A neighbourhood guide to Mumbai
Mumbai’s spectacularly diverse neighbourhoods are home to everything from glitzy Bollywood studios to grand architecture and a national park that’s famed for its leopards.
Not for nothing is Mumbai called Maximum City. There are two Londons’ worth of people living here in an area less than half the size of the British capital and five million people a day use the creaking train network. It’s hard to imagine this city has ever been entirely quiet, or that the scents of incense and fried food have failed to comingle on a hot afternoon. Another of its nicknames is the City of Dreams, a place where Bollywood stars are revered as demigods. A first-time visitor won’t fail to notice that the spectre of poverty seems to lurk around every corner, too, but with a booming construction sector, and the Mumbai Metro project slowly transforming an ailing transport infrastructure, Mumbai is moving steadily, noisily, vibrantly into a hopeful new era.
I’m listening to a new recording in a Bollywood sound studio and it’s awful and pitiful and embarrassing. If I was reviewing this performance, it would be entirely negative. I’d say that the singer sounds nervous, for one thing, but fundamentally devoid of ability, for another. I’d add that whatever his day job is, he should be kept well away from the 121-year-old Bollywood industry, which requires maximum pizazz and pep, not to mention talent and confidence.
I can say all of these things because I am the singer and, despite my mumbled protestations, guide Raj Nagrani has just cajoled me into murdering Neil Diamond’s Forever in Blue Jeans at 11am on a Thursday. It isn’t the first time I’ve mangled that song, but it’s the only time I’ve done so sober.
“We’ll send you the remix,” beams Raj, apparently not offended by my effort. We’re on the lot of SJ Studios, one of several Bollywood production companies dotted around Mumbai. As well as this sound studio, there are sets — some are permanent, but others are just empty floors that can be rapidly customised into almost any backdrop. When filming isn’t taking place, tours are offered.
Around 2,000 movies come out every year in India, a ludicrously high volume (the US churns out around 600) that demands constant production. The most lavish and star-studded are all made here in Mumbai.
Prior to arriving for this studio tour, Raj had driven me around the neighbourhood of Bandra to get a better sense of the industry. Unlike Hollywood, Bollywood doesn’t exist as a physical place, but Bandra is comparable to Beverly Hills. Many of the industry’s top stars have properties here, which fans are known to gather outside in the hope of catching a glimpse of their heroes.
Several producers and directors also live here; Bandra is unmistakably the land of The Haves. Car horns are less constant here, the roads are clearer. There’s a huge private hospital, a Starbucks, nightclubs and, more generally, an unmistakable atmosphere of affluence. At the southern tip of the peninsula on which Bandra lies, close to the ruins of an old Portuguese fort, stands the Taj Lands End hotel. Its House of Nomad bar is where the stars come to sign massive deals over cocktails.
Raj talks about the business as a sort of religion. “I thought cricket was India’s unofficial religion,” I joke. “It’s popular, sure, but they have seasons,” he replies. “Bollywood is important every day.”
“They used to say that the streets were built by opium and the buildings by cotton,” says Sneha Patil, momentarily sounding like she’s been chasing the dragon herself. The guide from Khaki Tours is taking me on the popular Castle2Gateway walk, which focuses on the colonial history around the Fort neighbourhood at the south of Mumbai’s peninsula.
Although this part of India had already been colonised by the Portuguese and Dutch, it went through an economic explosion under British rule. At the heart of that boom time were the opium and cotton trades.
To come to Mumbai and not visit Fort is akin to visiting New York City for the first time and avoiding Manhattan — it’s possible, but surely not advisable.
This former economic hub remains one of the city’s most prosperous areas and is, by far, its grandest, architecturally. As the opium and cotton barons grew rich, so they erected vanity projects around the city. The majority still stand today.
“This is one of my favourite spots in the city,” says Sneha, as she looks for a spot on Kala Ghoda Square where we’re less likely to get run over by a marauding auto rickshaw. Spinning on the spot, she gives me a grand tour of wildly varying architectural styles. “From here, you can see the Rajabai Clock Tower, which is Venetian gothic, then the former Watson’s Hotel, which is an industrial pre-fab. Next to that we have the Army and Navy Building which is typically neoclassical. Next there’s gothic, then Elphinstone College, which is renaissance revival, then come round here and we have traditional Indian and then finally art deco. It’s really remarkable.”
