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A Trip Down Pav Bhaji Lane

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A TRIP DOWN PAV BHAJI LANE

Pav bhaji has transcended from sustenance for mill workers to one of Mumbai’s most popular foods (giving vada pav a run for its money), with versions available in every format at railway stations, quick service restaurants and even in a couple of gourmet avatars. While there is no clear “best” pav bhaji in town, a perennial favourite is Sardar Pav Bhaji, which serves just pav bhaji and different versions of it.

Sardar Pav Bhaji, 166-A, Tardeo Road Junction, Mumbai 400 034. Phone: 022 2353 0208

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI

Trips to Girgaum Chowpatty were an integral part of my Mumbaikar’s childhood, and pav bhaji was my favourite thing to eat there. My father, who hated long queues at restaurants, would respond to my tantrums to eat out by taking me to Chowpatty. Amongst my best childhood memories are those of us sitting under the stars on a hand woven straw mat while I relished the humble mash of perfectly spiced vegetables anointed with a halo of glistening butter. Having finished the pav bhaji, we’d end the evening with an ice gola dipped in sour, black currant syrup.

Providing sustenance for the mill workers, the first pav bhaji sellers appeared in the city in the late 1950s and ’60s. They soon became popular with the cotton exchange traders who waited late at night for the New York cotton prices to be announced. Easy to make, hearty and wholesome, it gained instant popularity. Today, it’s practically the “national” dish of Mumbai (giving vada pav a run for its money) with versions available in every format at railway stations, quick service restaurants and even in a couple of gourmet avatars.

Ask anyone in Mumbai where you will find the most iconic pav bhaji and chances are you will be directed to Sardar, a 50-year-old restaurant in Tardeo. Established in 1966, Sardar is credited with gilding the common man’s pav bhaji with a slab of golden butter, elevating it instantly (every time I see an Amul hoarding with the words “utterly butterly delicious” I think not of butter, but of pav bhaji).

As the years go by, pav bhaji, once the staple of mill workers, has been given a trendy makeover.

A recent visit to Sardar surprised me – there was a long queue despite it being a weekday. But then I realized the open kitchen is strategically placed right at the entrance. As the cooks mashed the vegetables, the aromas ambled down the queue, whetting appetites, making the wait equally worthwhile and unbearable.

The queue moves quickly. Like the traditional Indian-wedding buffet system, Sardar allocates tables in batches. The menu is just pav bhaji and versions of it, (cheese pav bhaji, masala pav, khada pav bhaji, Jain pav bhaji), some juices and two desserts – Caramel Custard and Chocolate Mousse. The restaurant seats up to 40 people, and the concise menu means ordering and service is efficient.

Once I’d earned my seat, all I had to do was wait for my Amul Bhaji (named after the butter). Note to newbies: Sardar also whips up a special garlic chutney to add extra punch to the bhaji. In a matter of minutes, the famous Sardar Pav Bhaji (a luxurious pat of Amul butter melting on top) was served, with pav (also slathered in butter), chopped onions, lime and papad. My signature Mumbai meal was complete.

There are several contenders – Sardar included – for the distinction of Mumbai’s best pav bhaji. A favourite with government officers and the working class of the CST and Fort areas, Cannon Pav Bhaji is a historic institution. Feeding hundreds everyday, this tiny kiosk bang opposite Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) is a popular breakfast and after-hours hangout, a landmark meeting point for canoodling couples, businessmen in deep discussion or college students on a skimpy budget.

As the years go by, pav bhaji, once the staple of mill workers, has been given a trendy makeover. Its pride of place on the Mumbaikar’s palate has inspired chefs to attempt to reinvent it, giving it room on innovative menus with global aspirations. There’s a Pav Bhaji Fondue at Spice Klub, and 145 Kala Ghoda serves the staple in a cone! But to me, it will always be the stuff of impromptu trips to the beach, eating with the people of my city.

