Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Breaking dawn in Mumbai

Mumbai – the city that never sleeps, the maximum city etc etc. I have heard this city being called by many more such names and epithets and agreed with all of them. I am not a native Mumbaiker but made Mumbai my home 8 years back. I thought through my work and through the variety of friends I had made in the city, I had seen and experienced every facet of this much talked about and much exploited city. I had specially enjoyed the dynamic night life it had to offer to the hilt be it drinks at the Shack and Totos, dancing at Poly’s or a late night snack at Bade Miyan and agreed with all the epithets it had got in this respect to the hilt.  I also followed the advice of all those lifestyle connoisseurs and ticked off the list of 50 things to do in Mumbai right from sitting on the steps of Asiatic Library to enjoying traditional parsi food at Army Café and Café Britannia to the clichéd buggy rides around Marine Drive and thought I was sorted with respect to all my Mumbai experiences.

However, a recent turn of events in my life necessitated that I travel to town early in the mornings for a few appointments and had time to spare between meetings to truly enjoy Mumbai. It is during this time that I discovered the charm of early mornings in Mumbai. I realized this is the twilight hour for the city that never sleeps, when it recovers from the drunken excesses of the nights and prepares itself for the onslaught of frantic activity that is yet to come for the day. I discovered a completely underrated creed of Mumbaikers occupy this space in Mumbai’s day whose efforts go undetected in all that is written and said about this city. I had some of the most peaceful and spiritual experiences in Mumbai at this dawn hour some of which I would like to recount here

When I think of Mumbai during the early dawn hours, the sepia tinted image that comes to mind is of the empty lanes around Fort and Charni road, with its Victorian edifices and modern store fronts. The sound of the sweepers with their brooms trying bravely to bring a semblance of cleanliness to the cobbled footpaths in these areas and stopping to gather over a hot cup of tea is a sight that warms your heart. I stopped by to share a cup of tea with one old woman who had apparently been doing this job for the past 27 years. She only came out at 6 in the morning to do this chore for her community before she returned to her household chores. Trust me, you will never see these roads as empty and the buildings as charming at any other time of the day. This is the perfect time for cycling around this area though I was surprised that no one else had hit upon the idea yet. Probably because, people stuck to the known options of Marine Drive and the Chowpatty for their daily exercises during this time. But this is an experience I would never miss if I was a SOBO person.
Breakfast is considered to be the most important meal of the day. However, we Indians are not very fond of stepping out of home for breakfast. We are too busy to get to work on a week day and too lazy to get up in time for breakfast on a weekend. I decided that being in town, I will try out the options for breakfast places and this opened a whole new world for me. I dazzled my taste buds with simple gems like Hot Chocolate at Mondy’s, Akuri on toast at Leopold’s,  Upma and Batata Poha in the plush surroundings at Tea Centre. Even through these experiences, I felt like a lone prowler searching out for this ecstasy as I found most of these restaurants completely to myself save for a few handful of foreign tourists who shared my enjoyment. One particularly friendly and brave tourist offered to join me for breakfast and shared that this was his 3rd time in Mumbai and he never skipped breakfast at Mondy’s. He said he loved the familiarity of the place as he was served by the same waiter, Haneef, every time he was there and every single time, he remembers his name, his food preferences and the way he liked his coffee to perfection. He said more than anything else, it was this graciousness and hospitality shown to him by the simplest of Indians that he would take back home as his fondest memory of Mumbai and India. I would recommend to every person that these are some beautiful breakfast experiences that should not be missed, especially when followed by a quiet walk down Gateway, feeding the pigeons and marvelling at the Taj. Believe me at 8 in the morning, you will have the entire panoramic landscape to yourself (well almostJ)
Reserved for the end are the plethora of breath-taking spiritual experiences I had in Mumbai in the early dawn hours. I am a spiritual person but not necessarily overtly religious. The torrents of crowds, long queues, stampedes and the need to bribe the pujaris at the sanctum sanctorum, usually keeps me away from temples. But, being fully charged with all the earlier experiences and of course pushed by my mother, I decided to visit a few places of worship during the early hours. My first stop was Mahalakshmi temple. I had been to this temple as a child of 5 and had a very fleeting memory of what this would be like. With trepidation I entered the lane of the temple, now knowing what to expect and worried about how crowded it would be. But a few yards down the lane, I realized, I had entered a quaint world, I remembered only from fleeting memories of my childhood. A narrow lane, fresh washed and smelling of incense, Prasad and coconuts, several small stores in the hustle and bustle of opening for the day, far away a radio playing bhajans and amazing of all no peddlers and no insistent cries of “madam, please buy from me”. Inside, the temple was an even bigger revelation. Bang on the sea front and with its three deities, it did allow me to close my eyes and transport myself to a spiritual world that I never thought was possible outside of the prayer mat in my home. Sitting on the steps of the temple for a bit I felt I had recaptured the simplicity of such visits of my childhood and yearned for more. That emboldened me to try my luck at Haji Ali
Haji Ali – this structure has always been a fascinating mystery to me. To me, it represented the deep rooted spirituality of an alien faith that I truly wanted to experience and understand. It rested majestically (though some people would disagree) in the middle of the sea seemingly held in place by a miracle. It was a site I stared at wistfully every time I passed and never found the time to visit. But emboldened by my adventures of dawn I decided to try this experience as well. Walking along the narrow walkway with a covered head and an expectant heart, I drank in the sites of the various stalls, so like the Mahalakshmi temple but yet so different. These stalls smelt of ‘itr’ instead of incense and peddled offerings of flower blankets and holy ‘chadars’. I got a quick lesson on what would be the most auspicious offering from my companion and trudged along the walkway. My heart sank at the amount of dirt and pollution I saw around the walkway and I felt sad and angry on behalf of this majestic monument that we Mumbaikers could not match its grace and beauty by keeping its surroundings clean. But as I entered the sanctum sanctorum of the dargah I was transfixed by the beauty and the quiet of this holy monument nestled amongst the glorious waves one could view through the doors. I could not stop staring at the intricate patterns on the roof and the sparkling chandelier that hung from it. I yearned to have known urdu so I could read all the inscriptions and felt a little disappointed that women could not get as close to the shrine as men. This truly was a fitting end to my early morning sojourns into the city. As I sat on the steps of the dargah watching the birds and hearing the waves as the sun rose, it made me look at my beloved Mumbai in a new light and I breathed in the wonder of breaking dawn in this maximum city.


  1. Thanks Ambica. Could imagine myself experiencing all of this while reading your post! Look forward to more such stuff, bookmarking your blog! :)

  2. Awesome article Ambica! The descriptions brought back vivid memories of Mumbai and this very strong urge to come back and see everything again :) Keep it up- this blog and the manner of writing is so you... i can imagine you talking about it face to face.
    looking forward to more posts

  3. Hey Deepika. Am so glad you were able to read this at last. I do hope you make it to Mumbai soon and relive all these experiences. Keep following this space. there is more to come :-)