Anuj Mandal, our guest blogger, has lived in Pune for a while now and every now and then he visits Mumbai hoping that he will see a Bollywood celebrity. In this post we travel with him and visit some of the sights of Mumbai, my favourite city in India.
He also happens to be my brother!
The Mumbai Dash
Before I tell you this story you should know two things about me. One of them is very important and the other is not. The important thing is that I live in Pune and the only reason I ever travel the odd 250 Kms to Mumbai is if I have to catch a train to Delhi, my hometown. I have never really seen Mumbai. It was just a place I passed through often. So, during my last trip home I decided to reach Mumbai early in the morning, roam around the city, and catch my train for Delhi which left at 23:00Hrs. This way I get to experience backpacking on a miniscule scale. Oh, and the impertinent thing is that whenever I am stuck in a hopeless situation I picture myself doing an exotic dance to release the dread brewing up inside.
At about 05:30 Hrs, my train reached Dadar station. Even at such an early hour it was crowded. Still bleary eyed, I got out of the station to my first destination of the day, Gateway of India. A friendly Mumbaikar told me to catch a bus from the stop just across the road. As luck would have it, the bus decided to take the scenic route contiguous to the sea. In the distance I could see the minarets of Haji Ali peering out from under the morning mist. The spectacular morning view coupled with the “travelling” high I felt compelled me to get down and soak in the beauty of the ancient dargah. I sat down on a boundary wall and contemplated how weary travelers during the ancient days must have witnessed such incredible sights inspiring them to write about philosophy and life. And, so I sat there looking at the ocean with the morning breeze caressing my face waiting for an epiphany of my own. When nothing happened after 5 mins I ate a samosa and boarded the next bus for Gateway of India.
The bus dropped me a few hundred meters away from the gateway. The sun was getting warmer and the evanescent rays tingled my skin. I carried my big heavy bag through the sparse morning traffic, crossed the Shivaji statue and found myself looking up at the Gateway. If you do a 360 degree turn you can see a few Mumbai landmarks towering over you: The old Taj hotel, the new Taj Hotel and of course the gateway. After staring at it for 5 mins I didn’t know what else to do; because let’s face it, it’s just a big gate, not a tomb, nor a religious place, they don’t even let you pass through it. I mean what good is a gate if you cannot pass through it? The droopy stray dog sitting lazily beneath the gateway mirrored my expression.
A little disenchanted, I made my way towards the Chattrapati Shivaji terminus formerly known as Victoria Terminus or simply VT. Why go to a train station you ask? Well for one thing, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. When I stared up at the imposing CST façade, I was filled with questions. There are a lot of things going on with the architecture. There is an imposing white statue at the top; numerous dogs are jutting out from different junctions of the building. Lions, tigers, rams and faces of people all combine together to form an overwhelming sight. A quick wiki search told me that the lion represented England and the tiger India, nothing on the dogs and rams though.
The heavy bag and the Mumbai heat were taking its toll on me and I decided to call it a day, head to BCT, and wait for the train in the waiting hall. I had had enough of this “backpacking” business. The second mumbaikar, I asked for directions told me to take the local to BCT. I asked him if I could go by bus, he told me-probably in contempt- the locals were faster.
The bus dropped me near the BCT station and I found out you need to have a confirmed ticket to stay at the waiting hall. My Dad’s request for my reservations hadn’t materialized yet, and I realized it was just 10:00AM. I wasn’t worried about the reservation though because I had been doing it this way for the last 4 years and the tickets always came through, the question was what to do with the remaining 13 hrs.
After checking in my luggage at the cloak room and a bit of internet surfing, I was on my way to marine lines to watch Skyfall. I mean what could be better than watching 007 save England, right?? So, I said God Save the Queen, grabbed a bus towards Marine lines instead of the local train much to the indignation of the locals. When I reached the theatre, I discovered the tickets were for Rs. 350!! I turned around, farted and made my way towards the Parsi eatery I had passed by. 007 will have to do this one without me.
Now, this eatery was special. These guys were selling freshly baked biscuits, biryanis, kebabs under one roof!! And there was a guy in the corner using a fork to eat a sandwich!! I have tried a lot to remember the name of that eatery but to no avail. I just have this hazy picture that I took in a hurry, maybe its better to leave such mystical places nameless and faceless; it adds to the drama and magic.
After a great meal I was on my way again. The biryani had invigorated me and I thought of going to Juhu beach. The third mumbaikar of the day asked me to take the local to Vile parle. Fortunately the station was nearby, and I got on the local train.
Now, the fourth and fifth Mumbaikars really fucked up because they didn’t mention the beach was 4kms away from the station. They just said “agey hain”. After a few Kilometers of walking in the intense heat, I imagined myself as a nomad in a time long gone by walking in the deserts of Sahara looking for an Oasis to wet my parched throat. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic but it was bloody hot. I took an auto and he dropped me off near a road and pointed towards an alley leading up to the beach or the proverbial oasis.
The beach was different from what I remembered from the last time I had been there as a kid on a family trip. It was very clean and not crowded at all. Except for the pesky photographers it was very peaceful. So I acted like a celebrity, imagined them to be the paparazzi, (except they would charge me for my pics) and sat down on the soft sand looking at the waves coming in.
After half an hour or so, I decided to head back towards the station. By this time it was rush hour and my bus kept halting intermittently as I passed in and out of sleep. On one such halt I opened my eyes to see that we had stopped at a red light near the Haji Ali. I got down from the bus and made my way through the tortuous lanes towards the dargah. The lanes were lined with shops selling carpets, lockets, religious books and DVDs manned by hyper-excited shop keepers. As I was walking I saw many devotees completely drenched, which surprised me because I didn’t know the water surrounding the dargah was supposed to be holy. When I got a little closer I realized it was high tide and the waves were striking the path leading up to the dargah momentarily covering it in a thin layer of water. After a little jumping and dodging to avoid the waves I realized it was useless and surrendered to the mighty sea.
After paying my respects I turned back completely drenched to collect my shoes. I started walking on the path I had come by, through the sea and realized how amazing this place was. I mean a shrine right in the middle of the Arabian Sea and to reach it you had to-if I add a little drama-walk on water!!
In a land of temples, mosques, gurudwaras and dargahs, we seem to have lost this beautiful place somewhere. We seem to look at it expecting it to be a banal, everyday structure the types of which we have seen before. And it is not, and the same can be said about numerous other places that we visit just for the sake of visiting, going there, giving it a cursory look and then move on to the next item on the list. Maybe its not about how far you travel or how many countries you have crossed off your list, maybe it’s just about seeing a sight that you have seen plenty of times in a postcard and realizing how completely different it looks in real life. Maybe it isn’t how many sights you see, maybe its how many sights you soak in that should be the purpose of travelling and perhaps this is the epiphany I was searching for in the morning, looking at Haji Ali.
It was almost 19:00 Hrs now, and my Mumbai dash was almost over. I got on the bus towards Mumbai central and slept all the way to the destination. After having my dinner and roaming around the station for a few hours, I looked at the reservation chart for my train and realized that what had not happened in four years had happened. My tickets had not come through. So I did a little salsa in my head and went out into the night to look for a cheap motel.