July 01, 2006

Bright Lights, Wet City

Our passion for the monsoon took a bit of a beating last year. There’s something about 944 millimetres of rain in a matter of a few hours that can, um, dampen one’s ardour.

The memories—of flooded houses, possessions irretrievably damaged, of trudging for hours through a murky soup of sewage and rain water, of being stranded in offices, busses and God knows where else, some of us for days—have faded away over a pleasant winter (yes, ye shivering snobs from the north, we know it’s hardly a winter, but we’re proud of it, so there) and a scorching, sweaty summer. But for many of us, the first rain this year didn’t bring on the usual grins of delight. Instead, there were quickened pulses, a what-if tension in the air. Worried calls were made, family and friends checked on. Though once we knew all was well, we got back to our favourite monsoon hobby: swearing at the municipality.

But we’re losing the plot.

Let’s start again.

We luhrve our monsoon. We adore how it unceremoniously interrupts summer, flushing the grime out of our buildings and our trees, washing away the smog. We coo over that special fresh green of new leaves, new grass, new weeds (we’re not picky, as long as it’s green). We joyfully anticipate fewer water cuts as our lakes fill up, and, perhaps, less load shedding.

And we smile indulgently when petulant out-of-towners ask what there is to do in this blasted city when it’s pouring. Come, sit down. A nice hot adhrak chai while we chat?

We have a lot to offer you, we do, from the sastha-sundar-tikao (roughly translated Bambaiya for “simple and won’t kill you”) to the mildly expensive or somewhat loony. Caveat: you won’t find much here about the lives of the very rich—much the same all year, one ACed environment to the next—or the very poor, for whom the rains are even more misery. This is a largely middle class list, my own favourite indulgences plus the recommendations of friends.

On, then, with the show.

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If you have time for only one monsoon indulgence in Bombay, you must do this: walk in the rain along one of the seaside promenades. Marine Drive for choice, where waves smash against tetrapods, exultations of foam and salt splashing twenty, thirty feet into the air, the spray hurled over the retaining wall by the wind, drenching anyone in the vicinity, reaching as far as the other side of the road. There is no experience more quintessentially Bombay In The Rains than that.

Reasonable facsimiles of this can also be had at Worli Sea Face, and at Bandra’s Carter Road or Bandstand. If you’d prefer wet sand under your feet instead of pavement, head to one of the chowpattys: the northern end of Marine Drive, or Dadar or Juhu. (Stay out of the water, it can be dangerous. Foolhardy people die there every year.) Or wander around near Powai Lake, beautiful any time of the year for water without the wave action.

If you’d rather not walk, take a bus! Get a top deck seat right in front, on the BEST’s route 123. It starts in Colaba, hits Marine Drive near Churchgate, and traces its length all the way to Wilson College, carrying on from there to Naik Chowk (near Grant Road station). From where you can take the same route back. The 108 between VT and Kamala Nehru Park, via the entire length of Marine Drive from Nariman Point to Walkeshwar, is worth a ride too, though it’s a single decker. Bonus: it takes you to Hanging Gardens, another beautiful place to watch the rain: Chowpatty below you, and the curve of Marine Drive stretching out; you know the rain is on its way when Nariman Point disappears from view. At nine bucks per head for the entire route, these are the cheapest joy rides in Bombay. No, wait, any rainy afternoon, after the morning commuter madness is done, and before the evening return match, take a Harbour line train from Mankhurd and stand at the door all the way across the creek to Vashi. Get off, come back. Repeat. Check pulse. See? Lower already.

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What about slightly longer diversions?

One classic city getaway is the Aarey Colony, near Goregaon. Green through the year, it is particularly lovely in the rains. Get thee to the area halfway in, called Chota Kashmir, where you can frolic on the grass, picnic, even row a boat on a little lake. Or just stop by for a chai at one of the stalls.

In Thane, the Yeoor Hills area on the fringes of the National Park is dotted with hotels and restaurants which, during the monsoon, get brisk custom from people out for a drive in the rain.

New Bombay, fringed with hills, offers many delights for the nature lover. Short drives out and off the beaten track can take you to small waterfalls, ponds and much greenery. Carry a plastic groundsheet if you’re finicky about getting muddy, stow some towels in the car and go find yourself a picnic spot.

For the more energetic, the waterfalls at Chinchoti and Tungareshwar near Vasai in the North are hugely popular day-trips during the rains, and will mean a bit of a hike before you get to the falls. If you’re feeling energetic, the rains are also when hiking season starts in the city. Most weekends see energetic groups of all descriptions heading off by the last train on Saturday night or pre-dawn on Sunday, out to the nearer ghats, where they will spend the day clambering joyously up hill and down dale, getting wet. It’s really the only time when these hills are remotely friendly; they’re hot, desiccated and brown the rest of the year, but now they’re green, waterfalls are everywhere, birds chirrup... you get the picture.

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Of course, walk, ride or wade, you must eat.

Buttas for choice, corn-on-the-cob roasted over hot coals as you wait, then smeared with lime and chilly powder. Or the city’s signature snack, the vada-pau, mashed potato balls spiked with bits of chilly, coated in batter and fried, then slipped into the bread, with lashings of chilly powder. Or bhajiyas, if you prefer them, batter-fried onion or potato slices usually, but also spinach, whole chillies, even slices of bread. There’s the rest of the panoply of the city’s street food, of course, but careful about bhelpuri, panipuri and the like—they’re not cooked on the spot, and water-borne diseases are a real danger in the monsoon months. Tea to wash it down, bambaiya-style cutting chai, over-boiled, over-sweet. (Avoid the sugarcane juice: jaundice lies that way.) Everybody swears by a different area or vendor for the best munchies, so I won’t name names here. Ask around; you’ll be spoiled for choice.

