It’s no secret that I want to be Bollywood’s next token white star. Seems like the perfect job – plenty of work, a chance to hang out with India’s finest actors, learn how to dance AND get paid. I’d heard Leopold Cafe on Colaba Causeway was where scouts picked out foreign tourists to become extras. I was in. And because it was just a few hundred metres down the road from the hostel, it was easy to slot into our itinerary.
Beyond its reputation for being a foreigners’ hotspot, Leopold Cafe does have a fascinating backstory. It’s one of Mumbai’s distinctive Parsi cafes – rustic and cheap restaurants set up by Persian immigrants to India in the 19th century. The Persianate Parsi community is well-liked here for their business acumen, cultural contributions, and most importantly their tasty food. Nowadays, there are only a few of these cafes left in Mumbai. Leopold is arguably the most famous.
Unfortunately, we found no Bollywood scouts, only other tourists and grouchy waiters. There are so many family-run, authentic and atmospheric Parsi cafes in Mumbai. Shame Leopold isn’t one of them. Like me, Mohammed was less than impressed with the food.
It was weird, seeing Christmas decs up in 30 degree heat. In mid-January.
To be fair, our friend in Mumbai, Anusha, had warned us that would be the case. When she picked us up, she saw our slightly dejected expressions. I may have expected her to say, “I told you so”, but instead she gave us the warmest smile and friendliest hug. “Welcome to Mumbai!”, Anusha beamed, greeting us as if we were old friends. In truth, this was the first time we’d met in person – a friend back home had put us in touch.
Having a pal in another place is always a blessing. We went from feeling like tourists to locals in an instant. And where could be more Bombay than the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, the commuter’s gateway to the city?
Mohammed and I bickering away, as we always do. You’d think we’d be bored by now.
Here’s me and my new bestie. Sorry Mohammed, we bicker too much.
This intricate Italian Gothic terminus was built in the Victorian era, and was thus originally named the ‘Victoria Terminus’. When it opened in 1888, there was a big statue of the rotund queen on the facade – but it’s since gone missing. Look at the picture above. See where the domed canopy is, under the clock and above the trees? That once served as Victoria’s sunshade. It’s believed Vicky may have been sold off on the black market in the 1980s, after spending decades languishing in a park. Oh dear, how sad, never mind.
Anyway, the station acquired its current name in the 1990s, as the Indian government were keen to regain a sense of postcolonial pride. Chhatrapati Shivaji is a larger-than-life historical character in Mumbai, where not only the train station, but also the international airport are named after him. He was a warrior king who founded the Maratha Empire in the 17th Century. He also featured in that Tanhaji film I mentioned in my last blog, the good Hindu king who stopped them nasty Muslim Mughals from going any further. Blah, blah, we get it, that movie is actually a BJP fanvideo.
Continuing the movie train of thought (pun intended), Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus was the filming location of another box-office smash: Slumdog Millionaire.
Jai Ho! I know it’s not really Bollywood, but that song is still a banger.
The engine shed is a bit rough and ready, so you can see why it was chosen as the setting for Slumdog‘s most dramatic scene. Trains from all across India end up here, and commuters really do pile on & off every few minutes. And yes, people even cling to the side of carriages. It’s insane.
The ticket hall, on the other hand, is a completely different affair. Stained glass windows display glowing scenes of blue skies, colourful flowers, and pretty patterns. The vaulted ceiling, meanwhile, adds to the churchy vibe. It’s beautiful, but saddening – it feels like you’re in an English church, not in the heart of Mumbai. There’s almost no trace of what makes India uniquely special, no tribute or nod to Indian design. Only a faint impression that ‘British is Best’.
The same is largely true for the other iconic building across the road, the Municipal Corporation HQ.
However, there are a couple of interesting differences. The first are the big old domes you can see at the tops of the towers. The second is the statue out front – instead of hiding this figure from the past, the Indian government has put him in pride of place. But who is he?
Well, he’s Pherozeshah Mehta, one of those prestigious Parsis I talked about earlier. A lawyer by trade, he was one of the founders of Mumbai’s municipal government, before moving into national politics and acting as President of the Indian National Congress. The Brits gave him a knighthood in 1904, he’d proven so useful. But Mehta wasn’t fooled. He saw that the colonial administrators used “divide and conquer” tactics, elevating him above other deserving Indians. Mehta founded an English-language nationalist newspaper in 1910, and was one of the most prominent Independence advocates of his day. That’s why his statue hasn’t been secreted away and sold off to make a few Rupees.
Anusha, Mohammed and I hopped in the car and drove through the Parsi district of Kalbadevi. I couldn’t help but notice all the adverts for cake, bread, and pastries. “There are lots of bakeries round here”, Anusha explained. “You can get bun maska chai – which is like, a buttery bread roll with tea. It’s amazing”. Certainly sounds it – we’ll have to go back and try it, just to make sure.
Heading north, we got stuck in a bottleneck of notorious Mumbai traffic. Anusha pointed to the sky. “See that skyscraper”? We craned our necks out the window. There was indeed a tower rising above the rest, with chunks cut out of it, presumably because that’s what passes for excellent architecture these days. “One family lives in that. Just six people. They own the whole thing”. Blimey. Who could own such a luxurious residence, in a city known for its desperate poverty and vast slums?