Feature photo by Harsh Agrawal [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

 
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The Fabric Maze That Is Mangaldas Market

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THE FABRIC MAZE THAT IS MANGALDAS MARKET

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Mangaldas Market is a colourful, chaotic maze you’ll want to get lost in.
Indian weddings have a strict dictum: the wedding extravaganza should last at least a week, nothing less than a seven-figure budget will suffice, all the guests should pile on a minimum of two kilograms and everything must sparkle. For almost everyone involved, there’s another little truth: the lead up to the wedding is guaranteed to be a crash course in All The Textiles Of The World!
“You must attend a big, fat Indian wedding!” was my bucket list advice to every expat, globetrotter or backpackers I met on my journeys. But what about the anticipatory frenzy of preparation and planning that precedes the celebrations? It’s not just the bride, the groom and their families – everyone remotely associated with the wedding starts shopping months in advance. And if you live in Mumbai, chances are all the regalia on display at the wedding will have been sourced from Mangaldas Market.
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It’s like the ad for the bhool bhulaiya (maze) in Esselworld – a man lost in the labyrinth, the tagline “Esselworld mein hi rahunga main, ghar nahi jaunga main,” (I’ll just stay in Esselworld, I won’t go home) in the background. Rendered slightly less sinister by metres upon metres of red velvets, white appliqués, flimsy chiffons and other fabric, the maze of Mangaldas Market is as likely to make you want to stick around browsing a little longer.
The narrow alleyways contain the best from the length and breadth of this country – there is phulkari and chickankari from the North of India, kanjivaram and chanderi from the South, sambal silks and ikat prints from the East, gotta kor from the West – and abroad.
The first time I visited, I plotted the six entry and exit points, each so narrow you could blink and miss it. I was startled at the massive world inside, with more than a hundred shops and stalls. Each outlet, big or small, was a Hindu Undivided Family business, signboards bearing the names of their forefathers, stores manned by at least three generations of the family, even today. Signs of the closely-knit network of the cotton trade days were evident; the textile merchants worked closely with each other, separated by not more than the thinnest of walls, or even just drapes in some cases.
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A trip to Mangaldas Market teaches you about fabric, maybe a little bit about history, but also busts some myths about men. Defying the viral meme #MiserableMen chronicling partners and spouses, dull, apathetic, waiting for their women to finish shopping, the shop owners at Mangaldas Market are a different breed. Here is one telling you the difference between chiffon and georgette; there is another quoting couture trends for this season. They’ll find you the perfect dupatta for your salmon pink kurta, discuss a pattern that will suit you best, suggest embellishments, give you styling tips and the number of an excellent tailor. No extra charge.
Mangaldas Market is always brimming over with people. It’s not just women looking for a bargain as they create their trousseaux. The market attracts wholesalers, retailers, designers and fashion students along with the usual wedding shenanigan suspects throughout the year.
This trip to Mangaldas was like so many before, hard bargaining with the vendors, interspersed with socialising with distant aunts. Pammi Chachi went on and on about the absolutely perfect age to get married. I’d already bought what I needed and half listening, I realised the way out of the labyrinth was, as always, to follow the aromas of the delicious Punjabi samosa toast that is a special at Santosh Sandwich Stall near the back gate.
Mangaldas Market, Janjiker Street, Lohar Chawl, Kalbadevi, Mumbai 400 002. 
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GPO-band_600px

GPO Stands Tall Though Digital Communication Rules The Day

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GPO STANDS TALL THOUGH DIGITAL COMMUNICATION RULES THE DAY

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Letters may be a dying form of communication, but the GPO is bustling with activity.

Snapchat and Instagram have enabled us to communicate at the speed of light. I can share food photos with friends across the globe and get dinner suggestions from my globetrotting mother in a jiffy.

But some things don’t change.

Like the smell of freshly printed documents, sealed in an envelope, the loud thump as the clerk stamps it. Or Mrs. Liu from the Student Affairs Office at my grad school who demanded all transcripts be physically signed and sent by mail. It seemed like a ludicrous request then. Today I mean to thank her for leading me to one of the most glorious buildings in Mumbai: the General Post Office.

If letters are a dying mode of communication, post offices are modern-day haunted houses. The dilapidated red letter boxes that once stood sentinel in nooks of every Mumbai street have all but disappeared. And spotting a ratty, old red door – the portal to the post office – in any district is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Unless, of course, you are talking about the century-old Mumbai GPO.

GPO_002

Running, literally, from pillar to post to send documents to my post-graduate school, I was directed to the largest post office in Mumbai. I was amazed at how big and efficient it is. One hour at the GPO reformed my impressions and allayed any fear that the digital world is rendering the Indian postal services into a dead letter office. This, the biggest postal house in all of South Asia, was bustling with people. Reminiscent of the stern functionality of the typical Indian bank, the periphery of the large common hall in the centre is segmented into a series of small windows each tagged with its purpose – Philately, Speed Post, Stationery, Deposits, Air mail, etc.