We move on, pushing south towards Mumbai’s most famous landmarks: the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. They too date back to the British Raj, and their stories are the stuff of local legend. The satisfyingly chunky, endlessly photographed Gateway was famously built to commemorate the arrival to India of King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary, the first British monarchs to visit the country. “Except it wasn’t finished until 13 years after they were here,” says Sneha with a smile. And what about the Taj Palace, just across the road? “Well, the story is that Mr Jamsetji Tat [an Indian industrialist] decided to build it after being turned away from Watson’s Hotel because he wasn’t white.”
And is that true? “Well, I like the story anyway,” says Sneha knowingly.
Sanjay Gandhi National Park
I’ve always loved Indian English and the way it clings to archaic verbs and half-forgotten idioms. Indians don’t argue, they quarrel; they don’t think someone is nuts, but that they ‘have bats in their belfry’. It’s a variant of the language that bathes in hyperbole and quirky idioms, whether that’s a ‘best exotic hotel’ or a ‘cryptic and elusive predator’ — the latter is a phrase naturalist Sagar Mahajan uses to describe leopards. We’re in the north of Mumbai, on the edge of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, just 20 minutes from the international airport. This is one of the very few national parks in the world that falls within a city’s boundary, and it makes up the majority of Mumbai’s green space. Amazingly, it’s also home to an estimated 50 leopards — it’s difficult to believe that they have 20 million people for neighbours.
“We’ve 46sq miles of wooded areas and so this is the densest population of leopards in India — normally they’d require a lot more space,” explains the guide from the Bombay Natural History Society as we follow a two-hour nature trail from the Society’s Conservation Education Centre.
As well as the big cats, the park is home to four types of deer and over 170 butterfly species. Around 250 species of bird have been spotted here too. Unfortunately, this includes the crow, the ugly call of which seems to drown out other more melodious songs. Elsewhere in Mumbai — as is the case in all of India’s megacities — these scavengers are usually accompanied by stray dogs, but they’re not in evidence here. There’s a good reason for this: “When we study leopards, we have to look at their diet. Around 60% of what they eat is dogs, mostly strays,” Sagar tells me.
The leopards have been observed hunting rats. “What I like about the leopards is how adaptable they are,” says Sagar, when I ask him about this. Were it not for the danger they also pose to humans, leopards would surely be a very welcome form of pest control in other parts of the country.
But on our trek, we don’t meet any. This is partly because it’s daytime and leopards are mainly nocturnal, but also because only 25% of the park has been made accessible to the public. The rest remains wild and, although we might be on the fringes of India’s most populous city — and an abundant supply of canines — the felines, when given a choice, will always prefer to go unseen.
When in Mumbai
This affordable streetfood staple typically contains beetroot, boiled potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and mint chutney.
Cricket is revered in Mumbai, as it is throughout the subcontinent. The Indian Premier League team here is the Mumbai Indians, whose home — no laughing now — is the Wankhede Stadium.
If you don’t like haggling, then this absolutely isn’t the place for you. Just a couple of blocks away from the opulence of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the relentless vibrance of the Colaba Market is a handy reminder that you’re still very much in India.
A city institution since 1871, the Leopold Cafe was one of the targets of the city’s 2008 terrorist attacks. It’s since come to be a symbol of defiance and cherished by most Mumbaikars.
If you’ve overindulged on the paneer and roti, head out for an early-morning run along Marine Drive. You’ll be joined by hundreds or thousands of locals also keen to get their exercise fix — whether that’s a jog or a spot of yoga — before the sun becomes too intense. Later, couples and families emerge to enjoy a seaside perambulation along the two-and-a-quarter-mile promenade.
How to do it
G Adventures offers a four-day Mumbai itinerary, including a guided nature walk, Bollywood city tour and Fort area heritage walk as part of its TailorMade tour offering. From £999 per person, B&B, flights and other meals not included.
Published in the July/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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