Thursday, 1 March 2007

Bombay for beginners

Bombay beggars description. Which hasn’t stopped people from trying, borrowing and adapting freely, in typical Bambaiya style. Urbs Prima in Indus. Gateway of India. Bom bahia. The Big Mango. Slumbay. Bollywood. Maximum City. The city that never sleeps. The city of opportunity.

Of course the city has inspired others who have expended more than just a catchy slogan’s worth of words on it too. Arun Kolatkar, Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta and so many others have left their version of the city to posterity. And then, in my own humble way, as copywriter, hack and blogger, I have written at least a novella’s worth of copy about the place. So I thought it would be a bit of an ask to try and find new things to say about it without treading on some one else’s toes or one’s own. But, having studied, worked and lived in and just outside the city for over thirty years, I find myself with far more to tell you about it than the editor will condone.

Let’s start with a brief run through of the history bit. I’m told that the area’s first known appearance in writing is at around two thousand years ago, when it was part of Asoka’s empire. At any rate, there were seven hilly islands, home to fisherfolk, and not particularly in the mainstream of history. In the 1500s, the Portuguese laid claim to the islands, and christened them Bom Bahia, which meant “good bay.” Next century, they handed over both Catherine De Braganza and the islands to Britain’s Charles II, who leased them—just the islands, not the Princess—to John Company for £10 per annum.

The Brits knocked over the hills, filled up the swampy bits between the islands and, while they were at it, flattened the name out a bit as well, to Bombay. It became their Gateway to India, quickly growing into a major centre of commerce, attracting ambitious traders and suchlike from other parts of the country. They stayed, of course, moulding the city to their needs as it outgrew the old fort walls, expanding ever northwards, through its days as capital of the Bombay Presidency and later, the smaller Maharashtra state.

Such historical structures as remain are mainly in the old Fort area, and even those lack the sweep of a Delhi’s vistas or the grandeur of even a small former princely state; there just isn’t enough space for stately showing off.

Chances are that you’ll visit for business; the city is very much the commercial capital of India, home to corporate HQs for most industrial and business houses, banking and finance, advertising, media, and yes, the Hindi film industry. Even if it isn’t commerce that brings you here, it’s pretty likely that you’ll spend a few days in the city en route to the beaches, palaces, wildlife resorts or mountains, since Bombay is conveniently connected to almost anything else of consequence in India. So hey, come on in. Let us show you a good time, hm?

When? The summer can get awfully muggy. We’re on the coast, so be prepared for major humidity. The monsoon, much as we love it, is, we admit, an acquired taste. Hell, there are times when we get kind of sick of it ourselves. But come November, when the mercury begins to dip to pleasant levels, and going up to February, we’re in the zone.

But first things first. Whenever you do come, prepare yourself to face a city that is, quite simply, one of the most congested areas on the planet, with a population the size of your average small country. There are roughly 15 million people in the island city, and if you want to include the neighbouring towns that are pretty much part of the city though technically separate municipalities, that number gets even higher. (Yes, it is relevant to include them, since vast sections of their populations commute to jobs in the city six days of the week.) One estimate predicts more people than all of Australia in less than ten years. Which, to cut out the statistics, pretty much means crowds everywhere. Heaving masses of humanity such as you will find at very few other places. Traffic jams, noise, pollution, dirt, transport infrastructure straining at the seams, it’s all there. For those unaccustomed to it, this can be traumatic. I know people who holed up in hotel rooms for the duration of their stay after a brief dose of Bombay rush hour. I kid you not.

The other thing you have to keep in mind is that Bombay is a long city, with its “centre” in the south. Think of a conventional city map as a pizza. Now cut yourself a thin slice. That’s Bombay. And the pizza analogy isn’t half-bad either. Moves to decongest the South Bombay business district have had some success, so there are a lot more toppings closer to the crust than there were a decade or so ago. You now have clusters of glass-fronted office towers, industrial estates, malls and multiplexes not just closer to the city’s geographic centre, but in the suburbs as well.

With all of this, it pays to have a basic knowledge of how to get around. A task somewhat hindered by a rash of renaming; streets, railways stations, even the airport, all have been targets of the same zeal that renamed the city itself. Most residents, of course, cheerfully ignore the official diktats, and continue referring to them by their traditional names, to the further bafflement of the visitor. But not to worry, if you get lost, just ask around, and directions will flow from all and sundry. One little Bombay quirk: unlike other parts of India, where people will tell you distances to a fraction of a kilometre, here, you will get it in units of time. A half-hour walk, a twenty minute rickshaw ride, and so on. Corrected for time of day and state of traffic, natch.

Once you figure out where you want to go, how do you get there?

