Our gateway to Mumbai

Mumbai, India. We booked a tour today which was almost private – two young guides showed up for us and two German guys, so we combined forces to march around Mumbai.

This was an energetic tour, which began at the Gateway of India, the city’s top tourist attraction. It was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911. The Taj Hotel is directly across from it, with an unrestricted view.

The Gateway was later used as a symbolic ceremonial entrance to India for the Viceroys and new Governors of Bombay. It said, “We’re here and we’re in charge!” and it served to allow symbolic entry and access to all of India.

The Taj was built in 1903 by Jamshedji Tata, who evidently was denied entrance to Watson’s Hotel, then the grandest in Bombay, but not open to “dogs and Indians.” His retaliation effectively ruined Watson’s, which is now a decayed mess of a slum. Today’s Tata generation has bought the building with the intention of restoring it. Revenge is sweet.

There are lots of relics of the Raj era. Nearby is the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, still quite operational for the wealthy class. And the cricket grounds are still filled with many players and passionate fans.

We admired the outside of the Prince of Wales Museum, which now has an Indian name. Maybe tomorrow we’ll get inside. Outside the nearby Modern Art Museum, outsiders can post their work for sale, or just decorate the walls.

Next were the Elphinstone College and the Sassoon Library, both named for English leaders who supported education for Indians. They are fittingly near Bombay University, which has a lovely Gothic clock tower, adorned at the base, we were told, by figures representing different Indian communities, just to make it a bit less English.

Our little group waited in front of the High Court building for the 1-2-3 public bus to take us to the home in which Gandhi lived while in Bombay. The bus trip was a new experience – they barely stop so you really have to hustle on and off, and it can get cozy when crowded.

The Mani Bhavan is a three-story house in a quiet street, where Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934. It is now a library and a small museum on his life, and includes his books and some humble possessions, as well as dioramas of key incidents in his life. Very touching and very well attended.

After a brief stop for a snack, we walked through a lovely vegetable market. Everything was so beautifully arranged that we could forgive the open sewer being worked on in several parts of the street.

As part of the excitement of the tour, we next went to a train station and hopped on for two stops to our next amazing experience – the Dhobi Ghat next to the Mahalakshmi Railroad Station.

We saw one of these astonishing open-air laundries in Cochin, but this one was much larger and more overwhelming. It serves a poor local community whose living conditions do not provide any space to manage laundry, and the men who work here are busy sorting the clothes by type, cleaning them by beating them against stone sinks, and drying them in the sun. How people get their own jeans and underwear back is just one of those Indian miracles. And what a great view they must have from those modern high-rises hovering in the background.

Our last stop was the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, built in 1887 and originally known as Victoria Station. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of the busiest railway stations in India, serving as a terminal for both long-distance trains and commuter trains. You could almost believe you were in London. Our guide says it was built to resemble St. Pancras Station. We’re not quite knowledgeable enough to confirm that, but the web reveals certain similarities. It’s definitely a cathedral of travel.

Don’s Food Corner

The food highlight of the tour was a stop at a place called Swati Snacks. This air-conditioned (!) snack restaurant features all of the most famous street food dishes of Mumbai, but in an immaculately clean — and disease-free — environment. Normally there is a line of locals and tourists jamming themselves into this place to get these tasty delights without fear of getting sick. The restaurant has a glass-enclosed kitchen so that you can see exactly what’s going on. The food preparers were wearing hair nets and everything was sparkling clean stainless steel.

We weren’t able to sample everything on the menu, so we went for the most famous of Mumbai’s street food. First was panki chatni, a spiced rice-flour pancake that in cooked inside a banana leaf. I don’t know if the banana leaf adds any flavor to the pancake, but it sure was magical when it was unrolled off of the leaf and onto the plate.

The other choice was dahi batata puri. This features a crispy globe-like shells — think cream puff but without anything in the center — that are filled with different kinds of things depending on the mood. We had ones that were filled with a yogurt sweet/spicy filling and then topped with more yogurt. The idea is to pop the whole thing into your mouth in one gulp. The interior of the puri¬†explodes in your mouth, delivering a surprising burst of flavor. These things could become addictive, as, apparently, they have become for many, many people.

We then tried some roasted almond ice cream. Like the other snacks, this was a revelation.

Our guides implored us not to sample these things on the street.  So wise.



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