Mumbai and its Sea by Rekha Karmakar

What drew me the most to Mumbai is its sea. Turns out to be the same for my mother. Here she writes about the hold the sea of Mumbai has on her…

I sat on a bench almost motionless, gazing intently at the red - coloured setting sun on the horizon over the sea, going down slowly second by second and finally dropping down in the glistening water of the Arabian Sea. The scene was Carter Road sea side and this was my everyday routine while in Mumbai.

Mumbai symbolizes different things to different people. To some it is the centre of Indian business world. To some it is a city of fashion, glamour and cinema. If you ask me what Mumbai is to me, I shall unhesitatingly say that it is its sea.

It is not that I had not seen any sea before or that there is something extraordinary about the sea in Mumbai. I had seen the calm as well as the turbulent sea in the U.K with their sandy and pebbly beaches. Nor is the sea in Mumbai comparable to the see- through crystal water of the sea in Norway. It is not even anyway near the Goa sea. But I still love the sea in Mumbai. It is like your girl next door, who is very much your own in spite of all her follies and foibles.

My tryst with Mumbai began twelve years back when my son K came to this city for his job. He was then just a young blue eyed boy, who had stepped out for the first time in the outside world, in this case Mumbai.

He was very thrilled when we went to Mumbai for the first time. He wanted to show the city to his mom and school going brother.

Marine Drive

Our first destination was Marine Drive. So one week-end we started from Khar, where he was staying at that time, to Churchgate station by Mumbai local train.

Getting down at Churchgate station we saw from far the Marine Drive, made famous by Hindi cinemas and t.v serials. I could not hold my patience and walked very fast to reach the Drive. It was like a dream come true. The whole Drive is in the shape of a half circle. The sea is bounded by high wall all along the beach. In between the sea and the wall, there are huge chunks of rocks. I was a bit disappointed as I could not go near the sea and touch the water. I bent down over the parapet of the wall so that I could feel the drops of water on my face, coming from the high waves due to high tide.

There were people from all walks of life on the Drive - walking, drinking coconut water, munching peanuts or sitting on the parapet of the wall.

Soon dust set in. Lights were switched on. I was told that at night the lights on the circular beach look like a dazzling necklace so it is called ‘the queen’s necklace’. While coming from Kolkata if it is a night flight I always make it a point to look down to see the shining ‘queen’s necklace’ from the sky at the time of landing.

After three or four visits, we stopped going to Marine Drive. It was not on our list of ‘must–see-places’. But we always passed by it while going to Ling’s Chinese restaurant or some such restaurant in the town or while going shopping in Bombay Store to buy souvenir to take home. My son K is by now a seasoned Mumbaikar and passes by the Drive quite often, may be not even looking at the sea every time

However, I always make it a point to request K to stop the car at least for a while so that I can get down on Marine Drive. After getting down, I walk on the Drive for some time, sit down on the parapet for a while and look at the sea which stretches far. Before leaving the Drive, I fondly touch the trees on the Marine Drive. You may call it my craziness but I am like that.

Gateway of India

Next day we went to see Gateway of India, the most important landmark of Mumbai. This arch like gate was inaugurated by the British in 1924 overlooking the sea. Built of basalt stone, it is a combination of both Hindu and Muslim architecture. It is a top tourist attraction and a monumental memento of British- colonization.

I was awed by the imposing structure of Gateway of India when I saw it for the first time. I could not pass through the gate though as there were iron chains all around due to security reasons.

Opposite the gateway stands the statue of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, which was unveiled on Republic Day in 1961.

The whole area is crowded with tourists from all over the world. On the road, there are chariot like carriages drawn by horses, meant for the tourists.

There are many big shops around the area. It seems that these shops were built in the British era. They always remind me of Esplanade and Park Street areas of Kolkata

The harbour, near the Gateway of India, is always thronged with steamers, which carry tourists to the sea for a ride.

On one of my trips, I too had a ride in one of the steamers. I enjoyed the ride very much as the steamer cut across the waves.

This year during winter (2012) I found that the sea in the Gateway area was dotted with innumerable ships and submarines.

I was told that the navy was preparing for the ‘Guard of Honour’ to Pratibha Patil, the President of India. It was to be held in a day or two. I felt that I was very fortunate to see the naval preparation.

