• Nicola Chilton

A love letter to Bombay and an early morning market tour

Mumbai, and the whole of India, is suffering terribly from Covid-19, and it's going to be a long time before Indians are able to travel freely within their own country, let alone open the borders to visitors from outside. When they do though, and when it's safe to travel there, I will be on one of the first flights. Back in 2014, I scribbled a love letter to Mumbai when I was still coming down from the emotional high that I get every time I visit. I recently found those words, and just reading them got my heart racing again. I'm including them here, but expanding them into a mini guide of a few of my favourite markets to visit in a Mumbai morning. Yes, just a morning this time. Bombay nights are another story for another time.


There are places that get under the skin and into the bloodstream, that make the heart giddy and the chest feel like a cage of temple sparrows waiting to be released. Bombay does this to me. Yes, Bombay. Mumbai, Bombay, call it what you will - politics aside, the names seem to be interchangeable in most day-to-day conversation. From the moment the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac I feel it, the quickening of my breath, the racing of my pulse, the need to be out there and to be part of it. It's not just the fact that everyone jumps up to grab bags from the overhead lockers long before you arrive at the gate, but I'm convinced that the city's invisible energy gets in through the aircraft's air-conditioning system. It grabs hold of me even before they open the doors.

Why? I don’t know. It can be a cruel place, home to the haves and the have nots, and the have more than you can ever imagines. Whilst the uber-wealthy sleep deeply, up in their skyscrapers or safely ensconced in their compounds, the uber-poor sleep in the shelter of beaten-up bus chassis. It’s loud and dirty and there’s never a second without the air being filled with some kind of noise. Trucks cheerfully shout “Honk OK please!” and are answered with a constant cacophony of beeps and toots. Traffic lights and stop signs appear to be mere suggestions.

The city is edged with slums, with crows and black kites circling the crematoria that hide behind unprepossessing gates, the smoke that seeps out of the industrial chimneys being the only giveaway of what lies behind. Piles of rubbish are thrown merrily over the slum walls, every journey by car is an assault course, and goats socialise at busy crossroads. Bombay is made up of chaos and colour, of freneticness and friendliness, of humour and horror. It has obscene levels of wealth sitting alongside obscene levels of poverty. You can sip a cocktail at a fancy rooftop bar surrounded by the city's most stylish, as the sun sets coquettishly behind the shanties below. You can find the most exquisite fabrics at Mangaldas market, snap up antiques in Chor Bazaar, and buy armfuls of spangly glass bangles along Colaba Causeway. You'll eat better than you could ever imagine, with food from every part of India vying for attention with the city's vast array of world cuisines. Heat and humidity drip from the trees, waves crash against the breakwater on Marine Drive, and British colonial buildings sit heavily on their haunches, breathing in the tang of spices from the vada pav sellers. Squalor and sublimity make strange bedfellows here, and all the city's a stage.

A stroll along Marine Drive is de rigueur in the evening, with pani puri at Chowpatty Beach a must. You’ll get sick, the locals will say, don’t risk it. But don’t be put off by the less than pristine sand, don’t look at what you’re walking on. Just keep heading towards the fluorescent lights and the pungent smells of spices and coriander and cooking oil, and you’ll be fine.

It’s a city of chaos, but a chaos that works. Of anarchy, but a polite anarchy. A place where you may be ripped off, but ripped off with a disarming smile. Bombay is a city more alive than any other on earth. And in spite of the cruelty and the dirt and the disparities of rich and poor and the unfairness and the snobbery, I fall head over heels every single time.


Of course, having exceptional Mumbaikar friends is one of the reasons I'm drawn back so often. There's Divia, the always elegant, always entertaining, drop-dead gorgeous magazine editor-in-chief who ensures I am fed with Bombay's absolute best food, who arranges the funnest nights possible with the funniest conversations, and who takes me for intense Indian head massages that feel as if the masseur's fingers are about to pop through the softer parts of my cranium, leaving me with a combination of woozy deep relaxation and razor-sharp focus. And Kersi, the seafaring screen writer and novelist who, with endless wit and patience, has let me convince him to drive me in his book-filled car and sit in traffic for hours on end so I could see the Ganesh Chaturthi parade, in the process inadvertently becoming part of it. Both of them keep me constantly regaled with stories that make me laugh until my ribs hurt. It's better for the abs than any amount of crunches, and better for the soul than any amount of meditation.

