Thursday, March 17, 2011
A month out-of-date, but I re-produce an email I had sent friends and family three weeks after arriving in Mumbai (more missives to follow); on the bright side, they didn't get the photos (click on them for larger images):
"Just a general update: it’s been nearly three weeks since I landed in Mumbai [on January 27], and things have pretty much settled into a routine. The whole thing still feels a bit “provisional” because I haven’t found an apartment yet. I’ve been fairly assiduous about looking, and in a variety of areas, but the market is hot (read: rents are high) now, and more importantly it is premised on information arbitrage (e.g. one broker quoted me a rate twice as high as another for, coincidentally, the very same apartment!), not to mention other uniquely Indian issues (some buildings won’t rent to bachelors; others to Muslims; others to non-vegetarians (read: Maharashtrians or Muslims); others to non-Parsees; others to non-Muslims (no-one wants to stay in those areas anyway); others to nobody except for Gujaratis). I could avoid the whole issue by renting in the expat-friendly area I am currently in (Powai), but that’s kind of dull. Fashionable Bandra, with some really charming side-streets and lanes, is also ok on this front, although is probably pricier than South Bombay these days. Then there’s traffic: plenty of reasonably-priced apartments around, but if they’re that reasonable you can bet the commute will be murder.
But then, one spends the sort of weekend I did, and one is reminded why one came to the city in the first place: Saturday began with lunch at a colleague’s place in Borivali (way up in North Mumbai), near the national park; after an afternoon looking at a few apartments in the vicinity, took the train from Borivali to Mahim (Central Mumbai, on the western edge), walking from the train station to the Koli food festival. (The trains are much less crowded on the weekends, so if one takes [them] at the right time the rush is easily negotiable). The Kolis are a traditional fishing community, so this was the place to be for a seafood lover. The stalls represented Koli communities from just about every part of the city, and certainly added to the nautical ambience of the area (Mahim is on the water, and I could smell the sea when I got off the train; not unusual in Bombay, but welcome whenever it happens). The only eyebrow-raising moment: when I got to the festival, past a predominantly Muslim neighborhood and one of the city’s best known churches (St. Michael’s), I realized that it was sponsored and organized by the Shiv Sena-breakaway, the MNS. True to the MNS’ xenophobic but relatively non-communal ideology, there were a large number of burqas and beards (from what I could gather, Marathi-speaking Muslims) in the crowd (and many of the Koli are Christian), and all announcements and signs were in Marathi. The food was worth the commute though: my favorite fish the pomfret was to be found in abundance (including stuffed with green masala, a dish I’d never had before), but I also thought the bombil (Bombay Duck), the raavas, and the surmai were superb.
After dinner, there was nothing to do but to enjoy the breeze on the back of a friend’s bike through sea-side Bandra and into Juhu (both are Western “suburbs”, as areas not in South Bombay are referred to here, and immediately north of, and much posher than, Mahim) to a cinema showing the flavor of the month “Ye Saali Zindagi” (verdict: excellent, pungent dialogs, but all-in-all a mediocre film; Chitrangada Singh is smoking hot though). A 1AM rickshaw ride from Juhu back to Powai underscored how remarkably commutable the city would be with the sort of metro Delhi has: the journey took a mere 22 minutes at that time of the night (those few miles would take over two hours in peak traffic).
Sunday was just as, um, productive: went down to near the southern tip of Mumbai, to Kalaghoda for the last day of the annual arts festival. In general, South Mumbai is the best preserved, most gorgeous part of the city, combining the poshest of the posh with some of the most atmospheric areas where [some of] Bombay’s oldest and most rooted communities live (including various traditionally Parsi, Bohri, Khoja, and other Gujarati areas where outsiders can’t get in the building for love or money; for a superb representation of the old Muslim neighborhoods, and a meditation on the city as a whole, check out the recent art-house flick “Dhobi Ghaat”), and it doesn’t get much more posh here than Kalaghoda. The art installations were pretty mediocre though, except for a disturbing one on the Bhopal gas tragedy that consisted simply of large photographs of the interior of the abandoned Union Carbide plant, often overlaid on other similar, but not identical, photographs, leading to a somewhat disorienting and eerie effect. The absence of any people in the photos spoke volumes. Afterwards, I went to the Tata theater (overlooking the Marine Drive) for an English-language play called “Pune Highway”. The play was well-written and interesting, and the staging/seating were truly memorable: I was in the second row, and the lower, “closer” stage (than I am used to from the US, except in off- or off-off-type productions; certainly not in theaters this large) made for a thrilling experience.
Late at night my friend and I headed to the legendary Bade Miyan, who has a whole range of tikkas and kababs (but not, interestingly, mutton seekh kababs; he refuses to make those) but is best known for the chicken seekh kababs, the roomali roti, and most of all, mutton bheja fry. Each of those was phenomenal (although the high cholesterol in bheja means this cannot be a regular meal; indeed I think it’s the first time since 2004 that I’d had it); the chicken tikka and boti kababs were less so.
All in all, I’ve either bored the !@#$# out of you by now, or made you really hungry. I can’t wait to get my own place and settle into a better rhythm. Two things in particular have suffered: Proust-reading (patchy; but I think it’ll get more regular going forward) and the gym. The issue on the latter is that the [company] guest house [in Powai, where I'm staying in while I find a place] is associated with a free gym, but the number of days it takes to get the relevant form*/complete the paperwork (still not done; the signatures of two people utterly irrelevant to the gym remain) has meant that I haven’t worked out in three weeks. Hopefully it’ll be sorted out soon, but the real solution will be when I get a membership in a gym close to wherever I end up moving. Other banal routines have been worked out: I get a tiffin delivered to work ... my newspaper is the Indian Express (the Times of India is a celebrity-obsessed rag) for now (I’ll probably switch to The Hindu, which Abbaji [my grandfather] preferred to all others, with good reason).
Work? I was going to write about that too, but will save it for a different missive; I can only count on so much indulgence."