WORDS: CHERYL-ANN COUTO
PHOTOGRAPHS: JEREMIAH CHRISTANAND RAO
GREAT FROM: All metros
GREAT FOR: Seeing the city with new eyes
Like all storied cities, Mumbai can seem like nothing more but the sum of its famous clichés. But, beyond its intoxicating dance of glitz and grit, it is a place full of gentle, soulful narratives. You only need lean in closer… and like walking a lot.
Take the sea, for example. It’s an inextricable part of the city’s life and identity – immortalised in art, literature and religious customs, its banks overrun at any time by tourists, locals and lovers – and perhaps the least understood and explored. Marine Life of Mumbai, a volunteer-, citizen-driven initiative wants to fix this. Co-founder and marine biologist Abhishek Jamalabad leads the way across the craggy, ashen intertidal shores that flank the 19th-century islet dargah of Haji Ali to find aquatic miracles amid the plastic refuse. He points out a lilac sea sponge, growing from the underside of the rock, that looks like an intergalactic plant and, soon enough, you start to spot peach-, mint-coloured rushes of them everywhere.
Over the course of an hour, you discover a watery nation – live rock oysters helpfully giving your shoes grip on the sodden trail, Nerite snails leaving filigree-like trails of white eggs, cloudy bags of squid eggs you might mistake for polythene castaways, and corals of seemingly Mughal design. These hardy sea denizens have adapted to the harsh sun and abject pollution, says Abhishek, but the fight in them is ebbing; focused conservation is their only hope in the long run.
For the design-minded, and those personally affronted by the city’s harried, Jenga-style urban development, South Mumbai’s art deco district will feel like a safe space. Atul Kumar, founder of Art Deco Mumbai, along with colleague and conservation architect Nityaa Lakshmi Iyer, leads a fascinating tour of a stretch of 18 buildings that face the heritage Oval Maidan and were Mumbai’s first taste of the symmetrical architectural style. From the fonts of their signage, the sorbet palette and functional design, the cuboid row exemplifies the ingenuity of art deco. You’ll see fluted columns that elongate the squat structures, inverted chevron grooves that stream sunlight and air into the stairways, and wave-shaped banisters that allude to the sea. Of course, the city went mad for this style and, today, with over 200 buildings, Mumbai is the world’s second-largest keeper, after Miami, of the art deco style. Thanks to its location and its proud, largely Parsi, inhabitants, the stretch remains painstakingly preserved and restored.
That said, conservation isn’t the maximum city’s strong suit; cheeky adaptability is. Historian Simin Patel, founder of Bombaywalla Walks, will attest to this on her guided exploration of South Mumbai’s Opera House precinct. She’ll tell you how the seedy New Roshan Talkies was one of a clutch of theatre houses built on what were possibly decommissioned cemetery grounds. The lurid movie posters outside belie the dargahs most of them have in their basements. Or, how, when the Royal Opera House was inaugurated, members of the audience hadn’t a clue that the floor under the carpets was not ready yet. Restored to its former glory and reopened last year, the 106-year-old opera house has resolved to be more spry than ever, heeding and answering the city’s ever-changing frequencies. Simin concludes the walk at Café De La Paix next door. The ramshackle Irani café was named after the iconic Parisian establishment, known for neither the butter-bombed bun maskas, nor the strong, neem-infused tea dished out here. And it just fits.