“Look, just peek your head out of the taxi… Can you see us now?” My sister Aliya said. Through the phone I could hear her and my mother laughing uncontrollably as I scanned the skies for any sign of her apartment building.
“I honestly have no idea where on eart… Listen why don’t you just yell something? I’ll hear you.” I replied, one of my eyes on the leaping taxi meter.
“It’s almost 4am!” She clamoured, I could hear her shake her head in disbelief, “You mad or what?” Delhi lingo is a habit that dies hard.
“Okay so just wave your hands really hard.”
“I’ve been waving for twenty minutes!”
“Well, okay. But clearly not hard enough because I am having a really hard… Oh. Never-mind. Yeah, I see you.”
I sheepishly paid my fee and waddled into my sister’s apartment building. An elderly security guard was dozing off at the entrance. I entered a dingy elevator and realized it would not move unless I closed the cage in front of the door. Ominous synth music began to play from the walls. I was positive I had seen a horror movie with this same setting.
As I stepped out of the elevator I was suddenly thudded with a massive bear hug from my sister and mother. It had been close to two years since our last meeting. “Took your time finding us huh?” Aliya smirked. “Cut me some slack. It’s my second time in this city.” I mumbled.
“Dinner?” Mom asked us. I looked at my watch. “Breakfast then.” She chuckled. We all turned around and went into Aliya’s apartment.
Even though I was visiting Mumbai for the second time I had forgotten how humid it could be in the winter. My experience with big cities in India is that they are vastly different from one another. Whilst Delhi is dusty and dry, Mumbai is swept by ocean winds and the trees which line the streets are tropical and heavy. Driving through downtown Mumbai, one can see why it is the apex of a new India. Gleaming skyscrapers reach towards the sky, sky-trains stretch across ocean water, and extensive logistical networks such as the ‘dabba system’ spin a great web across the city. Mumbai doesn’t have a subway train system of course, a fact that every Delhiite (myself included) cannot shut up about. But Mumbai is certainly a city for the young, one rooted firmly in the future.
Of course, there is plenty of a past to celebrate in Mumbai also. Mumbai derives its name from Maha-Amba (Or Mumba), the patron goddess of the original inhabitants of the city. There are dozens of names in addition; the one my parents’ generation reminisce most about is Bombay, the former official name of the city. ‘Bombay’ derives itself from the Portuguese Bom Baim (good little bay). Through history, Mumbai has been a melting pot of cultures, from Zoroastrian merchants, Gujarati sultans, Maratha conquerors, Abyssinian mercenaries to Portuguese colonizers. It was under the British that Mumbai developed from a settlement of seven islands into a single land mass with a booming and bustling port and textile industry. After this, the city received an influx of immigrants from all over India. In my eyes, Mumbai has been a sort of gateway to South India too, especially due to the strong presence of Konkani, Kannada and Telugu speaking communities.
Delhiites and Mumbaikars have a long standing fun rivalry of course. To Mumbaikairs, we Delhiites are loud, uncouth, rustic, flashy, gaudy, arrogant, traffic illiterate and have criminal tendencies. For us Delhiites, Mumbaikars are… not wrong. We are not admitting defeat by confessing this, but rather we take it in our stride, we Delhiites are a fun bunch. Mumbaikars in our eyes are too civilized, constrained, snobbish, professional, restrained and overly concerned with their dainty fashion. Delhiites and Mumbaikaars can go head to head about almost any matter, but when it comes to the subject food, both cities must admit that we are equally matched.
The food of Mumbai is as complex and historically exciting as the food of Delhi, but its diversity is lent from different avenues. Whilst Delhi cuisine mixes the kick of North Indian spice marination and staples with the ingredients and ovens of Central Asia and Persia, Mumbai’s food is a dazzling combination of Maharashtrian cuisine with ancient influences from the Parsis (Zoroastrians), Baghdadi Jews, Abyssinians, Gujratis, Portuguese, and the British, as well as a unbelievably diverse pallet of spices and preparations from the Deccan and South Indian regions such as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Of course, equally good is the street food of Mumbai, which has been heavily influenced by the fast food of the west. Bread-based dishes such as Vada-pav or any of its thousand variants are a sure classic one can acquire at any stop on the roads. We certainly helped ourselves to much of it during our travels, topped off with a glass of Mumbai chai of course!
It wasn’t long before I befriended a chai-stall owner close to Aliya’s apartment. Every day after a jog I would make it a point to pay my new friend Balaji a visit at his ‘dairy-farm’ kiosk. His ginger chai was always made in a brown-black bronze pot, filtered through a rag that seemed to have seen better days and poured steaming and frothy into a translucent glass cup. There is a saying in India, however, whatever looks most likely to make you sick will probably taste the best, and having stayed in Delhi a month prior to this, my gut had turned to steel. It wasn’t long before Balaji had befriended my family too. On some days when I was too tired to cook at home, I got some of his scrumptious, if not equally dubious looking samosas; he always wrapped them in a sheet of last year’s newspaper and tied them up with what was supposed to be a white string. Finding his Mumbai style of hospitality and food delightful, however, I found myself chatting with Balaji and his family at their kiosk daily. It got to the point wherein if I didn’t have enough cash, he insisted I pay him back whenever I could.
Mumbai also takes its ice-cream very seriously. Ice-cream is especially popular down by the marine drive beach, where half the city (especially the young) come to hang out after a long day. As much as I love Delhi, it could have no parallel to the beaches of Mumbai. Kids race up and down the front, flinging brilliant fluorescent spirals into the sky with their slingshots. Hawkers sell all sorts of wares (usually peanuts, sodas and, well… slingshots and fluorescent things), young folk hang their legs over the pier, taking in the salty ocean breeze- and every now and again, you might see a Bollywood superstar out on an evening jog, emerging from behind a extravagantly decorated neon horse cart. Up and down, the beach is lined with all sorts of art exhibits, acrobats or musicians, and across the road from the beach one can find some of the most diverse foods in India.
Manchurian, Mughlai, Portuguese, Tamil or Mexican chicken, anything you’d like could probably be found here; from five star restaurants to a family selling roasted corn from their small fire place (one of the most delicious treats, by the way). Our reason for coming here tonight was to try some of Mumbai’s authentic ice cream. Oftentimes, juice sellers also doubled as ice-cream makers. Their shops of course were as much a delight as their product. Fruits and bottles of thousands of unknown colours and flavours lined the wall, intricately decorated to form patterns like which you might find in temples. Ask for a ‘gola’ if you’re ever there; an ice ball half soaked in green flavour and half in red, dunked into pomegranite juice and topped with all sorts of savoury spices. It’s an explosion of flavour.
Another delight was our travels to nearby Pune. Many Quest students might already be familiar with our exchange partner institution, FLAME, over there. I have many childhood friends that attend this university, aside from the many Quest students on exchange there also. Unfortunately upon our arrival to Pune to visit our aunt, I fell very sick and was unable to get around to the other side of the town to see the folks I wanted to visit. Still, staying at my aunt’s farm by the outskirts of Pune (and by the shores of a lake) proved a greatly relaxing way to recover.
Driving past flyovers on our way back to my sister’s apartment, I saw high-rises and centuries old pilgrimage houses in one glance. Like Delhi, there really was no place like Mumbai anywhere else in the world. Tomorrow I would be headed to Bali, Indonesia, where I grew up. I have a habit of being late to flights- perhaps because I like to cling to family and home as long as possible before those long goodbyes. Well, I haven’t missed a flight yet so I’m not doing myself too wrong. Till next time you gem of a city!