Mukesh Ambani – Asia’s richest man, owner of Reliance Industries. His Antilia Tower is a 500-foot-high ode to capitalism, with an 80-seat theatre, 168-car garage, and 3 helipads. For six people. It’s the second highest-valued residential property in the world, after Buckingham Palace. With its cold hallways and lack of mod cons, Buck House seems to pale in comparison to this place.
Even Ratan Tata, another of India’s billionaires, disapproves. “The person who lives in there should be concerned about what he sees around him, and asking; can he make a difference?” He continues, but this time it’s even more incendiary; “It makes me wonder why someone would do that. That’s what revolutions are made of”. Well said, Tata.
Along the seafront, you’ll find the final resting place of another wealthy Mumbai merchant – the Haji Ali Dargah. Lying 500 metres from the shore, this Sufi shrine is the tomb of a businessman from Bukhara (Uzbekistan). After decades globetrotting, he decided to make Mumbai his home, where he hoped to spread Islam to its residents. When he died, he was buried at sea, but his coffin floated back to these rocks, where his shrine now stands. If we’d had more time, it would have been good to look around, but we had a very important date with a fancy restaurant in affluent Bandra.
We crossed the monumental Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, a bridge that featured in last night’s Bollywood movie.
It’s a 5 kilometre bridge, with stunning views of Mumbai’s skyline. Look over to your left, however, and you’ll get an entirely different view. There sits the Jaffar Baba Colony (slum). Admittedly, as slums go, it’s quite pretty – built into the side of a green hill, the ramshackle houses and shanty shops have been painted in rainbow colours, so they look like a quirky kaleidoscope from the road. But make no mistake – it’s a slum.
This is what Ambani sees from his top floor windows. Every damn day.
Social worker/artist Rouble Nagi painted the Jaffar Baba slum in January 2018, and it’s an eye-catching facelift. But her work goes deeper. She has also tried to improve the hygiene and living conditions here by installing toilets and other amenities, and plans to expand her initiative outside Mumbai. Initially, I thought “they’ve just painted over the cracks, not alleviated the problem”, but as Mohammed says, poverty in India is a complex and vicious cycle. It takes another person in a better societal position to break that cycle. Perhaps what Nagi is doing is the first step.
Even so, it feels jarring that the Bandra neighbourhood is home to some of Bollywood’s richest superstars. In fact, the restaurant we went to was round the corner from Mehboob Studios, one of the industry’s most iconic backlots. Another chance at being spotted for a film role, perhaps.
Sadly not, for the restaurant was nearly empty. Much to my delight, Mohammed went for the ‘Greek Seekh’ kebab appetiser, which was basically some feta rolled inside some beetroot biscuit (again with the beetroot?), with a yoghurt and pomegranate dip. It was a far cry from the food of the beautiful country I like to call home, but it was India’s take on it. Just as I have seen questionable Greek twists on Indian food, life comes full circle in the end.
I, meanwhile, was looking for something a bit more medicinal. My throat was still acting up, and the hot toddy sounded perfect. I’d always thought of a toddy as a Victorian tipple, and it is, but like all good things it actually comes from India.
This guy would have been proud.
It’s palm wine mixed with sugar, a dash of lemon, cinnamon, ginger, and other delightful spices. Yum. It didn’t even need the alcohol.
Driving back along the Sea Link, scowling at the Antilia and marvelling at the Haji Ali Dargah, we reached Marine Drive. This lovely seafront boulevard is bordered by the Arabian Sea on one side, and Art Deco buildings on the other. You could say it’s Mumbai’s answer to Miami, but I’m willing to bet the traffic here is even more mental.
This is the Taraporewala Aquarium, India’s oldest aquarium. Guess what? A Parsi dude funded it.
Opposite the Aquarium is Parsi Gate, built more than a century ago. These two obelisks were built so Zoroastrians could pray there during a water festival, and there are stone steps to the beach. Come in the evening, and you can watch the sun slide between the pillars.
Kinda like this.
Marine Drive has a special significance for Mohammed. Last time he came to Mumbai (which must have been about 15 years ago now), he watched the sun set with his family on Chowpatty Beach, eating an ice cream and making happy memories. Today, we’d do the same.
Marine Drive has an entirely different vibe to anywhere else in India. Young couples stole precious moments away from their families, sharing a kiss by the seaside. Adventurous roller skaters braved the uneven pavements, and aunties in saris walked barefoot along the walls, sharing a laugh with one another. I looked around, delighted to see the joy on people’s faces. Everyone seemed to be having a thoroughly lovely time, and so were we. I can see why Mohammed likes it here.
The three of us sat on the wall, watching kids playing on the beach, and rowing boats carried along by the current. The orange sun had managed to burn through the pollution, setting us up for a glorious evening. Across the water, a massive Indian flag flapped in the wind – just in case we’d forgotten where we were experiencing this wonderful moment.
Our time in this fantastic country was coming to an end. We’d seen a lot, done some very cool things, and met a few awesome people. But those weren’t the only amazing stories to come out of the trip. From impromptu dance parties to overnight trains, every day had been different from the last. My friendship with Mohammed and Anusha continued to grow. I’d bought enough bangles to start a small shop. Best of all, we’d eaten a lot of mouth-watering food.
Finishing off with sunset at Marine Drive was the icing on the metaphorical cake.
Now all we needed was an ice cream.