The structure was designed by British architect John Begg who eschewed the Gothic affectations of the GPO’s neighbour the CST. He chose an Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, modelling it on the Gol Gumbaz in Karnataka. Begg used local materials, basalt and black stone for the structure and yellow stone and glistening white stone for ornamentation. As a result, more than a century later, the ethereal hall rises gloriously upward into a dome 120 feet high, its pillars and walls showing no sign of decay. The flooring is as it was, a set of intricate mosaic patterns, the teak wood arches and furnishings perfectly offset by the deep red that is the signature of the Indian Postal Services.

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As I watched people at work in this time-honoured building, I imagined the generations changing guard as the tap-tap-tap of the stamps on one side, the smell of the glue on the other and the Raj era fans overhead all remained constant. Even the sense of space (the halls are twice the size of the average football field), so uncommon in cheek-by-jowl Mumbai, whispers of another time.

A self-proclaimed townie, I’ve spent nearly two decades loafing through these streets, the southern most precinct of Mumbai. I don’t know how I missed this magnificent, palatial structure bang in the heart of the old city.

But I’ll have to go back to see it again. It’s far too big for an Instagram frame.

GPO, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Area, Fort, Mumbai 400 001.

 
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Prithvi-band_600px

Prithvi Theatre Is A Patron Of The Arts You Must Visit

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PRITHVI THEATRE IS A PATRON OF THE ARTS YOU MUST VISIT

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

The legendary Prithvi Theatre has a thriving reputation for celebrating people.

Shashi Kapoor sits quietly in his wheelchair, sipping tea from the cutting-chai glass in his hand, ponderous at the Prithvi Café on Sunday. You get the feeling he’s breathing in the hopes, dreams and passion of the cinema and theatre folk who throng Prithvi Theatre. He seems to ignore the bustle of the hipster Juhu locals, the children screaming for nachos, the low hum of the conversations of struggling writers and actors, the pushy culture junkies trying to bag the best seat. Shashi Kapoor is at home.

He’s spent his life living, breathing, thinking cinema – a career that in some ways is inextricably linked to Prithvi, a theatre he built in memory of his brilliant father, the legendary thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, as a hub, a home for the repertory theatre company, Prithvi Theatres, he started in the early 1940s. Managed by the family since 1978, today Sanjana Kapoor and Kunal Kapoor breathe life and continue the legacy of Prithvi’s values – an affordable platform for new genres, actors and storytellers, a place for performances in languages other than just English and a way to create new audiences.

But this space, crammed with chatty people is a microcosm of the City of Dreams’s true nature, accommodating newcomers with a certain warmth, especially if they’re willing to admit their deep love for film.

These days, you’re more likely to see the aloo parathas, chocolate waffles and sultry sangrias of Prithvi Café posted on social media, but Prithvi still has a thriving reputation for celebrating art, culture, cinema, theatre and, of course, people.

To get to the theatre you must dodge rickshaws and party people on their way to the watering hole next door. Tucked away is Janki Kutir, home to Prithvi. You’ll hear the hum first and then you’ll see the long queue. It shouldn’t surprise you. Prithvi doesn’t sell you a seat number and there is no online check-in, so the best spots within the theatre have to be earned. The early bird catches the worm.

I’d already missed the best seats so I headed to the café, eschewing Prithvi’s “famous Irish coffee” for a cutting chai and a cheese croissant. Typical of any weekend, finding an empty table was like finding parking in Juhu. But this space, crammed with chatty people is a microcosm of the City of Dreams’s true nature, accommodating newcomers with a certain warmth, especially if they’re willing to admit their deep love for film.

You can catch sparkles of the glitz of Bollywood even here. I eavesdrop on a conversation that is nothing short of a verbal tour of the residences of Bollywood’s glitterati that live in the vicinity. Now and then, you’ll catch a glimpse of a very famous actor or actress. This is, after all, the mecca of the performing arts and Juhu is the Bollywood district of the yesteryears.

