Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Notes from the Bombay trip

At risk of falling into the usual Bombay-vs-Delhi generalisations, even the stray dogs in Bombay are better behaved than their counterparts in my city. They keep their eyes lowered, speak when spoken to and don’t stare uncouthly the way dogs and humans in Delhi constantly do. (It bears remembering that many of Delhi’s mongrels are half-breeds descended from the foxes that once roamed the jungles near the ruins of Mehrauli. When the city’s southward expansion began and the forests began to fall, these animals, knowing their time was up, decided to breed with the local dogs in order to pass on a genetic legacy. No doubt the feral gene is still active in the current generation.)

Anyway, zoological dissertations aside, I had a superb time. It was a mistake to keep the trip so short, but managed to pack in a lot into my two-and-a-half days there. A short list:

The nostalgia angle: I hadn’t been to Bombay in 20 years (used to go once or twice each year until I was 10) and the actual memories were dim and scattered, but I’ve always felt like I know the place – especially Churchgate, where my mum lived up to the age of 24. She still has an idealised picture of the city in her head – or at least the way south Bombay used to be in the 1960s and early 1970s – and I’ve heard lots of stories from her and my nani over the years: about idyllic evenings spent at the Cricket Club of India (CCI) and the Racecourse, long walks down Marine Drive, nightlong parties with film personalities and their families dropping by.

The uncle I stayed with, a family friend, has lived in the same house in Churchgate for 60 years. We were watching TV, a song from the Dev Anand film Hum Dono came on, and he recalled music director Jaidev composing the tune while sitting in the apartment below his, more than 45 years ago. Two buildings away is where my mother’s cousin and her family live, and one of the apartments in between is where mum grew up, the place she still thinks of as “home” despite having left it decades ago. I took photographs, walked a lot, including in the CCI ground where mum and her friends spent hundreds of their childhood evenings. Luckily many of the Kitab festival venues were in and around Churchgate, so traveling was quick and easy (not something one associates with Bombay). Much of this area is still so charming and old-world that for long stretches of time it was possible to forgot about the city’s staggering population density and its growing reputation as a huge urban slum.

Also drove along the Queen’s Necklace at midnight, went to Malabar Hill and past the Hanging Gardens.

Kitab was a mixed bag. A couple of good panel discussions, some boring ones. But had a fine time in the company of Amit, Chandrahas, Manish, Saket, PrufrockTwo and Aditya, and also met the usual suspects from the lit-circle over cocktails and canapés at the Taj Palace hotel (from where I walked along the waterfront to the Radio Club, where relatives were waiting for me for dinner) and at Good Earth. (More notes on the festival soon.)

Had an excellent lunch with eM at Café Churchill in Colaba: a beef steak with lots of mushrooms, consumed beneath a large, indistinct portrait of Sir Winston looking very much like a goodly chunk of ham himself. The steak was so big I could barely finish it (not something that often happens when I eat out and eat good). Good value for money, and it was such a pleasure to see a menu with B-E-E-F clearly spelt out on it, instead of a shifty-eyed waiter coming up to you and whispering “you want my tender loin, sir?”.

Other outstanding meals included:

– Crab butter pepper garlic, prawn gassi and appams at Mahesh Lunch Home.

– Nasi Goreng rice (with chicken, shrimps and a tender fried egg on top) at the Japengo Café. The dishes were very aesthetically arranged, which really sets up the foodie mood (of course they have to be well made too – but that’s a given in most Bombay restaurants).

– A large, eclectic Chinese lunch at the Pearl of the Orient, the revolving restaurant at the top of the Ambassador Hotel (from where I saw several splendid views of the city, including the CCI with the Brabourne Stadium just beneath us).

– Delectable ham sandwiches, some very heady rum cake and poha (not all at once) at the home of the uncle I was staying with.

Sidenote: eating out with people who are genuine foodies is a delightfully intense experience. From several minutes before you even reach the restaurant, you’re discussing the food, anticipating the aroma of each dish. Then you sit at the table, study the menu lovingly, talk about past meals, exchange notes, place the order and continue to talk food. No one even thinks of making the conversation more general. And then the dishes arrives and a monk-like silence prevails for the next several minutes, punctuated only by the cracking of prawn shells.

So excellent trip overall. But in a subsequent post I will deal with the thesis that nostalgia mustn’t be carried too far. Never doing the Rajdhani thing again, which I had romantically imagined would be a train journey into the past. Nothing of the sort: it was besmirched by the presence of small satanic children and their fondly indulgent parents. (More on that soon, in a post titled “So you didn’t use a condom, now at least practise berth control”.)


  1. Ah the Bombay chronicles!

    Couldn’t make it for even a single ‘Kitab’ event. Blame unavoidable social commitments and unplanned late nights, otherwise I would have had the pleasure of catching up with ya. Damn! But I am sure the city has left you wanting more, so hopefully you should make another trip (though not as short as this one)

    Traveling in a Rajdhani is always an eventful experience. If not the kids,the waiters sit on your head. Looking forward for the 'berth control' post.

