Author Amit Gurbaxani Photography Manjari Sharma
I stuff myself into a black-and-yellow cab and head for the South Mumbai neighborhood of Tardeo, whose biggest claim to fame—or at least tallest—is the Imperial Towers, a pair of pointy skyscrapers that stand more than 800 feet high. The cab takes me down Marine Drive, a pleasant waterfront stretch that’s lined with Art Deco buildings on one side and Lycra-clad joggers on the other, before depositing me in front of Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home from 1917 to 1934, now a museum.
It’s a nice house, with screened balconies and ample shelving, but, more importantly of course, the chance to delve into the personal life of India’s Great Soul is what draws the crowds. On one wall there’s a picture of Gandhi with Charlie Chaplin. Nearby, there’s a letter Gandhi wrote to Hitler in 1939: “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?” At a section relating incidents from Gandhi’s childhood, a woman turns to a young child and says, “See, he was such a good boy.”
Gandhi hailed from the western state of Gujarat, so it seems fitting that I’m having lunch today at Swati Snacks, a family-run eatery that’s renowned for its fantastic Gujarati food. I’m joined by Tasneem Vahanvaty, a consultant with Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts. We order panki chatni (razor-thin rice pancakes rolled and wrapped in banana leaves) and fada ni khichdi (baked wheat, legumes and veggies)—then settle down to discuss the city of her birth. “Samuel Johnson said, ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,’ and that’s how I feel about Bombay,” she says. “People have a love-hate relationship with this city, and often both emotions are felt in the same breath.”
Over the next half hour or so, as we ride in a sweltering taxi through Mumbai’s traffic-clogged and cacophonous roads, it’s easy to understand this sort of ambivalence. But then all is forgiven when we arrive at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, in the South Mumbai district of Byculla. Located in a mint-green Renaissance Revival mansion, this is Mumbai’s oldest museum, having opened for business in 1872. The interior—with its arches and columns and elaborate wrought iron detailing—is so exquisite you’d be forgiven for forgetting the exhibits, which range from industrial art to dioramas of local communities. “Sindhi!” I shout, having spotted mine. Another highlight is a statue of Mumbadevi, the Hindu goddess after whom Mumbai is named.
The sun is going down, which means: time for a sundowner. I say goodbye to Tasneem and take a black-and-yellow to Aer, the Four Seasons bar, which, 34 floors above street level, is the highest in the city. From up here, Mumbai looks like a massive graphic equalizer bar, lit up against the black screen of the sky. Below the bright towers are streams of blue, the tarpaulin roofs of the city’s slums. At the next table, a group of youngsters are playing a game of Spot the Building. Quietly, so as not to freak them out, I join in: the blunt pineapple of the Nehru Centre; Antilia, the Jenga-like, billion-dollar home of India’s richest man.
Finally, I spot the pyramidal roof of the ITC Grand Central hotel, where I’ve booked a table at Kebabs and Kurries, a restaurant serving a vast range of Indian cuisine. First, though, I catch a taxi to Juhu, the North Mumbai suburb, where I check into the J. W. Marriott. Full of bright lights and big columns, the Mumbai Marriott “is the hotel where you’re most likely to spot a Hindi film star,” says the receptionist. Actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Kajol and Shilpa Shetty have all been spotted here, she says. I hang around in the bar for a while, waiting for Bollywood royalty to arrive, then realize with a jolt that I’m running late for dinner. Taxi!
My driver does a fine job of dodging through the traffic to get me to Kebabs and Kurries before closing time. The menu here is dizzying, so I play it safe and order the signature dish, dal Bukhara, black lentils lavished with cream and butter and slow-cooked in a tandoor. For dessert I have the shahi tukda, India’s syrup-soaked version of bread pudding. It’s a tasty, filling and somewhat narcotic meal—a nap might be in order. But no. Suck it up. Things to do.
I catch another cab to Lower Parel, a former mill district in the heart of Mumbai and home to blueFROG, the city’s best-known music venue. Housed in an old industrial building, the club’s interior is right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a ’60s-inspired vision of the future that includes color-shifting circular booths and bubble-wrap bumps on the walls. But people aren’t here to admire the decor—they’re here to bounce around to the music of Mad Orange Fireworks, a jazz-funk band from Bangalore. At the bar, ordering a whiskey-and-watermelon cocktail called a Mega Frog, I start chatting with Suprateek Chatterjee, a local film reviewer and musician, with whom I discuss the club’s recent renovations. “Apart from the new sofas,” he says, “the washers in the loos have been changed!” This, we decide, calls for another round of Mega Frogs.