On my very first visit to Mumbai (and on every subsequent visit since) I went to Britannia Restaurant, a wonderful and somewhat crumbling Parsi café with an ancient chandelier, portrait of the Queen, life-size cut-out of Will and Kate, and a sign to diners imploring "Please do not argue with the management". And you don't. Having ordered too much sali boti and berry pulav and leaving some on the side of my plate, I was told by the legendary owner Mr Boman Kohinoor (who sadly passed away last year at the age of 97) that if I liked the food I would force myself to eat it rather than waste it. Quite right, too.

Whether it's avoiding the ankle-deep waters during the monsoon, zooming around Bandra late at night in a tuk-tuk, or buying yet more hand-made stationery at Chimanlal's (I have drawers full of the stuff, and it's exquisite), every visit gives me a new thirst for life. If I ever want to feel the spine-tingling energy of being alive then Bombay is without doubt the place, and nothing beats bouncing along in a tiny, hot, black-and-yellow taxi with no suspension but with a rather fetching scene of fruit salad on the ceiling.


And all of that being said, we're going to embark on an early morning tour of some of the city's most vibrant and colourful markets. I hope you find them as life-enriching as I do. Mornings start early in Bombay (or do the nights just never end?). We're going to douse our senses in the colours, sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the city. There are early tours that will take you to these places, but it's just as easy to do it yourself if you're more inclined to be a solo wanderer. Find a friendly black-and-yellow taxi driver, agree a price, and ask him to wait for you at your hotel in the wee hours for a morning you won't forget. You can visit of all these places, have lunch, and go back to your hotel for a nap before hitting the city again later in the afternoon. After all, Mumbai is as alive at night as it is by day, and you don't want to miss the opportunity to party like a Mumbaikar.


Dadar Flower Market

You could be forgiven for thinking that the entire city has converged on Dadar Flower Market at 5am. It's crowded, noisy and colourful - just what you need to snap yourself awake at this hour - so we'll grab a chai from the nice chap at the tea shop on the side of the road before diving into the melee. The market is sandwiched between Dadar railway station and Senapati Bapat Marg road, although at this time in the morning it all merges into one with vendors spilling out onto the pavement and under the overpass, as well as in a covered warehouse a little further down the street. Flower sellers vie for business with baskets brimming with marigolds, bunches of vermilion roses, garlands of intricately twined fragrant jasmine, and much more. You'll be jostled by the crowd and will most likely find yourself swept along with the current, but let yourself go. Like a rip tide there's really no point resisting. It'll be dark when we arrive and the flowers will be lit by bare fluorescent bulbs, which will emphasise their brilliant colours but is not the most flattering light for taking photos, so once we have our bearings we'll take a walk up the stairs that cross over the railway tracks to Dadar Station, one of the city's busiest. We'll watch the trains come in and out as the sun rises, then dive back into the flower market for more photo ops in better light. As the day breaks properly, normal colours return as the fluorescent bulbs are dimmed, and we'll see the flowers in all their original saffron, magenta and pillarbox-red glory. I dream of buying an entire basket of marigolds and filling the house with them - the smell transports me back to my grandpa's garden - although I'd need to be a permanent resident of Bombay to do that. I'm not sure filling your hotel room with them would have quite the same effect, and it would certainly tick off the housekeeping staff. The flowers from Dadar market go to temples, homes and hotels. Wherever you see flowers in the city, chances are they came from here. These days though, India's strict lockdown has caused millions of flowers to be destroyed or left to rot in the fields - with no one allowed out, there is no demand for flowers in temples, for weddings or celebrations. Yet another sad result of this ghastly pandemic.


