Reveling in rituals in India’s most populous city.
It was the last place I expected to hear an echo of India — in a quiet, cozy pub in the English countryside, over dinner with my friend Stuart.
In the midst of the meal, Stuart told me how he was thinking of moving to Mumbai later in the year, although he’d never been. At the mere mention of Mumbai — India’s most populous city and home to nearly 20 million people — my fork paused in the air. “It’s my favorite city in India,” I shared with him. “I haven’t been there in over three years, but I’ll always remember one of my favorite Mumbai rituals.”
I went on to tell Stuart about how I loved to end my days in the city: with a boat ride around Mumbai’s deep, natural harbor at sunset. For a small price of 70 rupees, or about US$1, I would board a ferry moored by the prominent Gateway of India monument. And though the feeling of moving into open water was thrilling, I most looked forward to when the boat would turn around and begin heading back to Mumbai — the skyline stretched out before me, seagulls soaring overhead and the horizon glowing pink and orange. It offered a rare moment of peace amid the hustle-bustle of India.
In the weeks following that dinner, our conversation kept circling in my head, inspiring me to think of other timeless rituals from Mumbai — rituals that, no matter how swiftly the city may change, will always be there for travelers and locals alike to enjoy — and that I myself look forward to experiencing again one day.
Making a literary pilgrimage
ven before my first visit to Mumbai, I felt a certain familiarity and connection with the city — all thanks to a 936-page novel called Shantaram.
Published in 2004 by Australian author Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram is the somewhat-autobiographical tale of an escaped convict named Lindsay (Lin, for short) who flees his home country of Australia, moves to Mumbai and becomes intimately involved with life in the city.
Soon after arriving in India, I began spotting the hefty book on many fellow travelers — each beloved, dog-eared copy seeming as important a tome as their guidebook for the country.
As the story unfolds, Roberts evokes Mumbai as vividly as he does any character in the book, especially one of the novel’s key settings: Leopold Café, in the former colonial quarter of Colaba. The café is where Lin first meets the beautiful Karla, the gregarious Didier and a host of characters who make up Shantaram’s unforgettable cast. (In real life, Leopold was, sadly, one of the targets of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and to this day, bullet holes remain inside the café.)
All of this has produced a kind of legendary aura around the café, so much so that it was the first place I chose to visit on my inaugural trip to Mumbai. After reading about it for so long, stepping inside made me feel as though I’d completed a sacred literary pilgrimage, and I reveled in finally being able to take it all in for myself: the high, white walls, the checkered blue-tile floor and the ceiling fans whirring overhead, circulating the warm but comfortable air.
I sat there for hours on my first balmy morning in the city — sketching the café, sipping my tea and listening to the chatter of the tables around me. When four friends raised their glasses and said to each other, “To Mumbai,” I smiled to myself and silently returned their cheers. Another literary mecca reached, I wrote at the top of my sketch.
The surrounding neighborhood of Colaba itself represents a nexus of change, with new bars and restaurants seeming to open every week. But on each return visit to Mumbai, I still made time to stop by Leopold. Sometimes I went alone, reading more novels over a silver pot of tea; other times I brought friends; and once, while there on a bustling Sunday night, a group of French travelers invited me to join them at their table — providing a truly welcome and absolutely memorable night amid unexpected company.
Just as the café was a gathering place for the characters of Shantaram, it become an anchor point for me in Mumbai, grounding me with the gift of new connections.
Feasting on Mumbai’s best fare
henever I visited Mumbai during the nine months I spent in India, I never wandered far in the city. I enjoyed making Colaba my home base, given the beautiful architecture remaining from the time of the British Raj, as well as the quarter’s proximity to the waterfront. As the city is set right on the Arabian Sea and was originally built across seven islands, it’s no wonder that one of Mumbai’s monikers is “Island City.”
After spending a leisurely session at Leopold Café, I would often stroll just a few minutes up the street to a roundabout referred to as Regal Circle, where Sahakari Bhandar, my second-favorite restaurant in the city, can be found. It boasts an extensive vegetarian menu, but one dish in particular always drew me inside: pav bhaji.
Named after the Marathi words for “one-quarter” and “fried veggies,” the dish consists of a piquant, potato-based curry that is eaten with buttery bread rolls (which originally came in sets of four). First invented in the 1850s as a quick, cheap lunch for textile mill workers, pav bhaji is now a quintessential street-food offering in Mumbai and may found in more formal restaurants.
On my first visit to Sahakari Bhandar, I stopped right on the restaurant’s threshold, my attention caught by the chef positioned behind a counter cooking up pav bhaji on a wide, round frying pan, or tawa.
The chef introduced himself as Ramu before listing off the curry’s ingredients for me: from a medley of vegetables including tomatoes, potatoes, green peppers, red onions and peas, to a concoction of spices called pav bhaji masala, to a final garnish of fresh coriander and a slice of lemon. I could even add grated paneer cheese on top, if I wished. As I watched Ramu stir the bubbling pan of pav bhaji, causing the spices’ aroma to swirl before me, I couldn’t ask for a table fast enough to order my own serving of the dish.
It all works together — I wrote in my notebook after my first succulent taste — the bright coriander, warm butter and soft, milky cheese, everything held together by the savory sauce.
One of the waiters would circle around each table, hands folded behind his back as he checked on who needed more pav for their bhaji. “One pav? Two pav?” he would ask me, and I would always pat my growing belly before agreeing to one more.
Celebrating Bollywood culture
n addition to the restaurant’s simple, filling meals, there was one more reason I liked to frequent Sahakari Bhandar on my trips to Mumbai: just next door sits a classic art deco movie theater called Regal Cinema.
Built in 1933, and with its original pale yellow façade still intact, Regal is not only one of the oldest cinemas in Mumbai, but also one of the city’s few remaining single-screen cinemas. This makes it an ideal place to catch a flick, especially as Mumbai plays home to India’s tremendous film industry — or as it’s better known around the world, Bollywood.
It wasn’t just the cinema’s art deco designs that kept me coming back; I also wanted the chance to connect with Indian culture on a deeper level. The first time I sat among the theater’s velvet seats, for example, I was surprised when the image of a giant Indian flag began to wave on the screen.
“Attention,” said the young man sitting next to me, who then explained that we should stand for India’s national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana.” As the song played, I loved how the tradition elevated a simple trip to the movies into something a little more special.
“That was beautiful,” I whispered to him as we returned to our seats.
“It’s really the best national anthem in the world,” he said, with a moving sincerity in his voice.
Returning to favorite rhythms
hile I always tried to discover something new in Mumbai on each visit — from the sensory delight that is the Dadar flower market to the ancient cave temples of Elephanta Island, set six miles off the coast — for me, Mumbai was always a place to return to favorite rituals, as I wrote in my notes on my second visit to the city: It’s been more than a year since I was here, but I might as well have never left. It’s all still here — Leopold still packed with Shantaram pilgrims, the Gateway of India, the harbor ferries still cruising around at sunset. And that is perhaps what is so magical about return: You realize Mumbai will always be Mumbai will always be Mumbai. And so you can slip right back into its rhythms, into the heartbeat pulsing beneath its streets.
No matter the miles between us or the years since my last visit, I’m grateful that Mumbai’s heartbeat continues to resound through time.
Candace Rose Rardon is a writer, sketch artist and illustrator with a passion for telling stories about the world — through words and watercolors. After calling India home for nine months in 2011 and 2012, a piece of her heart will forever be riding a ferry across the harbor of Mumbai at sunset.