The bell rings to let us know it’s show time. You walk in and try and find the best spot in what’s left of the free spaces in the four concentric semi-circles of seating as they look down at the wooden stage and the deep red curtains. It is simple and perfect and has played gracious host to a variety of performances: Zakir Hussain performs every year on February 28, which is Shashi Kapoor’s wife, Jennifer Kendal’s birthday. You can watch plays in English, Hindi, regional languages, musicals, experimental theatre, open mic nights. Last year, a bunch of international jugglers and balancing acts from a travelling circus enthralled children on this tiny stage from which budding artists, actors, writers, directors and musicians have found their calling, some propelled to stardom.

My luck turns after the play. I bag the perfect table for two by the big tree inside the theatre café. I call for the special sangria to celebrate. I can’t see him now, but I raise my glass to Shashi Kapoor.

Prithvi Theatre, 20, Juhu Church Road, Janki Kutir, Juhu, Mumbai 400 049. Phone: 022 2614 9546
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Temple Run

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TEMPLE RUN

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Families and groups of saffron-clad tapsis immersed flowers and diyas into the river. Priests recited rhythmic mantras while men bathed in the holy water. The light from the floating diyas grew sharper as the sun set over the river, and suddenly the whole atmosphere changed. The twilight, fragrance of incense sticks and people offering prayers at the holy river made it look supremely divine.

Spending an evening at Ram Kund in Nashik was one-of-a-kind experience for me of the fast-paced metro life. But this kind of faith and calm could never be witnessed in the bustling city of Mumbai. Could it?

Metropolitan cities are busy. They wake up to the noise of traffic and sleep to the lullaby of bikers zooming past. They don’t move, they run. They never sleep. And they certainly never stop. Mumbai is the paragon of a metropolitan city. But the first church in Mumbai dates back centuries, and the Prabhadevi Temple just celebrated its centenary year. It is indeed hard to say Mumbai is – or was – any less devotional than Nashik.

But can I feel in Mumbai the divine calm I did at Nashik? I started my spiritual sojourn closer to home.

Brimming with devotees through the religious month of Shravan, the Babulnath Temple is a few metres above sea level, as if the lord were watching us from above.

No boundary walls, no security scanners and no frisking: that was a visit to Siddhivinayak Temple 15 years ago. But today you need to go through them, yet the long queues are no deterrent to seeking the blessings of Bappa. Popular for fulfilling wishes, Siddhivinayak shot to fame almost overnight. Modak shops surround the temple, and devotees whisper their wishes into the ears of Lord Ganesha’s carrier, the mouse made out of silver. A small prasad of holy water and sweet treats on the way out for the journey hereon to be sweet and fulfilling.

I drove further south along the sea and reached Mahalaxmi temple. Set amidst the houses of Bihari community in Mumbai, Mahalaxmi temple’s besan ladoos drew me to it as a child. Today I walked to the steps of the temple, soaking in the smell of malai pedhas and barfis, and resisting the sellers calling out to me. I made the 20-step climb only to meet security scanners and women waiting to check my bag yet again. But the lotus sellers and numerous flower stalls with offerings were reminiscent of the past. I juggled my way through the barricade maze and attained the blessings of Goddess Mahalaxmi – the Goddess of Wealth. A usual custom is to take a round of the shrine, and I was amazed to still find the spot at the back of the temple where people stuck one rupee coins onto it. It was a belief that only the lucky ones’ coins would stay. I was tempted.

Struggling through the traffic past Kemp’s Corner, I reached the oldest Jain temple in Walkeshwar. But the first thing that struck me about this age-old derasar was the long list of instructions chalked out on a blackboard at the entrance. With all the do’s and don’ts listed, it was apparent that the architecture of this temple invited many foreigners too. Built by a wealth Jain businessman named Babu Amichand, this temple has intricate carvings and marble sculptures on pillars that are no less beautiful than the likes of Rajasthan’s Dilwara Jain temples in Mount Abu. Jain temples don’t offer prasad but the small snack store that stocks Jain snacks like kachori, khakra and fried puris makes up for this.

Before I descended the hill and met the sea again, I went to the last deity on my list – the abode of Lord Shiva. Brimming with devotees through the religious month of Shravan, the Babulnath Temple is a few metres above sea level, as if the lord were watching us from above. If it weren’t for the lift, it would be a mini pilgrimage in itself to climb up the wide stone steps. The black and white mosaic tiles are home to the Shivlingam that is almost always covered in milk, water and flowers offered by the devotees. The white marble temple looks no different from a palace.

My pilgrimage through the temples of South Mumbai was nothing compared to Ram Kund, but my soul felt equally satisfied and calm.