Bombay has one of the most efficient—if massively overburdened—public transport systems in the country, with its commuter trains doing the bulk of the heavy lifting. Visitors to the city, though, are advised not to seriously contemplate venturing into these mobile sardine cans anywhere close to peak commute hours. Which means you do not travel North to South between 7a.m. and 11a.m., and South to North between 5p.m. and 9p.m. That in mind, it’s usually the fastest way to get anywhere in the city. Just get yourself a first-class ticket (shorter queues, and deo rather than sweat to smell once you’re in the train) and you rocket past all the traffic jams and bad roads. For shorter and cross-town jaunts, the municipality’s red BEST busses are an option. Aside from the normal crowded busses, the company also runs air-conditioned sitting-room only specials on selected routes, an airport special that runs through the night with extra space for luggage, and open-topped double-decker busses for tourists on weekends, on the picturesque Marine Drive route. Both trains and busses run from well before dawn to way after the Cinderella hour.

Of course, if you’d rather not rub shoulders with the masses, there are the black-and-yellow taxis all over the city, and three-wheeler autorickshaws in the suburbs. These run strictly by a meter—except that these meters have not been re-calibrated to keep pace with fare hikes, and so require “tariff cards” (drivers must have these, by law) which translate the difference between the fare shown and what you must pay. Note the extra column that factors in the extra 25% “night charge” that applies between midnight and 5a.m. To keep the grime and noise out, you can also find or call for an ACed blue-and-silver “Cool Cab.” Or just hire a car and driver for the day. Self-driven rentals aren’t too thick on the ground, I’m afraid, but then, would you really want to drive here? Ditto for walking—the distances are just too much—or for quaint notions like exploring on bicycles—the traffic would kill you, with exhaust fumes or by more direct methods.

When it comes to places to stay, you have the spectrum from luxury hotels, to business traveller specials, to service apartments, to family hotels and guest houses, clubs, right down to hole-in-the-wall lodges and seedy dives. You’ll find them all over the place, from tony South Bombay 5-stars to beachfront suburban spreads, to smaller places near the air and train terminals to places handy for business.

And after you get that stay and transport thing licked, what next?

History? It’s there in gobs, if you know where to look. There are ancient cave temples within city limits; Mandapeshwar, Kondivita (or Mahakali), the UNESCO World Heritage Site Elephanta Island caves, and the oldest, the 2000-year-old Kanheri caves. Remnants of forts that have survived the urban invasion: the Portuguese Vasai Fort, the British Fort St George, other ruins in Sion and Bandra. Old churches date back a century and more. South Bombay’s Raj era buildings show off a wide range of architecture, from the Indo-Saracenic to the wildly Gothic to the Art Deco.

There’s culture aplenty, for brows of various elevations, with art galleries, music concerts (Hindustani, Carnatic and Western Classical, pop, rock, jazz, indipop, trance, whatever), dance and theatre, and of course the movies, in a multiplicity of multiplexes. In the cooler months (we call it winter), there are a slew of cultural festivals, mostly free and open to the public.

Wildlife and Mama Nature? The only National Park in the world within a city’s limits sits in the middle of North Bombay, a birders paradise. And flamingos visit the wetlands along the eastern coast. The North-Western stretches have a number of quiet beaches ideal for the weekend away from the bustle. Except that you’re likely to share space with a large chunk of the madding crowds with the same idea.

When it comes to sports, cricket rules, not just in the two stadiums, the Wankhede and the Brabourne, but also in local league games all year, including the unique and loony Kanga League in the rains. But you’ll also see top level hockey, tennis, badminton, football, basketball, swimming, golf, billiards & snooker, sailing, golf and horse racing. Those so inclined can indulge in most of these directly, at any of dozens of clubs and gymnasiums.

And when it comes to the truly urban attractions, Bombay leads all the rest.
The shopaholics are spoiled for choice. Most of the world’s big name brands have outlets here, and massive malls are beginning to proliferate. Traditional shopping—and bargaining!—is there for the asking too: handicrafts, textiles, clothes, antiques, leather, jewellery and more.

Food? This is practically the Universe at the End of a Restaurant. You’ll get it all here, from handcarts to the McFood variety international franchises and the restaurants that appeal to working stiffs and families to the best and most expensive cuisines of India and the world. And if you don’t feel like queuing up for a table, most of them would be happy to deliver. As a young chef I used to know said with some amazement, “You Bombay people don’t cook at home?”

Night life rocks too, with pubs, bars and discotheques that stay open and rocking until the wee hours (not all night, alas, the Government prefers its citizens to get home before the milk). And if you’re connected, or know someone who is, there’s a high profile party practically every night of the week, where the licensing laws have no jurisdiction.

When it comes to finding ways to fill each minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Bombay kicks the rest of India’s butt. Nothing’s truly unique, I’ll grant you that, and sure, some cities do some of it better, but you won’t find the whole vibrant package anywhere else.

Don’t be a stranger.

Published in Outlook's Incredible India Travel Special, March 2006 under the title Bay of Bombast, which I hate.



Bombay Addict said...

Bay of Bombast ? That was painful. Lovely article though. Bookmarking it :)

suniti said...

One of the best write ups about Bombay I have ever read.