The Taj Mahal Hotel

The prestigious ‘Taj Mahal palace and Tower hotel’, which stands on the other side of ‘Gateway of India’, was built for the Britishers arriving for the first time to India. It has a very grand and majestic look.

On one of my visits to Mumbai, K took me to Taj Mahal Hotel for some tea and snacks, paying exorbitantly. Inside, the décor was a combination of both Mogul and British styles. And that pot of Darjeeling tea was the best that I ever had in my whole life.

I consider myself fortunate not only because K took me to Taj Hotel for tea but also because the hotel did not remain the same after that.

In 2008, the terrorists made a heinous attack on the hotel and a lot of it was burnt. The way the staff of the hotel stood by the guests of the hotel, till the last, is commendable. The hotel was rebuilt after quite a while and started smoothly as before. It shows the undaunted sprit of the Mumbaikars, who refuse to be cowered down by terrorism.

Jamshed Uncle & The Royal Bombay Yacht Club

Whenever I visited the town, Jamshed uncle, who is actually my daughter –in- law Kainaz’s uncle, would show me the exact place in the harbour from where the terrorists came to attack Taj Mahal Hotel and a few other places. He knows the area like the palm of his hand.

This Parsi octogenarian is also a member of the prestigious ‘Royal Bombay Yacht Club’ in the Gateway of India area. This club is still in some way or the other connected to the British royalty. That is why there are pictures of both Prativa Patil, the President of India as well as Queen Elizabeth of England on the same wall in the main hall of the club.

There are various relics of ships displayed in the club. Jamshed uncle would give us the history of each and every relic. He would also show us the ball room, with wooden floor, where British memsahibs danced in their flowing Victorian gowns with the sahibs till past Cinderella hour. Now the modern girls of Mumbai dance there with their partners on Christmas, New Year eve and on some special occasions.

Jamshed uncle would always invite us to dinner in the club. Apart from Indian food, they also serve British food e.g. steak and kidney pie, cold salad, pudding etc. He is a great host and would entertain us with anecdotes about Indira Gandhi, erstwhile General Manekshaw and many other such people.

You may be wondering why I am talking so much about uncle Jamshed while my topic of writing is Mumbai. It is because Jamshed uncle, to me, epitomizes the spirit of Mumbai - the happy-go-lucky and never-die attitude of the Mumbaikars.

Jamshed uncle, like the other members of his Parsi community, has made Mumbai his home. Mumbai is not only a home to people of different religions but also to people of the whole world. This city has a heart which is as big as the sea that surrounds it. Maybe this amalgamation of cultures is the root cause of its economic vibrancy as well as its place of pride in the film world.

Haji Ali Dargah is another place of importance on the sea. A half kilometre pier stretches from the beach to a small island where this most beautiful dargah stands. It is said that all your wishes are fulfilled if you pray here sincerely. I have passed by it quite often while going to the town. But I never mustered enough courage to walk on the pier as it does not seem to have any railings on its sides. May be one day I shall be brave enough to walk on it.

Juhu Beach

This winter (2012) when I went to Mumbai, I had the car and the driver at my disposal for two/three days as K had gone out of Mumbai on work. On the first day, I took the car to Juhu Beach. I had gone there several times. In this beach you can touch the waves of the sea. People come here from far off place so this beach is always crowded. It is like a picnic spot. The hawkers sell balloons, toys, green coconuts, peanuts and many other types of food. Everyone seems very happy. They play, make sand castles or bathe in the sea. The beach stretches as far as the eyes go.

Whenever I visited Juhu beach, I never missed a chance to go to the cluster of shops at the back of the beach. I loved the ‘vada-pao’, ‘saon papri’, ‘chat’, ‘pani-puris’ and always had them greedily even if I was already full. In the evening, the shopkeepers would spread huge cloth mats in front of the shops and call the prospective customers. We too sat on the sandy mats and had dinner with either Chinese or Indian food. These mats in front of the shops reminded me of the ‘chalets’ in Goa beach.

But this time when I went to Juhu beach, it seemed the shops were pushed further back . Nor did I see the mats in front of the shops.

