Colaba, Mumbai – That’s where I am today. This is my 8th visit to Mumbai in my 39 years of life, but I still haven’t got used to the hustle and bustle of this fast, large, overcrowded city.
As a boy growing up in South India, I had heard tons of stories about Mumbai (then Bombay). Most of those stories had teenagers fleeing their homes to Mumbai and returning years later as successful businessmen. Almost every family in my neighbourhood seemed to have at least one such character. At many social gatherings, I have overheard women gossiping stuff like ‘That’s Sarojini Amma’s son – he ran away from school to Bombay when he was 14. Now I hear he has a flourishing jewellery business in Persia’ (Any place in the Middle East was referred to as Persia in those days) or ‘See – that’s Sudarshanan’s nephew. He just disappeared one day, and now he is the Manager of big shipping company’ (Of course all this gossips ended with a prolonged sigh and a hushed statement that went like ‘…who knows – maybe he is into smuggling or something. How else could one become so rich so fast?‘). Anyways, because of these stories, Mumbai, for me, was this mysterious, glamorous place where one ran off to make it big in life.
My earliest personal memory of Mumbai stars my father in a brand new grey ‘safari suit’ boarding an Air India flight, waving goodbye. He was off to Bombay and would be away for a few days – I recollect my mother telling me. I expected him to come back rich and successful and eagerly awaited his return. Well, he didn’t bring back any riches – all he got me was a brown collared T-shirt which was my prized possession for a few years. I lived in it until it started wearing off.
So I was eager and excited to get a glimpse of Mumbai myself and wished I grew up faster. My first visit to Mumbai happened when I was in my 20s – a brief transit stop on my way to Boston. My taxi took me through the very crowded and traffic-rich streets of Mumbai. To make matters worse, Holi (the festival of colours) celebrations were on, and the streets were teeming with pink and purple people. Holi down south is not celebrated with so much vigour (‘Holi-o’?), so the kind of revelry I saw was totally new to me. Unfortunately, I had left my windows down – a big mistake – for, suddenly, I saw a pair of hands shooting through the window and puffing out whiffs of colours in my direction. As a result, my new white formal shirt turned into a flowery Hawaiian bursting with colours. Later, I travelled all the way to Boston in that shirt. That was my first experience with Mumbai – one that I would never forget in my lifetime.
Fast forward to today – I am put up in the Colaba area. I had made all my bookings thru Cleartrip, and the website had assured me a smooth travel experience. 2 hours of prepaid taxi ride from the airport and some precision guidance by Google had got me to the hotel I’d booked – Hotel Broadway.
While checking in, the guy at the desk gave me my first shock. He said there were no rooms available, but he would find me a room in an adjacent hotel, which apparently is run by the same management or something. Well, I didn’t like this one bit – I was tired from the travel, and I had expected this to be a very “clear trip”. A few minutes of pointless argument later, I was walked into an adjacent hotel – Hotel Gulf. I checked into a room that was just wide enough to accommodate my decently fleshed self. The toilet (cum bathroom) was tiny – only parts of me could fit in at a time – I had to devise some ingenious ways to get stuff done here, I thought to myself. I switched on the TV to find only Arab channels being played. I kept switching channels and stopped at one that was showing a Maradona interview. I couldn’t make out if Maradona spoke Arabic or Spanish, but his slow, dragging style of talk put me to sleep. A soft growl woke me up a bit later, and I realized it was my stomach signalling its need to get filled. It was around 4 P.M now, and I decided to head out to catch a bite.
The Sun was beating down, and the sidewalks were crowded with street vendors selling anything from nail cutters to expensive antiques. Tons of locals and tourists were huddled around these small shops, bargaining and generally having a nice time. By now, the growls from my stomach had turned to muted trumpeting, which translated to ‘I am so hungry I could eat an elephant.’ I squeezed thru the human traffic, and my gaze fell on the now world-famous Leopold café, and suddenly my mind was filled with gloomy thoughts. I debated whether to eat there but then decided against it since there were no free tables, and more people were waiting to be seated. I moved ahead and then spotted another world-famous landmark – a McDonalds. I decided I was going in. To make up for the missed breakfast and lunch, I downed a couple of burgers and a bag of fries – so much for the strict diet that I had been following for the last few weeks. I consoled myself, saying I wouldn’t eat anything for dinner. (But this wasn’t to be – I later went down to the adjacent Paradise Hotel and had one of the most expensive Biriyanis I’ve eaten in my life). I walked around for some more time before I headed back to my room. With a heart filled with hope and a stomach filled with burgers, I sat down to prepare for the meetings I’d planned for tomorrow. Oh, how I love this city!