5 classmates exploring Mumbai after 25 years since college for 3 days and mostly no nights
Malini. Priyanka. Pallavi. Divya. Kunj. We were classmates in Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, in what seems like a million years ago. The 90s. The era when if we had to drop a message on our whereabouts to our friends we’d scribble on the tiny corner of the blackboard at the foyer of the college. When owning a pair of jeans was a privilege. When music was enjoyed on cassette playing Sony Walkman, shared among friends. And, bunking class mostly meant sitting on the drive and diving into each other’s lunch dabbas. Life took us our separate ways as it does and I re connected with some of them 3 years ago when I visited the US, even with Pallavi who lives in my own city. And, voila, soon the whatapp group chitter chatter turned into a reunion plan.
Mumbai seemed like the perfect meeting spot. None of the 5 of us live in Mumbai, but have had had some tryst. Malini has spent her formative school years here. Pallavi visits Mumbai very often on work. Divya has explored and enjoyed it as a tourist. Priyanka is a Mumbai virgin making a Mumbai travel plans since I had a home in the mad city. As for me, I worked in Mumbai for half a decade, living like there like a tourist, and now the pretend homie in this group. For all the assorted ambitions we were packing into this reunion plan - night life, seafront, chilling, culture, history, food, shopping - into 3 days, only Mumbai, the city where impossible dream come true, could do it for us.
Our planning was via an uncharacteristically uber-polite whatsapp group that reduced the distance between Bangalore, NJ and Chicago but had everyone democratically agree on everything. In support cast were Google Sheets, Splitwise, Whatsapp video calls and Pallavi’s able assistant, Geeta (a real person), to engineer the very ambitious and fun plan for 3 days so that we experience of the beautiful melee of Mumbai and also pursue our selfish individual passions that would be our personal high points of our holiday.
The one thing we got right straight away was getting an apartment to ourselves in the heart of Bandra, very close to the hugely touristy Bagel House, the exact reason why we didn’t end up eating there. However, our process of closing on an apartment was tedious and fraught with roadbumps as we discovered that while it’s definitely worthwhile to stay in South Mumbai/Colaba as a tourist, there are far fewer Airbnb options there; and, if you find one you like, should grab it immediately. Also, it’s worth keeping your radars on for what look like a steal deal, as it’s very likely the building is under renovation and the windows under a scaffolding, or the neighbours just hate the concept of an Airbnb in their apartment. We lost a few apartments to deliberations, but what we double downed was perfect! Cute, cozy, airy, with a non-slum view, in a small building with 1 apartment per floor where we could sprawl our belongings, plonk ourselves on the sofa, raid each other’s make up, clothes and accessories and cook up a little something in case we got very lazy or jetlagged. The very noteworthy aspect was a 3 toilet access in a 2BHK, that reduced our morning turnarounds immensely. Apparently. I can’t remember our nights from mornings.
Mumbai is a melting pot. You look for some new place to eat every other week and you’ll find a plethora of options that are so uniquely the city. We each had our eatgenda and 3 days into a minimum of 3 meals meant we could tick off everyone’s cravings.
080 – The lounge at Bangalore airport – Setting the stage for good times, even before we stepped on the soil of Mumbai, is the pretty swanky lounge with the name that gives away the STD code of the city. I love it’s modern design with Indian ikat touches and the very quintessentially ooru pro tech plug in, like sound proof cubicles and wireless charging points, hitech loos, business booths, whiskey bar, cinema lounge and, of course, a 5 star like spread of food - south Indian, north Indian, bakes, cornflakes, juices, cut fruit, yoghurt, smoothies and live counters. And, while the optics gets my sensories dancing, in classic Kunj Shah style I reach for idli vada sambar, like I always do, no matter how vast the spread, no matter which part of India. Note: Amex and Axis bank card holders and Priority Pass members get complimentary access, however it’s wise to check for any updates beforehand.
Mumbai’s street food
1. Chaat at Fort – Think Juhu or Chowpati and you think bhel puri in conical pudiyas. There is a theory that Bhel was invented at a restaurant called Vithal near Victoria Terminus, bless the chef(s). I am not a huge fan of the street chaat of Mumbai as it teekha (spicy) and not chatpata (hot-sweet), but over my 5 year stay stint I acquired a taste from some of the good spots – Fort area, the folks in front of Fab India being one of my go to. But when we did jump off our taxi to go there, the go to were gone! I never give up on good chaat! Two bylane away Malini and I were wolfing down spicy pani puris and parceling bhel puri-sev puri (pronounced sheu puri) and turning it into our lunch-on-the-go. There! We were being not-a-moment-to-lose Bambaiyyas already!