As I stood that winter day all alone on Juhu beach, in front of the setting sun, the rumbling of the waves made me sad. The beach reminded me of the happy times that I had spent there. We would sit on the wet sandy beach spreading newspaper. Then we would talk our hearts out, sing Tagore’s songs and even recite Wordsworth’s poems. Those were some of the happiest moments in my life. But time passes and people also change. Anyway, I do not want to lose hope. May be sometime again in future, I shall spend some happy time here with the same set of people or with a new set.

As the red sun hid itself in the black cloud at the last moment, I proceeded towards the car.

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ISKCON Temple

Next I thought of going to ISKCON Temple which is quite near Juhu beach. ISKCON stands for “International Society for Krishna Consciousness.” It has a branch in Mayapur, West Bengal too. I had been there once. ISKCON has branches all over the world.

ISKCON Temple, in Mumbai, is very majestic and is built on a huge piece of land.

I went inside the temple and saw idols of different deities. Then I went to the courtyard where the main idols are kept on a high platform to be worshipped. Idols can be viewed at a stipulated time only. I heard that the curtain was to be unveiled at 7.p.m. So I decided to wait for half an hour and see the evening ‘aarti’. The disciples of the temple, who were in saffron coloured dress, started chanting ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’. All of them had shaven heads with a long bunch of hair in the middle of the head called ‘choti/tiki’. Many of the disciples were fair-skinned foreigners. After a while, they started dancing to the tune of ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’. The right ambience was created. At exactly 7.p.m , the curtain was drawn. I saw three gorgeous idols of Jagannath, his brother Balaram and sister Subhadra. Jagannath is the incarnation of Lord Krishna. These three deities are also worshipped in the famous temple of Puri, Orissa.

As the ‘aarati was over, I stepped out of the temple and went outside. There were a few eateries in the temple complex. One shop was selling huge sized Bengali sweets. There were also some shops selling south Indian food e.g. dosas, idlis and utthapam. Everything was cooked and served very hygienically. The price was also just right.

I ordered for a plate of onion utthapam and sat down on a parapet to do justice to it. The onion utthapam lifted my mood. I noticed a queue in front of a counter. At that time a lady, in white salwar kameez, came and sat down beside me with a thermocol plate full of very high quality rice, dal, vegetable-curry and a lump of semolina/’suji’. As I looked curiously at her plate, she said that it was ‘prasad’ served by the temple. I then realized why there was a queue before the counter. I told her that previously they used to give a lump of ‘semolina’/ ‘suji’ as prasad as soon as the devotees came out of the temple. This time I was a bit disappointed as I did not get any ‘prasad’ while coming out of the temple. On hearing it, the lady hesitated for a few seconds and then requested me to take some ‘semolina’/’suji’ from her plate as she had not touched it. I said that we, Hindus, are not supposed to refuse prasad from anyone. I gladly took one pinch of ‘semolina’/suji’ from her plate and it made my day.

I do not judge a place by its monuments, pyramids or Empire state building. You know a country by its people. This lady in Mumbai me see the Mumbaikars in a different light.

Many of you might have passed by this temple, around Juhu beach, without entering it. You may drop in next time and try the food there. I am sure you will not be disappointed and also like the ambience.

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Bandstand

Next evening I went to Bandstand sea beach. It is quite near my son K’s Bandra home. I have been going there for many years. Twelve years back, Bandstand sea- beach did not look the same. The beautiful trees were not there at that time nor were the parks and the benches. Only one thing was constant - the two houses of the Bollywood Khans on either side of Bandstand beach. On one side stands the building which houses the flat of Salman Khan. On the other side of the beach is the house of Shahrukh Khan called ‘Mannat’.

‘Coffee Café Day’ and ‘Barrista’ did not exist at that time. Only one restaurant named ‘café Sea side’ was there by the sea. We used to go there quite often. The view from the window was very good. But the cafe deteriorated later. Recently I found flies roaming about there nor were the food and the cutleries up to the mark. I sincerely wish somebody renovates it given its position over the sea.

In the evenings, I used to go for a walk on the Bandstand beach. Sometimes, I would pass by the ‘New Taj Hotel’ and go up to the old fort. From there, I could see the vast sea. I would sit there for hours and hear the rippling sound of the waves. As the soothing breeze of the sea blew over me, it seemed that all the shackles of my life were coming off one by one.

