The clock chimed the half-hour past seven in the evening; it was a medieval sound, made more so by the empty streets and a constant drizzle. The Rajabai Clock Tower in the University Campus at Fort was lit up with a purple light; the building’s gorgeous and ornate pillars, sculptures, motifs, arches, towers etc. sharply visible even in the dim light. A group of night heritage walkers stood outside the building huddled under their umbrellas listening to their guide. Beside this, the Bombay High Court with its softly lit passageways looked pretty and romantic. Well, nostalgically so.
I had forgotten what a joy it is to walk and discover the Fort area of Mumbai, especially at night. With empty roads and yellow lights, it’s easy to let time rewind to a few centuries ago. In the daytime, it gets transformed into a totally different world, buzzing with the energy, sights and sounds of today that are constantly shifting. I believe that one can come here for 365 days a year, and can still find something new each day.
|Rajabai Clock Tower as seen from Oval Maidan. Photo credit: Amita Pitre|
Beyond the obvious famous buildings, it’s a veritable treasure trove for people who have any interest in architecture, history, or arts. The buildings are an amalgamation of various styles - from Gothic, Victorian, Art-deco, and Indo-Saracenic, and with Roman, French, Dutch, Mughal, other Indian influences. You just have to look at the now dilapidated Esplanade House (right in front of Fabindia) made of cast iron, the ornate motifs of the Standard Chartered Building, the medieval-castle-like LIC building right next to it, the Parsi Agiaries, Knesset Eliyahoo Jewish Synagogue, St. Thomas Cathedral, and the Asiatic Library to even get a sense of the variety that can be found here. The happy mix of arches, spires, turrets, steeples, the cast iron weather vanes, sculptures, wooden balconies, spiral staircases, tree-lined streets, all probably brought forth the character that continues to define Mumbai.
I have always believed that it’s not the GDP that keeps our economy going, but food. If you need evidence, well, a visit to this area is a must. There is food for every taste and every pocket! From road side vendors selling breakfast items, parsi bakeries with freshly baked bread and cookies, to swanky and elite restaurants, all exist almost cheek by jowl along with numerous Khao Galis. Poha for Rs.20, a plate of crunchy vadas and soft idlis for Rs.30, chicken sandwiches for Rs.45, Pongal for Rs.70, Parsi chicken dhansak for Rs.150, muffins of Rs.15, pizzas made on tawa for Rs.20, road-side chicken biryani for Rs.50 (which gets over in one hour!), kheema pao for Rs.120, south Indian lunch thali for Rs.80, berry pulao in Britannia for Rs.400, the baked yogurt at Food for Thought for Rs.180, the list here is endless. If you are a food adventurer, you will love to roam the streets and experiment with your stomach and taste buds here.
Cafes and Book Shops:
Forget the GPS. The romance is in wandering the lanes and by-lanes and chancing upon cafes and book stores tucked away between shops and buildings. Two of my favourite bookshops are already here – Kitabkhana and Strand. The fairly new one Wayward and Wise is a bookshop where you can browse for hours like that in the old days, their range of books being fairly eclectic and different. There are also other tiny bookstores which make you feel good that e-business hasn’t taken over all small businesses yet. As for cafes, whether they are stand alone or part of a bookstore, quaint or quirky, I’m terribly glad they exist despite Starbucks. All of them perfect places to catch up with friends over a nice cup of tea or coffee. Need I say more?
Shopping and People:
Once I saw a man setting up some bottles in the corner of a lane. A few women quickly gathered around him, some of them in burqa. He was selling itar. An hour later, on my return I found him and his business gone. Another time I wanted to find somebody who could repair my daypack. I asked a shop selling bags who gave me precise directions to an old Bohri Muslim man called Hassan Bhai. Sometimes there is a terrible flurry of activities, vendors rushing to wrap up their businesses before the police arrived. In one hour’s time and with the police gone, it’s all back to normal business once again. Like food, one can find almost everything here. Fruits, grocery, mops, photo developers, printers, coffee grinders, gifts papers, raw and boiled eggs, cobblers, vendors selling shirts and belts, coconut water, tea stalls, watches, pen drives, mobile phones, mobile phone covers, saree, soaps, masala. Despite competition, there’s a place for everybody and everybody looks out for everybody else. It does not matter if you are a Parsi, Jew, Muslim, Christian or Hindu. That’s how and why this ecosystem continues to thrive, and not just survive.
In the many tiny park, corners, and main roads, one can find life size statues of erstwhile Bombayites. Many of the names are new to me, but whenever I pass one such statue, I do look up and say a silent thank you. For making Mumbai, the amazing city it still is today.