Soul Of America






Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gateway to India, Mumbai

Slowing Down for Mumbai

by Jeanette Valentine of SoulOfAmerica


   I was choking on a samosa that my boyfriend, Patrick, and I had just bought at dusk on a street corner in Mumbai. A crumb of the savory pastry tickled my windpipe, and a dozen men in line turned to stare as I tried to cough it up. They chattered in Hindi, frowning with concern.

   While slapping my back, Patrick pantomimed to the vendor that I needed water. The men passed back a bottle, hand-to-to-hand, as if in a fire brigade. With a few gulps, I was fine.

   The incident occurred our first night in the city and lingers because of what it says about exploring Mumbai. What I have come to call "the choking samosa" was the best I'd ever had: a crisp, light crust and an ideal ratio of potato, lentils and onions laced with ginger, chilies and spices I could never find at my local grocery store. And I wolfed it down so fast that I choked.

   Like the samosa, Mumbai is not a destination to consume in a rush, not a place where you flit from attraction to attraction without contemplation. It sits almost at the midpoint of the West Coast of India, and everything about this metropolitan area of 20.5 million residents is big and bold. Rich in history, sights, sounds, aromas, tastes, and people, Mumbai requires savoring.

   We had just three days to do it.

Coming from the market in South Mumbai

   Thanks to serendipity, on our second day, we were able to tour the city with insiders. A year earlier at Boston's Logan Airport, my friend Shelly happened to strike up a conversation with Mumbai residents and young professionals Ankush Deshpande and his wife, Anjali Vashistha. Shelly mentioned that she had friends planning a trip there.

   A flurry of emails ensued, eventually resulting in Patrick and I sitting in the cushioned back seat of Ankush's new car. He'd brought along his sister and brother-in-law, Manasi and Nikhil Joshi, to treat us to the wonders of the city. The hospitality they provided us - two complete strangers - was amazing.

   They picked us up at our hotel in South Mumbai, The Renaissance, and we headed for the nearby Gateway of India, an 85-foot tall fortress of an arch at the edge of Mumbai Harbor. It was built in 1924 when Great Britain ruled India, serving as the ceremonial entrance to the city for Viceroys and other British dignitaries. The Gateway ranks as the top tourist attraction in Mumbai.

   Through the archway, we saw pinpoints of sunlight twinkling on the turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea. Sailboats and yachts bobbed next to rowboats and tugs. Gulls cawed and swooped through air cooled by a morning breeze. I did what we always do in the presence of splendor: I framed the images with my camera.

The Queen's Necklace

   Then, I stopped shooting. We were at the beginning of a month-long trip through India. I wanted to make memories to hold dear for a lifetime. Shouldn't I capture some without benefit of a Canon Powershot? Shouldn't I savor? So I stood and just took it all in.

   I marveled that President Obama had looked upon this same scene. Behind us stood the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a five-star majestic symbol of aristocracy that the U.S. government rented out in its entirety for the president's visit in 2008.

   Over-the-top regal with its Gothic architecture, the hotel looks like a palace literally "fit for a king." Rumors claim that the Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata built it in 1903 after being refused entry to the elite Watson Hotel, which was restricted to "whites only." But many have challenged that account, insisting he merely wanted to build grand accommodations worthy of Mumbai.

Dramatic architecture in Mumbai

   Our next stop was a mouthful - The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, it offered a sweeping overview of the continent's history, religions and culture. Surrounded by manicured lawns, immaculate gardens and palm trees, the museum houses 50,000 exhibits divided into Art, Architecture and Natural History. My favorite was a detailed wall-mounted timeline depicting India throughout the ages. Among the dozens of facts we learned was that Mumbai's original name, Bombay, was changed in 1995 as homage to the Hindu goddess, Mumbadevi.

   Our hosts also took us to a viewing area on the coast to see Haji Ali Dargah, a mosque that some call the most recognizable landmark of Mumbai. It sits on an islet 1,500 feet off the coast of South Mumbai, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway that 40,000 pilgrims cross each Thursday and Friday to worship.

   "Dargah" means "tomb," and the mosque holds the remains of Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, a wealthy Muslim merchant. Built in 1421, the 48,000-square-foot building of marble pillars and archways features a large dome accented by numerous minarets (spires with spherical crowns).

Most expensive house (left) in the world at 27 stories

   Next, we stopped at the largest and most expensive home in the world, Antila. With a price tag of $1 billion, the residence was commissioned by India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, for himself, his wife and three children. We sat just outside the mansion, gazing up at its 27 stories and 398,000 square feet.