Dhobi Ghat

We'll hop in our black-and-yellow and make a quick stop at Dhobi Ghat, the city's famous outdoor laundry where much of Mumbai's (literal, not figurative) dirty laundry has been aired for the past 130 years. There are many things that boggle the mind in Bombay - how the dabbawallas manage to deliver exactly the right home-cooked lunch to the right worker, how every single car in the city is dented or scratched yet the level of belligerent British road rage doesn't seem to exist - and this to me is one of the greatest mysteries of all. Every day, the city's laundry is beaten, scrubbed, bleached, wrung out, hung to dry, ironed and folded at Dhobi Ghat in a labour-intensive process by hundreds of washermen, or dhobis. Colour-coded hospital and hotel sheets sit alongside school uniforms, smalls and sarees, yet it's all efficiently separated, washed and delivered back to the correct location. I'm not sure if they lose as many odd socks as I do (I suspect they don't), but the efficiency of the whole process is a wonder to behold.


Byculla Vegetable Market

Whereas Crawford Market may be more famous and prettier to look at, Byculla Vegetable Market is the largest in the city and you're far less likely to stumble upon tour groups here. Instead, you'll be able to wander at will, nibbling on samples of unrecognisable fruit and veg that will be handed to you, perhaps even learning what some of them are, although I managed to leave having seen more new things that were unfamiliar to me, and remained so. Depending on the season the air may be thick with the sweet fragrance of fresh mangos - India produces some of the world's best. Vendors here are friendly, and the fact that the area is full of obviously well-cared for stray cats adds a whole extra dimension to your photos. One for the vegetarians too, as you're unlikely to walk straight into a lamb carcass here.


Sassoon Dock

My favourite drive of all in Bombay is on the elevated Makhdoom Ali Mahimi Flyover that will take us from Byculla to South Bombay, affording us views into people's homes and apartments, of ornate minarets and mosque domes, before depositing us just north of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus train station, worth a look in its own right for its monumental architecture. But our main destination is Sassoon Dock, a little further down the road, where the bounty of the sea is bought to land. It's a frenetic, chaotic and extremely wet place. Don't come here in shoes that you love - they won't survive ten minutes, and even if they do, they'll carry with them a particularly pungent smell for the rest of their days. If it swims, it will come to shore here, from bayonet-faced swordfish to pink prawns and pomfret, and the strangely named Bombay Duck, a fish pulled out of the brown waters of the bay that I've never particularly acquired a taste for, and that is no relation whatsoever to the aquatic avian species. Around 20 tonnes of seafood lands here every day here. These wet docks, as opposed to dry docks meaning that boats can come in at any time regardless of the tide, date back to 1875 when they were built on reclaimed land (another ming-boggling achievement - how on earth could they reclaim land back then?). If you're on the squeamish side you may not warm to the baby sharks and rays who have met their demise here, but for those made of sterner stuff it's an unmissable Mumbai experience. Groups of women in brilliantly coloured sarees crouch on the ground peeling mountains of prawns, others balance big plastic bowls filled with crushed ice and fish on their heads as they navigate the wet floors with statuesque grace. Men load handcarts with crates straight from the boats, heavy with squid, crabs and eels, as fish are gutted and scaled at the harbour's edge, then thrown into wicker baskets and carried to the market stalls. And amidst it all are flocks of snow-white egrets who stalk and preen, sitting atop the roof that provides partial shelter, gliding gracefully down at whim, tip-toeing through the blood-tinged water and helping themselves to the odd fish when they think no one's looking. There is talk of a major facelift to the docks, introducing air-conditioning and sanitised spaces which will no doubt be a boon for the fishermen and women who brave the elements and the heat to work here each day. But for now it's barely changed in its guise, looking much as it must have done in the 1870s, and is well worth an early morning visit. It's an easy place to find - just follow your nose as you'll definitely smell it before you see it.


And there you have it, an action-packed morning visiting some of Bombay's most colourful markets to get our day off to a good start. And now all that's left to think about is lunch... fodder for another story, perhaps.

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