Siddhivinayak Temple, SK Bole Marg, Prabhadevi, Mumbai 400 028

Mahalaxmi Temple, Breach Candy, Mumbai 400 026

Babulnath Temple, 16, Babulnath Road, Near Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai 400 007

 

 

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dadar-flower-market

Floral Derangement

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FLORAL DERANGEMENT

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Battling the crowds at busy railway stations is a microcosm of life in Mumbai, and Dadar station is the most dreaded of all. It’s the intersection of two major railway lines, and there are close to 1000 people passing through every day. But taking the local train is the fastest way to get around the city, and for the likes of me, who live close to the “war-zone” that is Dadar station, train travel is inevitable. It only gets worse during festivals and – who are we kidding – going by Indian standards, there is some festival almost every day.

The road to the station holds everything from hawkers selling clothes, shoes and bags to vegetables and fruits and is more a cacophony than a marketplace. The foot over-bridges have more Chinese goods and daily utility items than a dollar shop equivalent. As if the commuter crowd and peak-hour rush are not enough, the vendors, numerous shoppers, perpetually honking taxis, two-wheelers, freight carriers, bargaining consumers and shop owners shouting out discounts brings you a chaotic carnival right there.

These flowers bedeck everything from weddings, religious ceremonies and lovers to vases in hotels and homes.

But in the middle of this pandemonium one day, as I dodged the million people, I found myself walking on a Bollywood-esque rose petal trail and followed it to the largest and only flower market of its kind in Mumbai: The Dadar Flower Market. It was an asymmetrical arrangement of flower vendors, florists and garland weavers, quite literally on the Dadar railway station. This less-than-a-kilometre stretch under the bridge stocked everything from genda, mogra and lotus to tulips, orchids and imported carnations.

Dadar Flower Market opens at 4 a.m. and sells over 500kgs of flowers everyday. These flowers bedeck everything from weddings, religious ceremonies and lovers to vases in hotels and homes. There are fixed shops, and flower dealers trade mostly in bulk quantities. But the flower market has evolved so beautifully that many people from the outskirts of Mumbai set up shop with fresh flowers, leaves and even types of grass. All they have is one basket full of fresh inventory and a sharp business sense. Once they’re sold out, they pack their belongings and head home to come back with fresh stock next day.

The prices here are extremely competitive, so bargaining is a must. The vendors told me that most of the fresh stock is sold out by 9 a.m. every day. Time is money, and they know exactly how to make the most of it. Most of them keep bundles of threads handy and continue making garlands and small bouquets as they wait for their customers. Each one weaves a different garland, depending on the flowers they have and their own aesthetic sense.

The mad rush for the trains through the day nearly competes with the rush for flowers at this wholesale market in the wee hours of the morning. When I was abroad, the clean subway stations, even cleaner trains that arrived and left on time and the underground shopping arcades abroad always impressed me. I wondered when Mumbai would get there. Maybe never. But the Dadar Flower Market gives the station character in the chaos, and I don’t think we would have it any other way.

Dadar Flower Market, 302, Senapati Bapat Marg, Dadar (w), Mumbai 400 028

 

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Top Of The Morning To Ya, Guv’nor

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TOP OF THE MORNING TO YA, GUV’NOR

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MILI SEMLANI

A peahen walked barely a stone’s throw away from me, strutting along the garden as if out for a morning walk. I wasn’t in a bird park or a sanctuary outside the concrete jungle. I was in Mumbai, where it’s seldom possible to see stars in the sky let alone peacocks.

I was at one of the city’s best kept secrets: Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Maharashtra.

There has to be an extremely compelling reason for me to get out of bed at 5 a.m., and the chance to visit Raj Bhavan certainly qualifies as one. For a long time I’ve wondered what stood beyond the massive gates that had “Satyamev Jayate” on them. I was able to find out because the state government opened the gates to this secluded and massive property from September 2015 for ordinary citizens to experience a slice of State royalty. The seamless online registration process to request a visit gave me a good first impression about the excursion. Three date combinations, two friends and six conference calls later I earned the spot.

An orange full moon overlooking Haji Ali, empty streets, early morning calm and a sharp chill in the air made it the most magnificent start. We had to pass through intense security checks at wee hours of the morning, and the representative at Raj Bhavan greeted us warmly, quite defying the stereotype of government employees.

There has to be an extremely compelling reason for me to get out of bed at 5 a.m., and the chance to visit Raj Bhavan certainly qualifies as one.