2. Sardar Pav Bhaji – Definitely invented in Mumbai, it is a mill workers food, which is not a hot favourite in every Indian snack food joint. The origin of this dish traces back to textile mill workers in Mumbai in the 1850s, who had lunch breaks too short for a full meal. They needed cheap, easy, quick-to-prepare, light, yet nutritious food. And, voila! Sardar Pav Bhaji in Tardeo is a Mumbai must-do, where there is more butter in the bhaji than vegetables. We visited it just after a massive lunch at Swati Snacks (they are neighbours) and in true college style, we ordered 1 plate of pav bhaji with 5 spare spoons.
3. Vada pav and missal pav – A soft bread roll, sliced open with green chili-coriander chutney slathered in the middle and a hot batata vada pressed in between, sprinkled with dry garlic chutney, wrapped in a piece of old newspaper with fried green chili on the side, exchanged for anything between Rs.10-20. That’s the Indian burger, for the city on the move, believed to have been invented in 1966 by a Mumbaikar, Ashok Vaidya, who opened the first vada pav stall opposite Dadar train station for textile mill workers of Parel and Worli.
Misal pav, the Maharashtrain street snack is sprouts curry topped with onions, tomatoes, farsan, lemon juice, dhania, served with the soft pav, supposedly originated in Nasik, and is a real favourite with the hard working class of Mumbai. We got a taste of both at the Gateway of India, when surprisingly there were no other options for breakfast barring 1 local stall and one hawker.
4. Elco Pani Puri – On hill road, Bandra, this is street food with a bit of air. Pani puri water made from Bisleri, using cutlery instead of hands, it’s street food for those who don’t want to eat on the street and rightfully, rather pricey too. A perfect stopover in-between busy street shopping, for us too.
5. Raju chai, Fort – Serving the quintessential fuel to the tireless city that never sleeps, this joint has rejuvenating kullars of chai in unique flavours – kesar, chocolate, lemongrass – along with bun and brun maska (Yea, they are different. Bun is soft, brun a crunchy shell) in a cheerful kitsch decor. It was the perfect way to get our energy levels up after a sapping hot day. Their maggi too is delish!
Mumbai's Fine Dine
1. Masque, Lower Parel – A 10-course degustation menu with some forward-thinking ingredient amalgamations that had all of us in throes of foodgasm. The courses just kept coming and blowing us away with their presentation, experimentation and flavour balance. And while we thought wine pairing/cocktail pairing would have been a bit much with 5 drinks interspersing a 10 course meal, we outdid ourselves with their delicious cocktail combos and wine options, leaving a small aftertaste of regret for not opting for the pairing price, making it one of my my most expensive dinners ever.
*We were here first!* Before everyone is making a beeline for it since it got announced as India’s best restaurant 2023 and No.16 in Asia’s 50 Best restaurants 2023.
2. Bastian, Bandra + Lower Parel – Our best shot at spotting celebrities, as Shilpa Shetty is a co-owner of this restropub, hoping we could order them off the menu. It’s here that we decided to make Negroni the official drink of the trip, post a couple glasses, we were able to see celebrity faces in ordinary folks as imagined by Malini. Great salads and small eats and a fun vibe. Which made us check out Bastian Lower Parel where reservation is an absolute must and so our impromptu plan failed.
3. Sabko, Bandra – With a political partyesque name that meant to democratize bakery food for all, the theme is lost in the long queue for the highly priced food and coffee. If you don’t mind the double standards, what they put out is fresh and delicious, their croissant getting our no.1 vote.
4. Suzette, Bandra – A a short walk away from our stay, to work up an appetite and get the bandra vibe on foot, this French creperie and café didn’t really excite my friends from the west that much, who’d have preferred to have pani puri instead, while they did enjoy the English tea and the crepes.
5. Swati Snacks, Tardeo – Featuring home gujju food at absurdly high price is the reason why this little joint attracts tourists esp. firangs and why I slot it under fine dine. Our first meal was at Swati and my usual panki, fada khichdi and masala chaas instantly won us all over. Their chutney is everything, and please note, it’s unlimited!
6. Harbour Bar, Taj Hotel – Helps to pre-book a table so that you get the view of the Gateway of India from your table. Good classic cocktails in an iconic hotel that’s etched in the history of Mumbai for ever since 26/11 ’08 and much after the rumour of it being built filped-up from its original blue print.
