Our visit to India began with an early-morning flight from Singapore to Mumbai, the sprawling metropolis that more than 20 million people call home. The first thing that struck us upon landing in Mumbai was the slums. The largest slum in Mumbai – Dharavi, which is home to over one million people, is situated between the city’s two main railway lines. Before touching down, Laura and I could only shake our heads in disbelief at the sight of the slum’s corrugated, tin roofs reaching out in all directions. The despair we felt driving into the city and passing through the seemingly interminable slum was so great we knew what others meant by “prepare yourselves.”The next thing that hits you is the smell. In the movie Darjeeling Limited, Adrien Brody’s character remarks, “I love the way this country smells. It’s kind of spicy.” And, well¸ that’s the summation of it. It’s absolutely intoxicating. Depending on which whiff you get, spicy can either be a euphemism for open sewage and the smell of trash and filth that litters the streets. Or spicy can be the smell of cumin, chilies, vanilla, cardamom, saffron and chai. Either way, Mumbai has a smell that you won’t soon forget.
It’s hot in Mumbai. It’s always hot. We changed our itinerary around to be here in March before the real heat of April and May sets in. It’s no wonder that summer brings monsoons because the humidity when we arrived was already oppressive. You can feel the wetness hovering overhead. Certainly, we felt it on our bodies. It was readily apparent with the dense air that we’d be smelling as spicy as Mumbai soon enough.
We auspiciously and unknowingly arrived to Mumbai the morning of India’s biggest religious celebration– Holi festival. This meant that instead of the ruinous noise of traffic one can expect from a seething city waking up on a Monday morning, we were treated to a street chalk full of zombies and riotous colors. You see, Indians celebrate Holi by throwing colored powder – or gual pol – at anyone in close proximity, followed by a good dashing of water (for posterity) as a way to welcome the coming of Spring. Our trip through the streets of Mumbai during the early morning hours of Holi was like walking into Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.Unlike most other festivals where communities of people come together to celebrate in open streets or spaces, Holi is more of a private celebration, usually taking place at friends’ or relatives’ homes. But seeing as though the slums do not really contain “homes,” or at least not in the Western traditional sense, we were able to partake in the festival and could see people playfully, yet fervently, dousing each other until teeth were the only body parts spared a shade of the spectrum.
It did not take long for India to exude its national obsession – cricket. It’s everywhere. It’s on TV, on the radio, and most entertainingly, on the streets. Children in Mumbai play cricket like Brooklyners used to play stickball. In places as dense as New York or Mumbai, kids don’t need a field. Any alley, street or museum property will do. As futbol is to about every other country besides the US, cricket is to Indians. Whether it’s club or country, matches are heavily watched and debated by men all over the country. The rivalry between India and Pakistan is especially intense, as one could imagine.We wasted no time in putting India’s famous cuisine to the test. I don’t think I necessarily travel because of food, but the two are invariably intertwined for me. In my opinion, cultures and people are often best expressed through food. And no place, at least according to reputation, expresses themselves so fully through their food than India. Our first meal, a Gujarati thali, did nothing to dishonor this reputation.
As only a novice of Indian food the word thali meant nothing to me. A thali can loosely be described as a tasting menu where diners are encouraged to sample a variety of different regional foods. In our case, it was an all-you-can-eat affair. And that’s exactly what we did. I absolutely knew we were going to feast in Mumbai. I just didn’t expect it to be our first meal there.
Thalis are served on a silver tray with eight or so small silver bowls. Server after server filled our tray with the various dishes that are part of Gujarat, a regional state north of Mumbai’s state of Maharashtra. First, there was bread in all of its Indian incarnations: chapatti – crispy, unleavened round bread, roti – thicker than chapatti and cooked in a tandoor (clay oven) and naan – thicker still, tear drop-shaped bread cooked with garlic. Bowls were then filled with rice, cucumber salad, curried eggplant, dhal (lentil curry), chutney (made of minced chilies and mint), the ever-present spicy lemon-chili pickle, raita (yoghurt-based dish meant to cool one’s mouth down after all the spice), and, of course, three different desserts: gubal agal (sponge-like cake balls drenched with syrup), a delicious custard with diced apples and kheer – a saffron, pistachio, flaked almond and cardamom-infused rice pudding for the ages! We left feeling very confident that we would not go hungry in India.We tried working off our thali with a stroll through the markets where everything under the sun (or soot) can be haggled for. Careful not to have a foot run over by a cycle rickshaw or a meandering cow, we ended our day watching the sun set over Victoria Terminus, the stunning relic of British rule that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to Asia’s busiest rail station. Watching the sun’s last light over the station’s Gothic spires from our aptly-named Welcome Hotel would become my favorite memory of Mumbai over the next several days, as we’d repeat this ritual nightly.
Now if someone were to ask me, “What did you like about Mumbai?” I could not give a definitive answer. It isn’t a city of spectacular sights or cool neighborhoods or even wonderful culture. But it has a frenetic energy whose palpability absolutely should be felt. It gets under your skin in ways that only a teeming Indian metropolis can. Mentally, physically, psychologically –this dirty, chaotic and strangely beautiful city will challenge you. But if you rise to meet this challenge, I promise you, Mumbai will make an indelible impression and you will, with time, be pondering your return trip.