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Modern Mumbai: A city of 21st century optimism

While its Victorian architecture nods heavily at its past, modern Mumbai is in the full flush of 21st-century optimism and thriving in its new incarnation

Modern Mumbai: A city of 21st century optimism
Image: Getty

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As overbearing remnants of British colonial rule go, the Gateway of India is particularly ridiculous. It’s so epic, so pompous, hogging the waterfront on Strand Road, that I have to remind myself it salutes one single second — George V’s first footstep on Indian soil, in 1911. Its self-importance is amplified by the chiselled inscription which records the sacred year in Roman numerals (MCMXI) — and by the fact that, though the moment was fleeting, the crafting of this triumphal arch was not. It wouldn’t be completed until 1924.

Standing next to it in the slanting 4pm sun, I find myself wondering if the predominantly domestic tourists gathered here in vast numbers know what they’re admiring. I chew at this thought, not as a Brit abroad, fretting patronisingly over a distant shard of his nation’s story, but because the unfailingly gleeful mood — all smiling selfies and family photos — apparently fails to grasp that the monument is effectively a statement of possession, cut in stone by a foreign power. And then it dawns on me. They know. And don’t care. For the Gateway of India has been naturalised. It’s no longer British. It’s a feted landmark in an Indian city, and is celebrated as a local hero — with all the Instagram fervour that requires.

You could say the same of Mumbai. A city that was seized in childhood by the Portuguese, and raised by the stern hand of the British Raj, is now, in the full flush of adulthood, gloriously, superbly, unquestionably Indian — a cauldron of 22 million people with dreams as big as the sky. True, it doesn’t have the tech gleam of Bangalore, nor the modern architecture of Hyderabad, and remains, in many ways, defined by the structures its overlords built in the 19th century. But it’s also busy, vibrant, cool, the Bollywood metropolis — a young man in his grandfather’s clothes, pulling off the look as ‘retro-chic’.

Beyond the Gateway of India, The Taj Mahal Palace is proof of this. On first, second and 777th impressions, it resembles the type of project that might have been dreamed up in a smoky Westminster antechamber when Victoria was still on the throne. But it is, in every square inch, an Indian creation — opened in 1903 by the Gujurati industrialist Jamsetji Tata, reputedly in response to his being denied entry to the ‘whites only’ Watson’s Hotel, a mile to the north. In the 115 subsequent years, it’s become an icon — an emblem of Indian silver service whose main staircase is one of the wonders of the city which frames it, ascending to the upper rooms with the grace of incense rising in a cathedral. To climb up these steps, where a century of guests have walked, feels like some sort of pilgrimage.

The Taj’s status as an Indian superstar was one of the reasons why it was caught up in the terror attack on the metropolis, on 26 November 2008, by Pakistani jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba. This brutal act killed 164 people across the city; a coordinated atrocity, pinned to the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan over the border region of Kashmir, which targeted sites of national fame for maximum impact. The majority of the deaths were at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the main rail station, which was assaulted in the evening twilight — but 31 guests and staff died as gunmen barged into the hotel lobby.

The Taj doesn’t attempt to cover up what happened — a marble plaque alongside the check-in desks remembers the victims — but it’s also moved on with admirable calmness. Its ground-floor Harbour Bar — the oldest licensed drinking hole in Mumbai, dating to 1933 — is a fashionable oasis, proffering cocktails such as the Way To Heaven, which splices tequila, lemon, ginger and chilli into a spicy whole. Second-floor restaurant Wasabi extends the glamour theme over sushi and soy. The dishes it serves may be stylishly Japanese, but the view from its windows is pure India. I become distracted by the lights twinkling along the shore — a conurbation of movie stars, money men and merchants, at play in the gloaming.