After a detailed registration process that required us to give official ID proofs, we could see highlights of this 50-acre peninsula on the Arabian Sea.

The tour began on a historical note at the landmark spot where Maharashtra was officially formed. From here we could see the few heritage bungalows, Governor’s residence, Prime Minister’s and President’s residences and the banquet hall for official guests and dignitaries.

But this was just the warm up – the greatest lure of signing up for this tour is to witness the sunrise along the skyline of Mumbai.

Just in time for sunrise, the short walk culminated at the yoga temple. We quickly settled on to the colourful yoga mats laid out. Interestingly, this point is where the idea of the tour germinated in the first place. The space was specially carved for the reigning Governor and his yoga rituals. He realised during a morning yoga session that it was an ideal spot to watch the sunrise from and, wanting others to enjoy it, started this programme despite security concerns and reluctance from Mumbai Police.

The 20 minutes at the open-air yoga centre were the best 20 minutes of my day. Facing the emerging sun, as I watched the skyline of my favourite city and the spectrum of rainbow colours in the sky, I experienced a certain sense of euphoria. My mind felt an unusual calm that usually comes on my Himalayan treks. And slowly the full group was lost in the beauty of this sight.

We were allowed to wander around the property a little more than we’d expected. A small downhill slope took us to a Devi temple dedicated to Sri Gundi, the Sea Goddess worshipped by the fisher folk even before the Portuguese came to Mumbai. Every year on a full moon day in July, Raj Bhavan opens its gates to the public who visit this shrine as part of an annual jatra. Much to our surprise, the tour included some tea and biscuits, and the greater delight was sipping tea out of cups engraved with the national emblem at the official boundary of Mumbai.

The secret voyage wasn’t over just yet. We walked parallel to the skyline and the sun amidst lush greenery and special plantation projects undertaken by a former Governor’s wife to see an artificial beach (not operational now) at the edge of the other end of Raj Bhavan.

Just when I thought we were lost in this massive estate, our guide smoothly walked us back to the starting point for yet another stunning view of the sea and call of wild birds.

Perched atop a small hill, Raj Bhavan was built by the British and has been untouched since then. Renovations and restorations in due course have been undertaken without interfering with the original structures.

Raj Bhavan, Walkeshwar Road, Malabar Hill, Mumbai 400 037

 

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Mumbadevi_001

Goddess Of The City Of Dreams

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GODDESS OF THE CITY OF DREAMS

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

I love the name “Bombay”. Each time I look at old black and white photographs of the city – the Oval Maidan, Victoria Terminus, and Churchgate – I register them as photos of landmarks in Bombay. It’s the way I wish the city was still known. Perhaps I’m not the only one resistant to the change. The Mumbai airport code is still “BOM”.

I recently went looking for the lady behind this city’s current name. Jewellery shopping and the lure of street food had drawn me to this vicinity several times before, but I never knew the Goddess was hidden away in a nook off the bustle of Zaveri Bazar. I walked past several jewellery stores, my family’s favourite sweet shop, asked for directions over and over, weaving through lanes and dodging market vendors, until I finally found her – the Goddess Mumbadevi.

The neighbourhood is typical of space-starved, cheek-by-jowl, chock-a-block Mumbai. Sequestered between glitzy showrooms selling gold and silver, blink and you’d miss the entrance to ancient Hindu temple, dedicated to the Goddess Mumba, a local incarnation of the Devi (Mother Goddess). You must keep an eye out for the flower and sweet vendors, the only giveaways to her location, as they entreat you to buy an offering on your way to visit the Goddess. You may also see the security detail; a grim reminder of the bomb-blasts at Zaveri Bazar in 2011.

For many migrants to Mumbai, a visit to the temple marks an auspicious beginning to their road to prosperity in this, the city of dreams.

Though relatively “modern” (the temple was rebuilt in the 18th century) architecturally, the temple looks like any other historic, Hindu place of worship. The small entrance passage is a portal to a Hanuman temple, a Shiv Lingam and two Devi temples all ensconced in one little compound. Pujaris, or priests, in saffron robes move around as devotees with a platefuls of offerings progress in an organized queue to meet Goddess Mumbadevi.