After a few years, I saw the new bridge coming up on the sea. Every year I would watch how much it had progressed. In one of my recent visits, I found that the ‘Bandra-Worli sea-link’ was complete. One day K took me for a drive over the bridge. At night the bridge looks magnificent with innumerable lights. Mumbaikars are very proud of this sea-link. This bridge has cut short the route for many commuters though the toll tax is very high.

Bandstand beach has many regular visitors mostly comprising of very high society people.

This winter when I went there on my own, I stood in front of SRK’s house for some time. I also saw the long bus, where he dresses up for shoot, parked by the side of his house.

I positioned myself at a convenient place and watched the sun going down.

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Ramkrishna Mission

After the ritual of watching the sun-set was over, I went to the car and asked the driver to take me to Ramkrishna Mission at nearby Khar.

I liked the ambience of the mission very much. It was time for ‘aarti’ so I stayed back. First there was puja and then the monks sang prayers. There was pin-drop silence and an atmosphere of peace prevailed in the hall. They gave us some fruit as ‘prasad’ while coming out.

The garden around the mission is also very beautiful. On the other side of the road, there is a huge multi-storeyed building which houses ’Ramkrishna Mission Hospital’. The one at Kolkata is very good and offers treatment at a reasonable rate.

Ramkrishna Mission does many charitable works all over the world selflessly.

You may drop in there sometime. It is the best place to meditate and look inside yourself.

Carter Road

For the last few years, I have been going to Carter Road sea-side for my evening walk. The beach has been developed in the recent years. Beautiful trees have come up. It has become a hub of activities. Evening walkers start going to the beach from 4 p.m. They are mostly old and retired people. The office-goers go there later at night.

I like to go there in the first shift i.e.4.p.m First, I walk for some time. Then I sit down on a bench and watch the sun-set. Every day I would take picture of the setting sun on my mobile. There are many regular visitors. They have their own groups. One day I saw one Auntie Nancy bringing a cake in a tiffin box and offering it to all her friends.

There are some people who take their dogs for a walk. There is a separate dog-park for them.

Sometimes functions are held on an elevated platform. Young college goers also throng the beach. Many of them practise dancing there.

As I do not know anyone on the beach, I like to watch all the activities going on there. I also check my mails, be on the ‘facebook’ and surf internet on my mobile while sitting on a bench.

What I like most about Carter Road sea-beach is its mangroves. Mangroves and Swamps occupy a large stretch of the beach. In some place, they are so dense that you cannot even see the sea. The roots of the trees are always submerged in sea-water especially during tide. I love to watch the small insects, fishes and birds playing in the water near the roots.

While writing about Carter Road sea-side, I must make a passing reference to ‘Joggers Park’ made famous by the Hindi film ‘Jogger’s Park’. It is a beautiful park on Carter Road sea-side. Previously we used to go there quite often. There was an entry charge of Re 1 or Rs 2 per person. It is an ideal place for the joggers and the walkers. But now-a-days most of the walkers go to Carter Road sea-side as it has been spruced up very beautifully.

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This is all about Mumbai and its sea. Sea is the lifeline of Mumbai. Mumbaikars, who are born and brought up here, do not realize it as much as we, the outsiders, do. Had it not been for the sea, the city would have been more polluted. Mumbai, without its sea, would have lost much of its charm.

Many of my friends in Mumbai had requested me to write about the city. But I was always a little hesitant about it. It is as mammoth a task as writing an epic due to the multi-faced dimensions of this vivacious city.

The local trains, the dabba system, obsession with show business, high profile business world, culinary experiments in national and international cuisines, world-class restaurants and hotels along with street food - Mumbai has it all.

I was at my wit’s end while attempting to write about Mumbai. So I chose its one aspect which appeals to me most - its sea. I do not know if I have lived up to my Mumbai friends expectations. It was, however, a genuine and sincere attempt on my part.

I would like to end this post expressing my admiration for Mumbai and Mumbaikars by saying ‘Salaam Mumbai’

Rekha Karmakar

27th May, 2012

Kolkata-

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