    -Sublime thoughts

  2. You get wonderful Nasi Goreng in Cafe 100 (CP). So far not seen it in many other places.

    And you find dogs staring at you? Hope you dont look meaty to them eh? :p :)

    And certainly pesky kids complete with rowdy families are such a pain!

  3. Nice meeting you Jai, wish it was longer. Thanks.

  4. You could have probably found a cheaper, or just as inexpensive flight ticket to Mumbai, or travel 1st class. It aids the digestion process!

  5. Mystic Bard: I tried to get the trip extended but it didn't work out. It was a real pity having to miss the readings at Prithvi on the final day. But yes, will try to come again soon.

    Twilight fairy: I usually have Nasi Goreng at Chilli Seasson - it's very good there.

    Bombay Addict: good to meet you too. And there will be a next time - I'm not done with the city yet!

    B.Ray: the whole idea was not to do those things. But like I said, that part of the nostalgia is finito. Flight next time for sure.

  6. ...beef steak...

    There's another kind?

  7. Hey nice to read about your trip! Couldn't make it to the event either. But wasn't Mahesh Lunch Home simply heavenly? Methinks I will visit them soon m'self.

  8. what with dog/cat food cheaper now, they would probably reduce staring at you with such malicious intent :).

  9. Hey Jai,

    'Twas great catching up with you again. Hope to meet you again sometime when I'm in Delhi

  10. Very beautifully written. It's great to read reminiscences of people...

  11. I am 1/4 from Bombay and absolutely love the place. Needless to say, I visit as often as I can. However, when I visited Delhi, I loved Delhi too. It's got old world charm to it. So, in a sense it's a bit like Calcutta. Also, I got the feeling that life in Delhi is slow like in Cal (OK...maybe not that slow) unlike the pace at which it surges forward in Bombay.

    As a result, I cannot understand why Delhiites bitch about Delhi. So, I guess my point is that you always like a place if you are a tourist, as you only see, quite literally the greener side of the city.

    PS: I cannot comment on Delhi's dogs/fitches (cross of fox and bitch I guess) as I wasn't observant enough as to their facial expressions.

  12. Sigh... i miss bombay food. :D

  13. You get a fairly palatable Nasi Goreng at 'Bamboo Garden' in Basant Lok market complex.

    (I hope I got the name of the place right.)

    Anyways, I thought I'd break away from tradition and comment, this time round. That reference to the tender-loin was brilliant!

    ~ Harneet

  14. Bbay is a city of many charms, that leaves its mesmerising mark behind on many a visitor. I dont hail from bbay, and apart from a few "passing-thru" visits to bbay, always btwen delhi and b'lore, in my single-digit years....I never really knew bbay. Until....of course life, in all its wonderful mystery and magic, gave me a girlfriend who lives in bbay, south bbay to be exact, right along queens necklace to be more precise.

    So, as an NRI, I've now made a few trips to bbay over the past 3 years, and each trip has surprassed the previous, in terms of my fondness for the city, with an incredibly fast growing familiarity with it(well, south bbay anyway).

    As a self-confessed gourmet, I made it a point to indulge in indian food in bbay, esp those foods that I can't access easily in my resident country. My recommendations - amazing konkan/malyali/chettinad food at Konkan cafe in Taj President in Cuffe Parade, indian chinese at Joss, good beer and indian/chinese food at Leopold and cafe Mondegar in colaba, good mughlai food at Copper Chimney and Urban Tadka (few of them in the suburbs i think), good thai at Thai Pavillion in Taj President, good thalis at Status in Nariman Point, relatively inexpensive mughlai food at Nooranis near Haji Ali...and of course....the amazing rolls at Bade Miyans in colaba.

    Although, i still have to come to terms with the noise, traffic, dirt and beggary in bbay....esp the beggary..i'm SUCH a sucker, and end up spending a fair bit of dosh in hand-outs....despite the heavy discouragement from all friends with me....guess I'm not yet tough enough for the bbay life :)

    One thing though...i found lot of ppl in south bbay to be quite snobbish. May be cos most of them are from multi millionnaire families.....seriously, the property boom in bbay as a whole, and esp the prices in sth bbay...could really use some southward movement...i mean, its virtually impossible to find a decent 3 brm pls in a decent bldg for less than 2.5 crores !!!!!!!!!!!

  15. I used to live in Bombay till just about a few months back. Have moved to Delhi (where I was born and brought up). Going through this post, I could relive several moments spent in South Bombay. Honestly, if not for South Bombay, I would have left that city much earlier. It's a great place and as you said walking on those lanes, you wonder if you are in 21st century or 20th or 19th century. Really nostalgic.