spent two days in Mumbai aka Bombay. Among the many things that surprised me about Mumbai was the fact that I could take public transport in the middle of the night. In those days, Delhi didn’t stay awake at night. Now, of course, jams and horns break the silence of the night. I liked the malls in Mumbai, Delhi was yet to grow here too. I watched the sun set, sitting on the rocks outside Taj Land’s End.
Mumbai has sand and water; Delhi has greens and flowers. I walked around in Bandra, enjoying the anonymity and I hoped to catch a glimpse of the stars for I hadn’t entered the world of lifestyle journalism then. Mumbai has movies, Delhi has politics.
I met people who used the local train, despite earning a few lakhs a month. They didn’t bother about cars, while Delhi thrives on automobiles. I met taxi and rickshaw drivers who returned INR 1 as well! I had dinner at a beach restaurant where the sand and the lights took my breath away. I also took a ride in the double decker bus, which Delhi doesn’t have. I enjoyed a vada pav, but didn’t like the smell of this famous street snack. I did miss the Delhi tikki.
I went to the SiddhiVinayak and Mahalakshmi temples and I did not find the push and shove situation here. I went to the Haji Ali and walked around the Gateway of India. I did see the poverty and the apathy. And I didn’t like the air quality; Delhi wasn’t that smoggy then. Between conferences, observations and explorations, two days passed. It was time to take the flight back to Delhi.
Circa 2013: Midnight Walk Around Churchgate
It was past 11pm and I was enjoying the lights on Marine Drive. It was something I could never do in Delhi. Mumbai was well, Mumbai…a land of dreams and no-stare locals, where life moved at its own pace. The traffic was passing by. An odd horse carriage trotted past. They had joy rides from Gateway of India to this last point where the land ended and sea began. Some more people sat on the wall along the sea like me, eating chanas or peanuts, couples cuddled. We were there for work and the night was the only time left to enjoy the city’s hush or should I say slight rush.
The city never sleeps and we were staying in a hotel in Churchgate. The pavement outside had trees and that was a recall to greenery in Delhi. Mumbai did offer respite, I thought. One evening, we went to a famous Tea Centre in Churchgate gorging on, tea, of course, and some cakes. The old-world setting and cutlery was a sophisticated affair. And had some mind-your-own-business kind of people. The crisp table cloths and the lovely ambience, it made for a nice place for hi-tea.
A short walk along the pavement and I saw a board, which said Parsi Agiary aka Fire Temple. I so wanted to go inside but only Parsis are allowed. I just peeped through the gate, a little hastily and walked away, scared of being arrested for breaking the rule. A little dramatic but then I was new to Mumbai.
The ambience in the area was so charming. The neo-gothic structures and art deco style buildings, I could have been back in the 18th and 19th centuries, living the times when Mumbai was a walled city. With the St Thomas Cathedral nearby, this gate into the city came to be known as Church Gate. Obviously, then my next stop was the cathedral.
Among the oldest churches in India, its foundation stone was laid in 1676. With stained glass windows and memorials paying tribute to the East India company officials, the church was empty. The walls commemorated a ship lost at sea, recumbent effigy of Thomas Carr (first Bishop of Bombay by British sculptor Matthew Noble) and memorials to Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland and Captain George Nicholas Hardinge. Well, St Thomas might have been called doubting Thomas, but the church left no doubt to his connection with the divine.
Back on the road, I walked down Fashion Street, checked out the Jehangir Art Gallery, had gol gappas at the Gateway of India, walked down the Colaba Causeway and enjoyed time at the Horniman Circle garden. There’s more in that historic area, including the iconic Taj hotel. I would have liked to go to the Leopold Café, watched the boats come in, explore some more shops, but then everything can’t be done in a short span. My time at Churchgate was coming to an end, and I wanted some more moments at Nariman Point, watching the waves crash and recede on the jagged black rocks.
At that time, I didn’t know the city would call again.
Circa 2019: An evening walk around Fort
I read the notification on my phone — 97-year-old Boman Rashid Kohinoor, senior partner of Britannia & Co Restaurant, passed away. Oh God! A loud exclamation escapes and I hurriedly look around feeling foolish. Just a few days back, I had walked passed it, on a business trip to this colonial-era commercial zone better known as Fort. During my two-day stay, I didn’t get a chance to eat even one Parsi meal there. Imagine walking past an iconic restaurant touted to be serving delicious Parsi and Irani meals, and finding the doors closed. I regretted it then and I regret it even more now. I missed a legend.
Rashid, Boman Kohinoor’s father, opened Britannia & Co in 1923 and it has the best reviews on every food and travel portal. But this being a business trip, time is short. And this is why I am staying at a heritage hotel, Grand Hotel, within the buzzing Ballard Estate. The rooms are reminiscent of the days gone by. The food is fresh and I like the Goan fish curry, the only day I manage to have lunch on this trip.
Built in 1926, Grand Hotel is surrounded by all prestigious commercial and government establishments—even the streets take one to British times with the huge colonial lamps. Grand Hotel was designed by George Wittet, a well-known architect in Mumbai in those days. Wittet also designed the Gateway of India, Prince of Wales Museum, Institute of Science, and Bombay House.
The Gateway of India makes for a good evening walk, maybe an hour away at my slow speed, my mind is racing. I have the whole evening, Mumbai’s safe to walk around. Walking shoes on, camera and backpack ready, I begin my exploration.