Since ancient times, the sons of the soil, the agris (salt-collectors) and kolis (fisherfolk), aboriginal to the seven islands have offered prayers to Goddess Mumbadevi along with the Dravidians. Now their voices are joined by the faithful from other cities, villages and communities who come to the city to make it their home. For many migrants to Mumbai, a visit to the temple marks an auspicious beginning to their road to prosperity in this, the city of dreams.

Goddess Mumbadevi, dressed in bright colours, wears a silver crown, a Maharashtrian nose-stud, a golden necklace. Before her, is the statue of a tiger, her carrier. To her left is a stone idol of Goddess Annapurna seated on a peacock. The altar is strewn in sacred marigolds. The story seems to run through your mind. This was the eight-armed goddess that Brahma pulled out of himself to vanquish the evil Mumbaraka.

I retreat back into the bustle that is Zaveri Bazar, still in awe of Mumbadevi. Yet, nothing will change that fact, that to me, this city will always be Bombay.

In 1995, the capital of Maharashtra was officially renamed Mumbai, which comes from a mix of Mumba (after the goddess) and ai (Marathi for mother). The Mumba Devi Temple was first built in Bori Bunder in 1675. The temple was destroyed and reconstructed at Zaveri Bazar, Bhuleshwar in 1737.

Mumba Devi Temple, 9, Mumba Devi Marg, Mumbadevi Area, Bhuleshwar, Mumbai 400 002

 

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En Route Sindh

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EN ROUTE SINDH

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

“Sindhi food is better than Gujarati food any day,” said my Gujarati boss over lunch once. He went ga-ga over his neighbour Gurbaxani aunty’s Sindhian delights.

I only stared at him in surprise.

Glorious (and fattening) Gujarati snacks have surrounded my Jain lineage and my life, so I strongly disagreed with his claim. His controversial statement encompassing both the communal and the culinary would have been enough to strike a riot. Fortunately this one was only in my mind.

The Sindhis came to India as a result of the 1947 Partition. Most of them started out as refugees, but they are indeed a powerful community today. The Sindh trust owns some of the most reputable colleges in Mumbai, and many of its members own some of the plushest houses in Churchgate and Colaba.

The kilos of Tharu’s laddoos exchanged at weddings determined the rich Sindhian status.

Think “Sindhi” and the first person that comes to mind is the dean from my college. Dressed in white from head-to-toe, he was the epitome of an affluent, SoBo Sindhi. He walked down the aisles of my graduate school as if personifying the true Sindhian who takes pride in their business capabilities and their cultural heritage.

But can the Sindhi curry outdo the Gujarati dal dhokli?

Taste is the most important aspect of food for me, which is why Kailash Parbat has always scored full marks on my food chart. It was a perpetual pit stop after wee hours of bargaining at Colaba Causeway during my college years. Their gol gappas called out to me, but the jumbo Sindhi puri filled with tangy juices seldom fit in my mouth. That didn’t stop me from going for the kulfi falooda and kachori. The typical billing teller with the “ting” sound still is a trademark here, and the menu hasn’t changed much, but the waiters now wear gloves and caps.

The ground level of the restaurant itself packs quite a punch, but every now and then I took a trip seven steps above this sugar haven only to get a taste of the Sindhi curry and bhee chana. The restaurant continues to feed many college students and working professionals in the vicinity. And every time I bump into an old Sindhi aunty relishing some dal pakwaan, willing to tell a tale, my purpose is served.

Gurukirpa in Sion is also doing its bit to preserve the culinary heritage of the Sindh. It’s famous for samosas sold across theatres in Mumbai, but there’s more to this typical Sindhi joint. Tucked away amidst Gujarati households in Sion, the courtyard of Gurukripa is always brimming. Metal trays full of sweets, large woks bubbling with walnut halwa and aromas of dal pakwaan and aloo tikki fill the atmosphere at any given time of the day. The joy lies in fighting to get the server’s attention over the counter and bag the coveted, pre-paid entree. The struggle doesn’t end there. Food in tow, it’s time to find a suitable seat in the small area with tables crammed next to each other or stand and relish my crispy delight.

Another Sindhi special food spot with its trademark long queues is Tharu’s Mukhi Bhandar in Khar, popular for large crowds on festivals and their special dry-fruit laddoos. The significance of the laddoo is not simply attributed to its rich ingredients. A Sindhi colleague once told me that the Tharu’s laddoo was a symbol of affluence amongst their clan. The kilos of Tharu’s laddoos exchanged at weddings determined the rich Sindhian status.