If this sounds a little too refined for a city which also knows the depths of poverty, you don’t have to go far to find a more visceral Mumbai. No more than two blocks, in fact. When I amble south of The Taj the next morning, I stumble into Colaba — a marketplace blur of a district where the everyday is sliced, chopped, weighed, perused and sold. On Lala Nigam Road, chickens squawk and flap in miniscule cubed cages as their friends are hacked to pieces on adjacent slabs — with such forceful blows of the cleaver that I fear the blood will splatter the bright fabric of the saris on display in the garment stores directly opposite. None of the shoppers seem too worried, though — for this is their home at its most authentic. As is the picture which awaits me a few hours later, three miles north, on Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai’s citizens taking to its prime strip of sand on a Sunday afternoon to laugh, talk, play music through smartphones, and gobble ice creams from the Bachelorr’s stall on the pavement promenade — an institution that’s been in action since 1940, thanks partly to its dispensing of frozen flavours as interesting as green chilli and ginger.

Immediately behind, packed with passengers, trains rumble north into the past. The name Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is another example of Mumbai’s reclaiming of its own yesterdays — but it began life in 1887 as Victoria Terminus, a grandstanding shard of British transportation infrastructure which, even now, seems scarcely to have advanced beyond its year of birth. Strong pillars soar to vaulted ceiling. A wall of ticket windows, like a row of portholes on an ocean liner, preserves the booking rituals of the 19th century in the 21st. Departures boards identify their destinations — Goa, Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi — with a restless, audible, click and tick. And as with the Gateway of India, modern Mumbai swirls through and around it, heading to work, a constant flurry of commuters that somehow never collides with itself. Instead, everybody spills outside, passing further colonial relics — the Municipal Corporation Building (City Hall) and its echoes of 1893; Churchgate Station, where ‘tiffin boys’ loiter by their bicycles, ready to deliver lunches to the time-pressed occupants of the offices in the neighbouring streets; Bombay High Court, which is so focused on delivering justice that it’s forgotten to update its Raj title.

Nearing the latter, my eyes are drawn again to the image of Virat Kohli. The Indian cricket captain is a striking figure — bearded, brown-eyed, equipped with a piercing gaze, which he has used to stare down opposition bowlers in his three years at the helm of the national team. The same hawk-like glance beams down from the billboard where he’s advertising a brand of motor oil — as much a guarantee of sales as Tendulkar, Dravid, Dhoni and his other predecessors in the role; almost as much of a god in the contemporary India as any deity worshipped in its Hindu temples. He’s present, too, opposite the High Court — in spirit at least — on Oval Maidan. Here, on Mumbai’s largest green lung, two teams are staging a match which, despite its park informality, is being fought with a competitive edge that Kohli would appreciate — all hostile bouncers and frantic running between the wickets. This seriousness is also an emblem of sorts, of the way India’s taken what was once a genteel colonial diversion, and turned it into a sport at which it’s a world leader. Appropriately, England’s last tour of the country (in 2016) resulted in a 4-0 Test series defeat (including a thrashing by an innings in Mumbai) — but it’s in sub-continental cash and glitz that this pastime of Surrey village greens has truly been transformed. Based at the very heart of town in the Wankhede Stadium, the Mumbai Indians are one of the most popular clubs in the Indian Premier League (IPL) — an annual bonanza of city-versus-city showdowns which attracts huge viewing figures and the planet’s top players on fat wages.

The roar of the crowd washes over the city on game days — the tournament takes place in April and May — but the IPL isn’t the only combination of rupees and razzle-dazzle which informs life in Mumbai. Travelling up the west flank of a city, which hangs down its peninsula like a stalactite from a cave roof, I tumble into gilded Bandra. Here, the Taj Lands End offers a similar five-star experience to its sibling further south — while the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link Bridge, more commonly known as Bandra-Worli Sea Link, conquers the depths of Mahim Bay in a way no colonial regime ever managed to achieve. In its shadow, the stars of Bollywood secrete themselves in palatial homes — celebrities such as Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan have owned houses here. A crowd has gathered at one point, observing, from discreet range, a film shoot being conducted on the waterline; an actress filming a commercial. The cluster of extended arms, hands brandishing phones, mimics a small, swaying forest.

