Mumbai blows its hot breath in your ears and laughs in your face as it tweaks your nose. Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it.
In the morning we drop the anchor in mulligatawny soup, opposite Mumbai’s giant Victorian pier, Apollo Bunder. We have just taken ten days to cross the Arabian Sea in our yacht, and for the last thirty-six hours were wide awake dodging fishing boats off the coast of India. With hollow and gritty eyes — and grateful for this safe haven — we lay our heads down and fall asleep to the lullaby of gentle, distant humming.
Several hours later the stifling heat in our cabin wakes us up. The gentle humming has changed to the irritated buzz of angry hornets. I check the thermometer, it is well into the 40s, but at least up on deck we have the benefit of a breeze.
We survey the shoreline of Colaba. At five hundred metres away, it will be an uncomfortable ride in our dinghy through the choppy broth. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, recently refurbished after the previous year’s bombing spree, glints in the afternoon sun, jostling for position with the monumental Gateway of India. Squatting between the two, I pick out the Royal Bombay Yacht Club.
We carefully lower our tender into the heaving, toxic water.
“Do NOT fall in. Sit completely still,” my concerned captain orders, “you don’t know what is lurking in there.”
He points at unnameable and unmentionable lumps floating past our all too vulnerable inflatable.
The stench of past catches from working fishing boats hangs in the air as we head towards the slippery dockside steps. Finding nowhere to moor the dinghy, we throw its tiny anchor into the water and hitch a lift with a local skiff for the last twenty metres. I climb onto land. Carefully. The low tide has revealed a slime covered stairway and wet Jackson Pollock walls. Ten days earlier we had been swimming in the silent, crystal waters of Oman, enjoying empty white sandy beaches. I wonder why we had been in such a rush to leave.
Strangers smile and grab my hand, pulling me up the steps. At the top the buzzing splinters into vehicles shrieking up and down P J Ramchandani Marg blaring their horns. Staccato voices bark and shout at each other. We are confronted with wall to wall people: they stand, walk, run, talk, lie down, sit down, lean against walls. They come in all shapes and sizes, sexes and ages. A man says hello and asks us where we are from, a question we’ll get used to over the months to follow. After so long at sea on our own, it is electrifying.
Oblivious to the tumult, gorgeous women, like exotic tropical birds, glide by in elegant embroidered sarees. They are swathed in clashing combinations of colours. Back in my old life in the fashion trade they would have been laughingly over-the-top, ‘positively garish, darling’. But here they look perfect. There is no London designer-black to be seen, just acres of glorious gold, glittering embellishment, jangling jewellery and startling prints on silk and cotton. Their serene beauty is dazzling. Smiling men tout incongruous giant balloons or gaudy postcards. Used to the persistence of Turkish and Egyptian vendors we stoutly decline both, and are surprised when they immediately leave us alone.
We plunge into the mêlée.
And find ourselves back in central London. Photographing the buildings of Bhauro Patil Marg, and tramping the streets of Fort with its museum and municipal offices, we could be walking along Kensington Gore. The Unesco-listed ‘Victoria’ Terminus – aka Chhatrapati Shivaji – is a dead-ringer for St Pancras station. We expect to see an Albert (Memorial or Hall) at any moment.
My nose lurches between ecstasy and torment as fragrant spices and sweet-smelling incense replace toe-curling odours that don’t invite scrutiny. After eighteen months in India I will get used to its smell. By late afternoon on our first day, the heat and noise beats us into submission, so we retreat to the oasis of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club.
In the heart of the city we re-charge our batteries amid ancient, high-ceilinged foyers. On the veranda, overlooking the garden, we sip fragrant tea from fine bone china cups. Outside the traffic blares and the smog swirls. In the dark wood-panelled bar we drink ice cool gin and tonic and chat to well-to-do Mumbaikers. Later, in the airy dining room, we wolf down the best chicken tikka masala in Mumbai, served on heavy round tables covered in freshly laundered white linen.
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