April 2004. When my travel buddy Allan and I rolled into Mumbai we had already resolved to pamper ourselves after an extended period roughing it around Rajasthan. We went to the cinema, gorged ourselves silly at TGI Fridays and shared an expensive pot of tea at the famous Taj Mahal Hotel. I can still picture the opulence as we made our way through the grand lobby towards the tearoom. Dating back to 1902, the hotel mixes traditional Indian architecture with international flourishes: there are German elevators, Turkish baths and the more expensive suites come with an English butler! The hotel famously hit the news when it found itself embroiled in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. It was here that gunmen opened fire on guests, took hostages and showered the police with grenades from the roof. 31 people are believed to have died in the attacks.
April 2004. The city’s distinctive black and yellow taxis stick in the mind too. They were literally everywhere and streets such as this one, where they lined the curb from end to end, were common. Known locally as Kaali Peeli, these mini cars, based on a design from Fiat, were introduced in the 1950s and went on to become a symbol of everyday Mumbai life. These days, with the explosion of Uber and technologically superior cars, the black and yellow cabs are starting to disappear, especially with a recent government law passed outlawing the use of taxis over twenty-five years old. Some experts predict the Kaali Peeli could be extinct within ten years.
April 2004. Needless to say we took the time for a late afternoon stroll across Chowpatty Beach. It’s a deceptively small space that easily gets crowded on evenings and virtually unmanageable on weekends. I remember one night the place was packed out for a Bollywood movie screening. There were vendors selling fried bread, a grizzled old snake charmer and a bunch of ear cleaners and massage women. Don’t expect to catch anyone swimming in the sea; it’s horribly polluted to the point of being toxic.
April 2004. Another iconic Mumbai spot is this giant stone archway down by the waterfront in the city’s Apollo Bunder district. It was built back in 1911 in honor of a state visit by Britain’s King George V. Today coming here is a very touristy experience, one of those spots where vendors flock to sell tat and visitors can be seen taking selfies from dusk to dawn. This little boy attached himself to my leg as I stood posing for my own photo and then refused to let go until I gave him some money. I literally had to drag him around until he finally lost interest and scuttled off towards some cowboy-hat wearing Americans.
April 2004. Beyond The Gateway to India there are several wharves where you can catch a boat to the UNESCO-approved Elephanta Island, home to the so-called City of Caves and a stunning presentation of rock art dating back to the 5th century. Linked to the cult of Shiva, the island also has a few village communities and plenty of dense forest trails.
Check out more travel reports from that long ago trip to India.
For a more detailed account of my wanderings around the country, why not dive into my short story collection Incidents In India.
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