Bylanes of Colaba

Many years ago we decided to move out of south Mumbai at some point in our lives. As that, still indefinite, point comes closer, we walk around the city with fresh eyes. Walking down a side street off the causeway, we saw this lovely sight of the dome of the Taj hotel lit up, recalled the terrible night when we saw it going up in flames, while simultaneously having a pang of remorse at the thought that there will be a time when I won’t see this while out on a walk. As I took this photo, Niece Mbili told us the old urban myth of the mixed up maps which made the architect place turn the frontage around. No amount of protest by the hotel will stop this story. Colaba moves between seedy and grand every decade. Around now the seediness is disappearing again.

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Raindrops keep falling

I have two favourite weeks of the year in Mumbai. One is the week called winter, when the temperature drops below 20 Celsius, and we start thinking of bringing out our sweaters. The other is the first week of the monsoon. This year I almost let the beginning of the monsoon pass by without saying anything about it. A taxi driver was kind enough to travel below the speed limit on the sea link, letting me take a photo of the skyline of the mill area and its stalled rebuilding, as the monsoon clouds finally blew in at the end of June.

Decades ago you could almost set the calendar by the arrival of the monsoon. It would arrive on 6th June, perhaps three days before or after. Over the years the gradual warming of the sea has delayed the monsoon. Warm seas also give rise to storms and hurricanes. This year a storm formed over the sea off the coast of Mumbai, brought a little rain, but blocked the monsoon winds for a substantial number of days. I took the photo above during the first monsoon shower. In the last four days or so of June we got all the rain that we usually expect over the month. Is this the shape of a warmer earth?

Fresh Bakes

Sometimes spelling-Nazis take a break and enjoy the taste of Shrewsbury biscuits instead. I’m not a great fan of this Shropshire delicacy, but the ones that are made here are pretty good. They could be the best in Mumbai. But the apple pies are wonderful. This Irani bakery produces a dozen of them every day. They are taken out of the oven at about 3 in the evening, and if you are the thirteenth person to come in to buy one, then you are out of luck.

Circumcidus Interruptus

The streets of Mumbai are full of tonsurial artists. I always find them fascinating, as they balance battered mirrors on high stools, or lather up people who are in a hurry to go off after a shave. But I’d never seen one who’d left a customer wrapped up while he attended to another who demanded a quick trim. I liked the long-suffering look which this gentleman gave me as I captured the scene on my phone.

Right of way

In the countryside you see very interesting rights of way, usually meandering through field, sometimes between someone’s kitchen and cattle shed, occasionally through two parts of some house. But the kind of right of way I saw in Mumbai is unthinkable in a village. There has to be a story behind it, but it will take a lot of effort to dig it out.

Death of a Mall

The early years of the century anticipated a huge consumer boom. Malls which came up in every odd corner of Mumbai were full of people on weekends, but there were few buyers for the expensive clothes and shoes which were displayed there. The crowds kept growing, and in months security began to restrict the number of people who could enter at a time. Eventually owners re-discovered the magic formula which would allow the malls to make money: add a food court, lots of stalls for snacks, and a movie multiplex. The optimism was slow to die. But now, two decades later, the rotting carcasses of malls litter the city.

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The photos which you see here come from one such mall. The metal detectors in the entrance lobby are switched off, at night a single light illuminates some of the structures. The deserted central atrium is eerily lit by a strong floodlight. A palm tree still grows inside. I saw that there are a few guards on the property, they probably keep the tree watered. A couple of stalls outside the atrium were open for people who wanted a snack or ice-cream. There were customers to keep the businesses going. Everything looked closed inside the atrium, but on an upper floor a multiplex still did business, running six screens around the day. I wonder how long it will be before structural faults render the place dangerous. But in the meanwhile, it is a wonderful photo op.

Dreadful mistakes? Not

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon one needs a little sustenance. And if you are not far from a Parsi Agiary, what better than to look for the nearest Parsi bakery? The Family and I walked into the cool interior of a venerable old bakery and sat down at one of the glass-topped tables with long menus inserted under the glass. These old places continue to have many classes of servers. One man wiped the table down, then another came and placed glasses of water on the table. Eventually the grand old man who takes the order came up to our table. Our tea and Badam Mawa cakes arrived soon enough.

Them that takes cakes
Which the Parsee-man bakes
Makes dreadful mistakes

How The Rhinoceros Got His Skin
Rudyard Kipling

I got up to look at the display cases of the day’s bakes. There seems to be a new emphasis on eggless cakes. It goes with the modernization of the furniture; the old round tables and battered Vienna chairs have been replaced by square tables and a different kind of spindly chair. The cracked cups and saucers have given up the ghost, and have been replaced. The melamine plate below the cakes was a new touch of grunge. The interesting mosaic floors and mirrored interiors have remained. In general these old institutions of Mumbai retain a charming air of decayed elegance from the end of the 19th century.

