We dumped our bags and, famished, fell into Café Universal at the end of the street. It is not a name that you would immediately associate with a cauldron of Iranian/Indian culinary fusion. The menu was heavy on spinach and cardoman pods and the walls were lined with tourist posters advertising the hidden wonders of the cradle of civilisation. The food was great and, replenished, we set out to explore.
Mumbai is a mega-city; the sixth largest conurbation in the world, it is home to 16.4 million souls and more variety than you can imagine. Famously, one slumdog million live in the 1.75 square kilometre piece of land sandwiched between the railway lines by the airport. Vast forests of high rise flats abut this and a war for development land is being waged between Rachman landlords and 10th generation slums dwellers.
Mumbai is simultaneously the economic powerhouse of India and the cultural repository for all things colonial, the home of India’s world beating IT industry and boiling mass of cultural and religious fault lines that erupt through the thin crust from time to time. Bombs have gone off regularly, if not frequently over the last decade. Famously the swish Taj Mahal hotel was stormed by terrorists and set ablaze in the ensuing fire fight. Monsoon rains submerge the streets to waist height every year and the summer months bake the mud streets as hard as the tarmac ones.
But it is the colonial history that drew us. A young Churchill left a 29 rupee bar bill unpaid at the Royal Yacht club, a significant sum at the time which remains on the books. The origins of empire lay in the East India Company that gradually turned fledgling trade agreements with the Maharajas into an economic strangle hold that became a colonial government by proxy. The state then absorbed the governance of the territories under the control of the EIC and expanded the Raj by military and diplomatic means. The fight was by no means one sided and the Hindu Maharajas of Rajasthan and the Seikh kings of the Punjab held the Imperial forces at bay, prompting a political settlement that allowed them to retain much of their independence.
Colonial India was governed from Whitehall with a network of only 5,000 British officials, both home and abroad. It is now recognized as a rapacious and exploitative period that even the paternalistic attitudes of the day could not justify to the more enlightened thinkers of the time. Mumbai was the nerve centre of operations and the administration of empire has left the city with a wealth of colonial buildings that eclipse every British city apart from London.
We pounded the streets, visiting as many as we could. The university is a beautiful blend of gothic, with rose windows and spiralling pillars. The High Court resembles a German castle with boxed towers and elevated ramparts and walkways. The main railway terminal is a magnificent confusion of domes, buttresses and pillars. The office of public works is a tribute to the Doge's Palace in Venice. The Modern Art museum is a Roman Pantheon. There are so many more that you leave Mumbai in a whirl of architectural styles, feeling that you have barely scratched the surface and that a lifetime could be devoted to the appreciation of one of the Empire’s more desirable legacies.
Ironically, Lutyens was furiously completing much of New Delhi as late as 1935, unaware that 12 years later British troops would march out of the colony for the last time, under the monolithic Gateway of India. Sadly, many of these buildings are neglected and have taken on a dilapidated air. Mumbai will, in time, renovate and restore but they have yet to reach that point on the arc of prosperity, at which such works are a priority.
As a mysterious counterpoint to the order of empire, we trudged up the Malabar Hill to the Banganga Tank. Situated in a decrepit block, itself lost amongst a crowd of luxury tower blocks, the tank is a massive and mystical enigma that dates from at least 300AD. Legend has it that the Hindu Deity Lord Ram pierced the ground with his arrow, during a search for his lost love. Water welled up and the site became a location for pilgrimage. The tank is 135m long, 45m wide and 10m deep. Protruding from the surface of the water is a wooden post, said to mark the centre of the world. Children jump from the raised steps that surround the tank. Geese and Carp feed. Stone representations of Shiva, Ganesh and a host of other deities, line the surrounding walls. It is eerie and timeless place where you can sit in silence and contemplate ancient history’s prescription for the modern condition.
Our whistle stop tour of Mumbai was an intoxicating taster that left us determined to return.
Goodbye Mumbai - for now.