I’m glad my Sindhi sounding surname gets me quick access to some of these legendary Sindhi institutions each time I am craving chole samosa.

Kailash Parbat, Shop No. 5, 1st Pasta Lane, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005. Phone: 022 2287 4823 / 2284 1972 / 2287 5222

Gurukripa, 40, Guru Kripa Building, Road 24, Near SIES College, Sion, Mumbai 400 022. Phone: 022 3371 6059

Tharu Mukhi Bhandar, 7-8, Madhuban, Opp. Canara Bank, P. D. Hinduja Marg, Khar (w), Mumbai 400 052

 

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Spend A Morning At Sassoon Docks

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SPEND A MORNING AT SASSOON DOCKS

WORDS BY MILI SEMLANI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

The koli women walk down bylanes with loaded cane baskets on their head ever so gracefully. They’re sensuous. They literally smell a good catch from afar and are the sharpest businesswomen you will ever come across. Over the years they’ve built a reputation for themselves, and the story of their marketplace is as telling as their own. So I chose to follow them to their workplace.

It was 5 a.m. I’m certainly not a morning person, but there was a peculiar stench that tickled my olfactory senses and woke me up. I was barely at the gate of Sassoon Docks, but the smell was enough to tell me what I was getting into.

I’m vegetarian, and this was my first experience up close and personal with fish. Breathing in the smell of raw fish. Not just one fish. Not just any fish. All types of seafood, and so much of it. When I decided to go there I clearly wasn’t aware of what I had signed up for. But after dressing my shoes in shower caps, I marched ahead.

The seller with the freshest catch of the day was easy to spot. I simply looked for a man surrounded by all the koli women.

Swishing my way through the fisherwomen and trucks loaded with ice, I managed to get to the middle of the madness. There was so much happening I could barely decide what to look at. After dodging several koli women groups sitting intently with their baskets and the varied sea creatures (making sure not to stamp any, the animal lover that I am) I found some ground. By now the smell didn’t bother me much, and I could finally take a panoramic view of the heritage structure. It almost resembled the silhouette of a dilapidated fort, albeit with a jetty and a fleet of boats guarding its fence.

There was the one-of-a-kind fish game that froze my attention. Nearly 10 boats in a row manned by fishermen played a catch game of sorts with men on land. This oscillation of throwing slimy fish, big and mid sized, one-by-one, reminded me of the pendulum in an old clock. While one man (probably the only one good at throwing fish) was busy transporting his catch, the rest were quickly sorting and cleaning the hordes they had amassed on their voyage. Just around this time the chaos on land piqued, yet again capturing my attention.

A hand’s distance away were loud, numeric cries. That is where the buck stops, I thought to myself. The seller with the freshest catch of the day was easy to spot. I simply looked for a man surrounded by all the koli women. It’s hard not to notice their bright patterned sarees, noisy exchanges, and fierce buying behaviour.

Swishing my way through the fisherwomen and trucks loaded with ice, I managed to get to the middle of the madness. There was so much happening I could barely decide what to look at.

Almost led by women, the Koli community has special importance in shaping the Mumbai archipelago. They are the only ones who can be rightfully called the original inhabitants of the city that never sleeps. Soft at heart, the koli women are known to save the best fish of the day for their families, but they will never sell bad or infected fish to their customers either. And scoring a bargain with them is one of the most tactful tasks in the world.

The seller started bidding and the women took a minute or two to judge the products. After all, they’re particular about what they take to their customers with whom they have built relationship over the years. The women started countering the seller’s bid, and the best bargainer won the lot. The transaction was settled in cash, right then and there, and the deal was sealed. Off she went with her catch, sashaying through the crowds, hoping to come the next day for yet another lot.

Business continued at the dock. More fish continued to be thrown on land, followed by more auctions and more sales. Constructed on reclaimed land in South Mumbai’s Colaba area, Sassoon Docks and its fishing occupation have been feeding many mouths in the city both directly and indirectly. And the fisherfolk that have so far being operating purely manually are counting on the government’s proposed fund aimed to redevelop the fishing infrastructure at the busiest dock in Mumbai.

Albert Abdullah David Sassoon – the son of David Sassoon – built the Sassoon Docks in 1875. It is one of two docks that are still open to the public (the other being Bhaucha Dhakka in Mazgaon).

Sassoon Docks, Shahid Bhagatsingh Marg, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

 

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