Another thing we unanimously agreed on was going to a night club and breaking the dance floor on bolly music, with all the extra weight we’ve accumulated in the last 25 years, what with the binge Bombay eating, and also hoping some bolly stars are doing the jhatkas-matkas with us. It took some effort to nail the bars (Epitome_Lower Parel, Social_Colaba/Palladium, Mitron_Fort, Bombay Cartel_LowerParel, Matahari_Worli, South Bombay Bar_Worli) and we spent 2 of our 3 nights boogieing. Bastian Lower Parel missed out on our moves and made me realise that after all this time, now looking very sexy and grown up and possessing full wallets too can deny entry into clubs. You need reservations!
Café Mondegar’s jukebox was a real throwback to the imagined Riverdale High times of my era. We punched a coin in the slot machine and punched number buttons to queue our retro songs and sang Bohemien Raphsody like we were in concert! And, we sang in our cab to a very patient cabbie, and then in our apartment.
InstaReel (gone bad)
With a debutant director from Europe who got so caught up with the spot opportunity and cinematograpy skills he forgot the fundamental of social media – keep it vertical; no camera movements. Catch up with Asia, white man!
(Things done when not attending class; bunking, gossiping, hanging out; MCC verbiage)
Gateway & Taj Hotel
The number 1 iconic spot, drawing both local and tourist crowd, this Gateway's arch is quite literally the gateway to the city. The monument was erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary at Apollo Bunder on their visit to India in 1911. Heavily protected since the 26/11 attack of 2008 only the resident pigeons there can move freely. It is in its premises that one can just turn a few degrees and see the contrast called Mumbai. The luxurious Taj Hotel's beautiful Indo Saracenic architecture and it's well heeled clientele and wheels, the backdrop to the Indo Saracenic structure of the Gateway thronged by the masses gorging on vada pavs and blowing Rs.10 bubbles and posing for Rs.50 instant photos. As you walk down the steps to the edge of the water, you can either a joyride in a jetty that's bursting to the seams, or you can go far in a swanky speedboat and look at the diminishing Colaba skyline and the dipping sun while sipping wine. What's equal is the dreams in everyone's eyes and the fire in everyone's belly.
There is not much of a sea view from the road now, but as you walk the path to the Dargah, you can see the gigantamum Western Freeway project underway that will link Worli to Haji Ali. The dargah is just as crowded as I remember it and the long pathway leading to it is still dotted with mendicants all the way through. The real joy is when you return as you see the high rises of Mumbai from a distance and a glass of really fresh juice or mango and cream at Haji Ali Juice centre.
NMACC (Nita Mukesh Ambai Cultural Centre)
Before it flooded everyone’s Instagram feed, before PC & Nick Jonas walked the red carpet, we were here! We were at Dhirubhai Ambani Square to see the musical fountain show, without an inkling that it would be celebrity studded a month later in the April gala, and become a global landmark. Massive and very blingy, it has changed the face of BKC and put an indelible Ambani tag to it. (Btw, is there an '&' missing between Nita Mukesh in the name? Or could they have just called it NACC?)
Visiting this temple in Prabha Devi is a sign that the lord wanted to give you darshan, the Lord Ganesha here grants your wish and hence is bowed to before beginning anything significant. We had the best pre-holi darshan here with Pallavi’s cousin making it really special and getting us the best unhindered view of the idol without the dhakka-mukki.
A wonderful discovery by Priyanka that has passionate Mumbaikars as guides, revealing the true city to locals and tourists. We ended up doing 2 open-jeep tours with them and covering a lot of ground and history in two of the most interesting parts of Mumbai – Imperial parts of Fort and its imperial parts, & Bandra and its unknown history, with a very knowledgeable and fun guide. Highly recommended, especially for folks who live in Mumbai, as I didn’t know even 5% of what I learnt. Expect to be in the jeep for 2.5-3hrs.
A one hour boat ride from The Gateway is the small island (Elephanta Island or The island of Gharapuri) dotted with numerous ancient archaeological remains including a collection of rock art linked to the cult of Shiva. The rock-cut Elephanta Caves were constructed about the mid-5th to 6th centuries AD. It's well worth taking the local guide along. And if you can't climb the caves (like me), stay put at the shack at the foothill with a chilled beer in the sultry heat. But please be warned, you can't close your eyes in drowsiness there, else you will be asked to leave.
It would have been a real pity if my friends didn't get a taste of shopping in Mumbai. It's one of the most enthralling experience where the very latest in trends will reveal itself, the range to choose from will boggle you, the brands that have stores in other cities will have a unique collection here, and the persistent salesmen ship will ensure you spend your money willingly and satisfied. I was not going to let my friends off the Hill Road, Bandra street shopping, if that was the last thing we did together. That pretty much WAS the last thing we did together.