Not everything, of course, is so slick. To drive through Mahalaxmi is to espy Dhobi Ghat — the giant outdoor laundry where Mumbai has long washed its dirty linen, men labouring beneath a fierce sun, beating bed sheets and tailored shirts dry on the edges of the washing pools. These are the left-behind, the economic underclass who share nothing in common with the city’s Bollywood pin-ups and cricket legends but the air they breathe.


Image: Getty

A clear cause for obvious concern, Anjali Tolani says, when I meet her at Soam, an eatery specialising in gourmet street food, in Chowpatty. “Bombay has changed in the last 15 years,” she reveals, deliberately using the city’s Raj-era name, which was dropped in 1995. “The skyline has changed, the personality has changed. New buildings are going up, old ones are coming down. There’s more of an edge than a few years ago, and a little more crime. That’s what happens when finance and affluence come in. There used to be a place for everyone, no matter their income. Now people are being pushed to the fringes.”

A guide with a detailed knowledge of Mumbai’s gastronomic scene, she sounds, briefly, despondent — but dispels any negativity with a tour that picks out some of the city’s culinary gems. Soam travels to northerly Indian state Gujarat for much of its inspiration, doling out dhokla (steamed lentils in a rice parcel) and ghughra (a pasty filled with peas) in bite-sized portions. Kyani & Co, in Dhobitalao, sources its soul much further afield, as one of the last remaining Parsee cafes which catered to the city’s Iranian immigrant workforce. Contemporary tastes hardly intrude on a menu heavy on mutton salli boti (a rich stew) and mawa cake (a soft sponge with a cardamom tang) — yet even here, there are concessions. ‘Dear customer,’ advises a message planted under the glass of the table tops, ‘the use of laptops is prohibited. Please do not sit for a long time after refreshment.’

Firm, but polite. Mumbai has seen this before. Over in leafy Gamdevi, Mani Bhavan was the home of Mahatma Gandhi from 1917 to 1934 — the quiet space where he finessed his doctrine of non-violent resistance to colonial governance. Now a museum, the property lays bare the general positivity of the great man’s thinking, including a framed copy of a letter he penned to Hitler on the eve of war in 1939 — which explains that ‘friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity,’ and begs ‘your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you’. What would such a force for good make of the Mumbai of 2018? Perhaps he would be bemused by the impetuousness of its youth, zipping through town on motorbikes in skinny jeans but no helmets. Maybe he would be enthralled by its National Gallery of Modern Art, where paintings by Indian masters Vasudeo Gaitonde and Akbar Padamsee hold equal prominence with pieces by Pablo Picasso. Or perhaps he would simply grin at the progress of a metropolis whose essential optimism is infectious.


Getting there & around
There are three direct services to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport from the UK. Air India, British Airways and Jet Airways all fly from Heathrow.
Flight time: 10 hours
The Mumbai Metro is a work in progress. It may comprise up to 10 lines by the end of the next decade — but only one is currently operational. The six-line Mumbai Suburban Railway is currently the fastest way around the metropolis. However, it can be hideously crowded. Taxis are plentiful, and easily hailed — although the pace of traffic is often extremely slow.

When to go
Cooled by coastal breezes, Mumbai is largely pleasant in summer (April-June) at around 27C, and colder but still enjoyable in winter (October-March) from around 20C. It’s best avoided between July and September, when monsoon season douses it in three months of heavy rain.

Places mentioned
Mani Bhavan
National Gallery of Modern Art
Taj Lands End
Taj Mahal Palace

More information
British citizens need a visa to visit India. One-year tourist visas cost from £120.44 per person, including online processing fee. vfsglobal.com/India/UK

How to do it
Cox & Kings offers a four-night stay at The Taj Mahal Palace from £1,335 per person on a B&B basis, including international flights. It also offers an 11-day ‘Maharashtra Wild Trail’ luxury train trip which starts and ends in Mumbai, from £4,435 per person, with flights.

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)