Prefer to sit someplace comfy while you eat and a snack, while you watch the rain?
If you’re picky about the view, a personal favourite is Samovar, at the Jehangir Art Gallery: open on one side, looking on to the Museum grounds. Tea by the pot, or beer, excellent food and snacks (try the mutton samosas). The management is fighting a court case, and if things don’t work out, this city landmark may just down shutters, so go soon!

Aside from that... Cafe Sea Side at Bandra Bandstand is beautifully located and won’t break the bank. The coffee franchises have a few good well-positioned outlets too—Cafe Coffee Day at Carter Road, Bandra, and the Barista at Bandra Bandstand are the best, in my opinion.

When you’ve managed to get drenched and have picked up a sniffle, head over to one of the South Indian restaurants around King’s Circle and Sion for some sinus-clearing rasam (and of course wonderful dosas and other good stuff). Or look for red carts with pseudo-Chinese brushstroke signboards proclaiming names like Hungry Eys and down a bowl of soup China has never heard of.

Strictly carnivorous? Paya soup at Saarvi, near Naigaum police station, Biryani at City Cafe, or kababs and naans at any Muslim restaurant in Mohammad Ali, Bombay Central, Mahim or Bandra. They tend to be open enough for you to watch the rain while you pig out. A roadside kababwalla is even better; you can warm your hands over the coals while your kababs are being done.
What if you’re with that special someone, or on an expense account, and have an itchy credit card? The 5-star options: in South Bombay, The Sea Lounge at the Taj, the Oberoi’s coffee shop, the Dome at the Intercontinental all give you achingly beautiful sea-and-rain panoramas; likewise, restaurants at the Taj Land’s End and Searock (a friend swears by their Arabian Lounge) in Bandra, and most of the Juhu beachfront hotels (the coffee shop at the J W Marriott has the best view).

Oh yes. An editor not unconnected to this magazine speaks fondly of popping across the creek for lunch at Admiral Pereira’s Uran Plaza. Not as impossible as it sounds. Simply call them up first to see what’s on the menu (the Admiral gently brags that his kitchen can give you anything from daal chaval to Lobster Thermidore). Then head to Bhaucha Dhakka (Ferry Wharf), where a boat will get you across in an hour or thereabouts. Except for the boats for Uran, Mora and JNPT, the other ferry services don’t operate during the monsoon, so sailing further South isn’t an option.

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But there are times when you want to get away from the city’s bustle.
For a slice of the beach-in-the-rains experience, within city limits, but in the North-Western corner, there’s The Resort at Aksa and The Retreat at Erangal, who will give you the 5-star treatment. U-tan (at Uttan), Manoribel, Domonica’s Beach Resort and Domonica Hotel (Manori) and a slew of cottages at Gorai will lighten your wallet far less.

Or you could drive to the mainland beaches, Alibag, Kihim, Kashid and Murud to the South, or Dahanu or Daman Northwards. Cottages and holiday homes abound. And private homes are available for short stays.

For a little hill air, take a train, bus or drive to Khandala, Lonavala or Matheran, or closer by, the Karnala Bird Sanctuary, on the road to Goa. Or drive to Malshej, park near a convenient waterfall, and get wet!

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Whatever it is you decide to do when you’re visiting Urbs Prima in Indus, you may find that friends in the city seem reluctant to join you in your explorations, claiming bad traffic or ill health. Fact is, for most of us, the sweetest thought of all is staying home when it’s really coming down in buckets. A pot of tea, or a hot, spiced brandy (boil water with cinnamon, cloves and pepper corns, add a little honey, brandy to taste, sip slowly), something just-fried, a good book or a DVD, feet up, listening to the rain, knowing you don’t have to venture out... That, my energetic friend, is Bambaiya Heaven.

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Info

BEST route finder: bestundertaking.com/transport/index.htm, or IIT Bombay’s Mumbai Navigator, cse.iitb.ac.in/navigator/index.html.
Nature walks and camps with experts: Bombay Natural History Society (weekends): 22821811, bnhs@bom4.vsnl.net.in, bnhs.org or World Wide Fund For Nature (monthly hikes): 22071970, wwfindia.org
Weekend hikes in the ghats and other outdoor activity: Wanderstruck: 9820552995, wander@bom5.vsnl.net.in. India Outdoors: 24186360, info@indiaoutdoors.com, indiaoutdoors.com. Outbound Adventure: 26315019, outboundadventure@hotmail.com, outboundadventure.com, Odati Adventures: 9820079802, odati@vsnl.com, odati.com
Uran Plaza: 27222318 (resort), 28510731 (city).
U-tan: 28451151, 28452345 (resort); 26206063, 26282653 (city booking), utan@rediffmail.com, u-tan.com
Manoribel: 28452806/7/8/9 (resort); 22691301, 22692108 (city booking), manoribel@vsnl.net, manoribel.com
Domonica’s Beach Resort: 28452163, 28452178 (resort); 24462161, 24469735 (city booking).
Domonica Hotel: 28452643, 28452280.
MTDC: 2202 6713 / 7762 / 4627, maharashtratourism.gov.in
Little Chef’s Danny Denson is an agent who can fix you up with a beach house for a few days in the Alibag-Murud stretch: 9850239157, danden47@rediffmail.com.
Add “022” for calls from India, but out of Bombay. Add “+9122” or “009122” for calls from outside India.


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For the party animal, pubs and discotheques function as normal, but there is one genus that is monsoon specific. Each year there’s bound to be at least one rain dance somewhere in the ’burbs. A large open-air venue, whatever music is popular at that very second, played very loud, and dancing in the rain and slush. And if the weather gods don’t play ball? No problem. The organisers help things along with sprinklers and hoses.


Published in Outlook Traveller, July 2006 issue.

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