A few years ago the only customers at these bakeries were old regulars bickering constantly with the owner. The middle-aged Parsi owner, sat behind a fortified counter and would dismiss out of hand all accusations of the tea not being as good as the previous day’s, or the cakes having been baked a week ago. In those days I would be told very sternly not to take photos. Now the large notices forbidding people from combing their hair, reading newspapers, and discussing politics or horse racing have disappeared. The place was full of younger people, and no one objected when I took photos. Fortunately, the expertise in baking has been passed down the generations carefully.

When you stare into a jungle the jungle stares back at you

We walked out of the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT to all of us time-starved people) to admire the decorations outside. When you look up at the capitals of the columns around the station, you see a veritable jungle. The monkey in the featured photo seems to have been startled by the camera peering at it. The rough chiselling of the stone probably shows that a very large amount of stone carving had to be finished in a short time. The artistic innovation is delightful: the texture of the animal’s fur is evoked by the chisel marks.

Inside the ticketing office I’d admired this panel where two mongooses faced off against each other between swirls of Attic vines. Dear Rudyard, east and west do meet, again and again, to produce such wonderful works as these, just a few steps from your childhood home.

I looked up at the tower at this corner of the building. There was a whole line of heraldic devices carved into the stone. They included the cross of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, compasses for navigation, a sailing ship, animals, a cherub and a steam locomotive. Very much a high-Victorian mish mash of symbols. The Family and I looked up at the beautiful facade where four colours of stone are harmonized. This reminded me faintly of Mughal monuments. The jali also seems to be inspired by the similar structures.

Looking up further, we spotted a very decorative peacock above an open window. On closer look I was quite taken aback. It is hard to capture a peacock in stone, since its main attraction is the shimmer of colour in the male’s raised plumage. The artist has done a rather good job of capturing the general idea in monochrome stone.

Closer above our head I admired owls and sundry birds, dense foliage below the paws of a stone lion about to leap on to unsuspecting passers-by. Below the owl I admired a line of ferns, their delicate leaves and spirally unfolding fronds giving the owl a perfect toe-hold.

The foliage in this jungle on the pavement is so completely different from that inside the ticketing hall that I found it useful to compare the two. Inside, animals from an Indian jungle cavort through this southern European flora. Outside, the\ese vines are often relegated to the edges of decorations, when an Indian jungle takes over the main pictorial space.

But not always. In the panel you see above, eastern fauna meets western flora again. Artists will mash up what they have spent years perfecting. That’s part of the reason I think that the work of decoration was done by students of the J. J. School of Arts and not by local artisans. The repertoire of classical western decorative motifs would not be available to Indian artists who had not studied them.

Outside, I took a closer look at the part of the structure which holds the offices of the Central Railways. This part of the building has been restored, and it is possible to visit during office hours. We will have to go back to see it from inside.

Victorian Gothic you say? Where are the gargoyles then? You have to look far up, where they jut out of the turrets, puctuating the sky, looking down on the huge stone lions holding steel banners to the wind.

One door closes, another opens

I rushed into my departure gate at Mumbai airport thinking that boarding would have started, and found that the flight was slightly delayed. That gave me a few minutes to kill in an area with a wonderful art installation. I’ve written about the carved wooden doors of Gujarat sometime earlier, but I had no photos to share. This installation was full of them.

One of the things I like about older localities in Ahmedabad are the exquisitely carved doors of old havelis. The doors are certainly very attractive, as you can see here, but when you look at the architecture they are embedded in, it is clear that they are there in a supporting role. It is the whole architecture which is the star. Here, in the airport, the doors were extracted out of their settings and shown as beautiful pieces of art. Abstracted from their context, I thought they lost just a bit of life.

Used as an art installation they take on a different role, as desirable pieces. Seeing them here reminded me of a conversation I had recently with someone who was thinking of modernizing an old building in Gujarat and getting the money for it by selling the doors and windows of the house. That is a lot of money, which means that there is a market for these doors. Don’t be surprised if one of these old doors turns up in a corporate office you see, or a hotel you walk into.

Two memorable desserts

Every now and then I go back to the restaurant I consider Mumbai’s finest. The dessert sticks to my mind as much as to the rest of me. This time was no exception. I’d been there twice in the same week, which is a bit of overkill. My excuse? The first time was a dinner with colleagues after work, the second with family. One of the things I like about this place are the very helpful suggestions made by the staff. The first time we went, everyone wanted a dessert by themselves. The server suggested that after a big meal some of the desserts could be shared. He was right.

There is a lot of turnover in the menu, so going back makes sense. The family dinner ended with two desserts I’d never had before. The strawberry cassata (featured photo) was a playful nod at the famous dessert of the 1970s, when, for the first time one could have an ice cream flavour other than vanilla and chocolate in India. This was a modern version, fabulously light and fresh, a tart taste of the fruit uppermost, with the crunchy nuts supplying a very satisfactory finish. The other was a great take on the other Mumbai special: a falooda. This was The Family’s favourite growing up, and I’m just a johnny-come-late to the Badshah falooda. So I’ll just quote her: “Damn good.”