   And we lunched at a popular, upscale restaurant, Status, famous for its Gujarathi Thali. The expansive dining room was packed and buzzed with conversation and laughter with nary a tourist to be found. Ankush, Manasi and Nikhil gave us a literal hands-on lesson in eating Thali (pronounced "tally"), small individual bowls of traditional vegetarian dishes arranged on a large, round metal tray that we all shared. We scooped up the rice, curries, dal (lentils) and veggies with our fingers and were rewarded with bursts of spicy flavors that delighted our tongues. It reminded me of eating an Ethiopian meal.

   But the true highlight of the day came when Ankush insisted that he take us home to meet his family. We drove across the iconic, sleek Bandra Worli Sea Link Bridge, whose center section resembles two towering, back-to-back triangles.

Boats arriving at the Gateway to India

   Ankush's household, which included wife Anjali and his parents, welcomed us like family. We relaxed in their cozy, contemporary home for refreshments and a lesson in cricket, India's national sport that is somewhat similar to baseball. The giant flat-screened television was broadcasting a game.

* * * * *

   My boyfriend and I spent the last two days on our own, investigating the neighborhood near the hotel. We passed concrete apartment buildings with clothes drying on the balconies, small stores selling electronics and blaring pop songs in Hindi, complexes that looked like corporate offices and churches that looked like European cathedrals.

   We smelled Puri, an Indian bread, sizzling in the hot oil of street carts and incense burning from inside modest homes. We crossed a grassy area the size of three football fields and watched hundreds of boys run and shout while playing cricket. In a bustling commercial district, we braved Mumbai traffic to cross a busy street with no intersection. With cars zooming, horns honking, drivers shouting, motorcycles revving, cows meandering (yes, cows!), it felt as if we were in a video game.

Trains lined up in Victoria Station of Mumbai

   We also visited Victoria Station, the busiest railway station in India and site of a famous chase scene at the end of "Slumdog Millionaire." Both its style of architecture and its name come from Queen Victoria, who reigned Great Britain from 1837 to 1901. Stately and imposing with a series of turrets, pointed arches, tiles and brass railings, it, too, reminded me of a residence for royalty. Inside was a cavernous space through which chugged trains for both long-distance and commuter journeys.

   The station was near our hotel, and we passed it often. One afternoon when we were both wearing tank tops and shorts, we walked in that direction just as hundreds of commuters - mostly men - were leaving the building to go home. Wide-eyed with furrowed brows, they gawked at me open-mouthed. I felt as if I was being groped with their eyes. I learned that in much of India, I needed to cover my arms and legs to respect the local customs.

   On a Monday morning, we walked to the Gateway of India for a ferry to Elephanta Island, where a network of cave temples contain elaborate sculptures carved from stone. The caves date back to about the 5th century. Unfortunately, they were closed Mondays. We boarded a ferry anyway and realized that the most scenic view of the Gateway and Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is from the water.

   An hour later, we disembarked and spent the afternoon hiking Elephanta's hilly trails, finding underground tunnels and trying to take photos of gray monkeys that kept scampering outside of our viewfinders.


Taxi ride in Mumbai

   In late afternoon, we jumped in a cab and headed to Chowpatty Beach, a popular festival-like setting with street vendors and concession stands. Usually packed with families, we enjoyed it on a Monday evening without the crowds. Patrick sampled a snack called Bhel Puri - puffed rice, vegetables and a tangy tamarind sauce - for the first time and sought it out all over India.

   After Chowpatty Beach, we decided to walk the two miles back to the hotel along Marine Drive. The boulevard hugs the coast in a curve known as the Queen's Necklace; at night, when the street lights switch on, it looks like a glittering necklace of diamonds. Like the many young couples we encountered, we strolled hand-in-hand, enjoying one of the most romantic sights of the city.

   Between wandering on our own and the wonderful hospitality of our new Mumbai friends, we saw a lot in three days. And I took time during each experience to stop...and think about its significance. Too bad we could only scratch the surface of the fourth most populous city in the world.

Our Mumbai hosts: Ankush, Manasi and Nikhil

   We owe a debt of gratitude to Ankush, Anjali, Manasi, Nikhil and the Deshpandes for allowing us to see a small part of Mumbai in such style. We could not have envisioned a more perfect day of sight-seeing. Their warmth and generosity, we learned throughout our travels in India, are natural characteristics of citizens on this continent.

   Ankush explained that, "We Indians believe in 'Atithi devo Bhava' meaning our guests are God for us. And if we can make our guests happy, we believe God will be happy with us."

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