As a mathematician, it was imperative that I discern a pattern in the very apparent urban chaos of Mumbai. The city has a rhythm, like any other major megalopolis. It is perhaps not as perceptible at first glance, but upon settling in, one cannot miss it. I landed in Mumbai early in the morning and the city’s daily rhythm was already underway. It was already wide awake and its urban charm was beginning to unravel. The driver took me over the new Bandra – Worli Sealink, as we drove to my hotel, Abode, Bombay. Our route to the hotel took us through some of the most prominent quarters of the city and the hotel’s location too was in its commercial heart, right by the iconic landmarks of Mumbai.
The moment you enter Abode, Bombay, you can sense the informality, yet extremely professional demeanor of the hotel’s staff. There was no ‘reception’ or ‘concierge’ per se, but the warmth with which the clique of young men and women of the staff greet you and attend to you is very pleasant. Abode, Bombay is located in the Colaba area of Mumbai, in the shadow of the behemoths of the hospitality industry and about a four-minute walk from the Gateway of India. In an old restored colonial building, which once served as a private residence of one of Mumbai’s greatest entrepreneurs from the nineteenth century, David Sassoon, the apartments on the first floor then passed hands over the years to a family dealing antiques in 1982 and served as a guest house. Less than a year ago, it was turned into a little aesthetically designed, charming boutique hotel. My first impressions of Abode were just as lovely as those of the city of Mumbai – welcoming and classy.
At Abode, I had the privilege of meeting the couple, whose passion for India and traveling brought forth Kamalan – Rosenda and Jan Meer. They were in Mumbai for a couple of days and suggested I choose Abode for my stay. They greeted me in the hotel’s lobby-cum-café where we had a pleasant conversation and a hearty breakfast. I checked into my room which was no different from the rest of the hotel which had a constant underlying theme – Mumbai. You can see the city unleashed in pictures, paintings and decorations. Mumbai appears in all its colors inside Abode as well. The décor of the hotel seemed to be a labor of love, with a tasteful selection of furniture and great attention to detail and my room was no different. I basked in the ‘Mumbainess’ of my room and the hotel before heading out into the ordered chaos of the great metropolis.
The Meers and I went about the city exploring its nuances and its intricacies. We explored the area around the hotel and walked into an exclusively Parsi colony, which had a Zoroastrian ‘Atashgah’ or ‘Fire temple’ forming the jewel studded into the ring of houses. The residents were charmingly welcoming, letting us click a few pictures, telling us stories. We learned that the Parsis are a small group of Iranian immigrants practicing the Zoroastrian religion who took refuge in India to escape persecution in their homeland centuries ago. Over time they blended in and with their sharp business acumen, rebuilt their lives. When the British came, they saw opportunity and played a crucial, perhaps the most significant role, in making Mumbai the commercial heart of British India and later, independent India. There are many prominent Parsi business families that made their contributions, consequently having several major areas in Mumbai being named after them. Today, Parsis in India number at about 80,000 to a 100,000, more than four-fifths of whom live in Mumbai. This experience was an eye-opener, in that I learned about an ethnic group which is hardly known outside of South Asia.
We later took the ‘local’ from the Churchgate Station, where we encountered the globally renowned cadre of lunch-box delivery men, the Dabbawalas. The modest group of men whose efficiency has been the stuff of discourses for major management gurus, was silently but nimbly going about their business in the midst of wondrously staring foreign visitors’ eyes. We took the local suburban train to Mahalakshmi, known for Asia’s largest open-air Laundromat, from where we drove to Gandhi Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home in Mumbai which is now a museum in his memory. We stopped by the little known Banganga Lake near Malabar Hill, where legend says that the hero king Lord Rama quenched his thirst while on a mission to find his abducted wife, after his brother shot an arrow into the earth which made water sprout from its bosom. We then had lunch at an old Parsi owned restaurant, Café Britannia. When we ventured into the artistic quarters of the Kala Ghoda area, we realized, it had a curious history by itself. There was once a bronze statue of King Edward VII riding a black horse in the central circle, which was removed in 1965 to the Byculla Zoo, but the name Kala Ghoda which means ‘Black Horse’ stuck. It is also a Jewish enclave and houses a 125 year old synagogue.
The same night we walked in the southern neighborhoods of the city to get a perspective of the city that apparently never sleeps. Gian, the manager at Abode even assured us that it was perfectly safe to walk on the streets at night. We walked to the Gateway of India and sat by the bay to contemplate. The city does indeed seem to live up to its reputation of being awake all night. We retired to our cozy little ‘Mumbais’ at the Abode a little past midnight. The next morning, after an agreeable breakfast, we went on a guided walk in the southern heritage districts of Mumbai. It was an architectural heritage walk. Our guide, an architecture graduate, was extremely knowledgeable and engaging. We learned a great deal about the city, its history, its significance during the British Raj and then post-independence. We learnt that the iconic Gateway of India, meant to welcome the then Emperor George V and Queen Mary in 1911 wasn’t even built when they came. It still bears the plaque of welcome but ‘His Imperial Majesty’ never got see it! He was so disenchanted by India’s punishing summer that he never crossed the British Isles to go to another country after he went back. More such interesting information was effortlessly disseminated by our garrulous guide Mr. Avinav. The three hours we spent walking from the Gateway of India to the Fort Area, via the MLA Hostel, Catholic Church, Regal Circle, Kala Ghoda and the Bombay University, in his company was unforgettable.
Our driver, who drove us around the city, had his own gems of information to give. The city of Mumbai, to a great many Indians and those from the neighboring countries, is a city of dreams. Being home to the Hindi film industry, known to the world as ‘Bollywood’, it is where stars are made. He told me that people wait by the houses of the stars just to get a glimpse; some wait for days on end; some move into the city to make a niche for themselves in the industry; some make it and many don’t. Those who don’t start new lives but a few of them persist and fewer still, unfortunately, give in to dejection and choose not to live another day. He finally told us that his own brother who now works with a transport company as a driver was one of those thousands who never made it big in Bollywood, but survived to tell his tale. Persistence and will, he said, were keys!
The same afternoon I embarked on the rest of my journey through central and southern India. My two days in India’s largest city in the company of the wonderful, friendly and absolutely amazing couple and staying at the fascinatingly comely boutique hotel, Abode, made for a perfect start to a perfect journey that ensued. As a professor of mathematics the United States, specializing in Number Theory, I had rattled on to my students about the contributions of Indians to my field of study. My journey through India was one of rediscovering the land that taught the world how to count and I was more than just in awe of its beauty and its complexity. My observation of the complexity of this vast and magnificent land began with its microcosm, Mumbai. Its fractal nature and its vibrant beauty were mine to be deliberated upon.