Mumbai is fast gaining a reputation as a serious international city. The financial centre of one of the world's leading economies, ranked in the top ten cities for number of resident billionaires and with a population of Bollywood glitterati, it is no surprise. However, alongside the multi-story, multi-block mansions are shanty towns. Outside the swanky bars entire families sleep on the footpath. Next to the clean lines of the modern shopping malls there are haphazard street stalls plying a motley range of goods. Mumbai is a city of contrasts. The polished Western Suburbs seem a world away from the colonial grandeur of Fort or the crumbling buildings of Colaba. And it is spread out. Stretched along a narrow peninsular of what was once seven islands.
We decided that a tour of some kind would help us to get a sense of direction and learn a few things along the way - like the fact that Parsi people hang the bodies of their dead for vultures to eat in special temples in the heart of the city. In search of just such a tour we found Reality Tours. They offer a range of tours, including around the Dharavi slum. Their philosophy is centered on 'giving back' through the donation of profits, through employing local people from humble origins or through adding value to the communities they visit.
The last two weekends of the month Reality Tours run a bicycle tour of South Mumbai and we were lucky enough to be there at the right time.
The tour starts early, really early, at 6.15 a.m. This does have the advantage of beating most of the traffic and the heat of the day. You feel pretty lucky to have Mumbai's streets to yourself (and your tour group) for a few hours while its residents are still waking up.
The tour takes in the chaos of the fish market, the relative peace of Mumbai Panjrapole (an inner city cow sanctuary) and the wonderful colours and smells of the flower and Crawford markets. Finishing up with a tasty South Indian breakfast. The guides we had were brilliant. Laid back, chatty young men who seemed genuinely passionate about showing off their city. And about AFL, but that is another story.
A stroll around the streets of Fort and Colaba reveal wide, tree-lined avenues and immense stone buildings. Some colonial beauties, like the Elphinstone buildings, are reminiscent of Bath. The Art Deco Federal Reserve Bank, with its well guarded entries, looks likes something from a dark science-fiction set. You don't need to do much here, just walk, admire the buildings and watch Mumbai hustle through its day.
Mumbai (along with Delhi) is the seat of India's modern art scene. Kala Ghoda is Mumbai's art district. There is the big-wig, National Gallery of Modern Art. The building itself is beautiful and hosts changing exhibitions. But a stroll around the narrow streets of Kala Ghoda will reveal tiny exhibition spaces amongst the warehouses. One particularly happy discovery for us was The Artisans Gallery, showing a temporary exhibition by Robert D Stephens, Mumbai Articles. Stephens took a series of aerial photographs from the window of a plane approximately 15 000 feet above Mumbai. The photos are juxtaposed with text describing Mumbai around the time of the British Raj or just after independence. Two things are striking about this exhibition: the first is that apart from some of the more droll observations regarding Mumbai society in the 1800's, the descriptions of the city could equally apply today; the second is the smog. Alongside the photos Stephens has given the pollution count for the day the photo was taken. The smog blurs all the photos and the quantification of it is sobering.
Of course, where there is an art community there will be good coffee. Kala Ghoda is no exception, with a range of micro coffee houses. The cafes are generally in reclaimed industrial space, with design-centric interiors churning out good coffee and interesting breakfasts and light meals.
The bright young things of Mumbai love to play. And so, judging from what we saw, do the older set.
We hit up Blue Frog, a bar/ restaurant/ music venue. It was cool. An overused adjective, but the most appropriate to describe this bar with space age dining pods joined together by a smooth light installation. The night we were there a DJ was pumping out worthy techno-dance. Indians love a dance and the space soon filled up.
We finished our night on a decidedly more cheesy note, at Leopold's Cafe, now of Shantaram fame. With an old Euro vibe cafe downstairs and a dark drinking nook upstairs, patronised by a mixed bag of hen's dos, tourists and after work groups. The music was an eclectic blend of old fashioned cheese and modern pop. It was a world away from the smooth Blue Frog - one final contrast for this bustling city.