The Fort is pretty large. The business district area gets its name from Fort George — built by the British East India Company around Bombay Castle. It extends from the docks in the east, to Azad Maidan in the west; Victoria Terminus in the north to Kala Ghoda in the south. I crossed the Victoria Terminus in the night, but I would love to see it in the day. Which direction to take? “Ma’am, the Reliance office is behind the hotel,” someone says. I take a U-turn. Long, narrow grills, tall windows, it could have been a part of Europe. A postcard captured for my Insta feed.
I come back to the hotel and gaze at the building of the Directorate of Enforcement, diagonally opposite. The previous evening, the area had been sealed as politican Raj Thackeray was summoned. His followers stayed put in the hotel lobby the entire evening. I was in Nashik the entire day, so missed this huge drama which rocked the nation on TV. Walking past clean pavements and hurried office-goers, I cross a stall selling vada pav. I have to try this Rs 15 stomach-filling delight, but maybe a little ahead. My heart is looking for Parsi food, something I don’t find in Delhi so easily. I search for the nearest joints and Yazdani Bakery pops up. It’s within walking distance and I have no agenda.
GPS on, I walk gazing at the huge structures and the signages of huge firms. My Insta feed is getting stocked up for weeks now. The evening light is low, the traffic noisy, and not one stare or comment. This isn’t India, I tell myself, not even garbage on the roads. It’s time for offices to shut, so I don’t see many cars around, only people at food stalls, taking in their evening bite before heading off home or maybe out with friends.
My GPS is taking me through an alley and I am looking around for Yazdani Bakery. I stop, for the GPS says finished. But I can’t find it; I stand in the middle of the road with not one person asking me to move, gazing at the shops. I am about 30 minutes from the hotel, no bakery in sight. I mentally curse the GPS and walk on.
A few metres and am on the crossroad. I see a church ahead—St Thomas Cathedral. This landmark I know from my visit in 2013. Built in 1718, it is dedicated to the apostle St Thomas. He was also known as ‘doubting Thomas’. The wall has engravings of a ship and names of the soldiers and sailors who passed away. It’s a quiet place but right now the doors are closed. It won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation Award and the foundation was laid in 1676—340 years old and it’s the most famous landmark here.
The famous Churchgate station was named after this cathedral, which is one of the oldest churches in India. East India Company had built a gate in the Fort area to protect their settlement. This gate was Churchgate and entrance to the cathedral. In fact, the street leading to the Church was originally called Churchgate Street. Now, it is known as Veer Nariman Road.
I gazed at the tower and the clock added in 1838. It underwent renovation for enlargement of the chancel, which was done by 1865. Something to quench my thirst — I look around. I have been walking for close to an hour now and a glass of cool water is what I need to find some more buildings to marvel at. On my left is the famous Horniman Circle and right takes me to Flora Fountain and Bombay House. I could walk straight to Kala Ghoda also. The High Court is that side and if I manage to keep walking I will come to the Taj and the Gateway of India. But this isn’t a rush to see the buildings; it’s an evening treat that I am gifting myself on this hurried trip to the financial capital of India.
I turn towards the garden in the centre of Horniman Circle. I walk through the tall gates, finding myself in green bliss, amid the traffic noise, the flashy signboards and the ancient buildings. Is this for real? How can such tall and old trees be living in this busy circle? Maybe they find me foolish, but I love this. My eternal quest for green in every city I go to is fulfilled. I want to sit, close my eyes. But I want my Insta feed to be alive while the light is still around. The sky is changing colour, the sun is orange. I try to recognise the green species, but no show for my knowledge of plant life is limited.
I gaze and turn till my 360° is complete. I see the famous Asiatic Society Library. This is home to the original 15th-century manuscript of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. Which is more precious—the building or the book? With Greek style architecture, this Town Hall was built in 1830. From orange to navy blue, dusk announces its arrival and I move out of the circle for the heart is still seeking.
Past some shopping stores, I reach the Flora Fountain. The sky is dark and the lights are twinkling. The light flow of water is enticing. The rush hour hasn’t ended. But my heart is happier for the little tinkle of droplets is somewhat calming. Do I find Victoria Terminus on my GPS? I sit on the railing, watching the hawkers and the people of Mumbai.
I head back into the same alley and this time I see Yazdani Bakery with doors about to close. How did I miss this? It wasn’t the GPS, it was my sight which failed me. Back through the same paved paths, and I stop for a vada pav—a little too big for Rs 15! But I munch my way back to the hotel.
I stop to buy a cream roll for the night at one of the stalls. Not good after losing all those calories but I will never get to experience Mumbai like this and this is guilty pleasure. Past the closed Britannia & Co. I believe the interiors too reflect the owner’s love for British royal life. I believe Boman Rashid Kohinoor’s dream came true when he met Prince William and his wife Kate during their trip to India and Bhutan in 2016.
The city of dreams doesn’t disappoint. Two hours of bliss and a night full of happy dreams — goodbye Mumbai till you call again.
More attractions in Mumbai
Elephanta Caves, Nehru Science Centre, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumba Devi Temple, Girgaum Chowpatty, Bandra-Worli Sea Link
How to reach Mumbai
The city is well connected to all major cities in India by road, air and rail. It has an international airport and consulates of some countries too.