The squeal of tyres barely covers my scream as we dodge and weave through traffic on Mahatma Gandhi Road. We’re headed towards our next shopping destination, our black and yellow taxi weaving past pedestrians, carts and old London double deckers, the driver’s hand permanently welded to the horn. We howl in unison as we slide across the seats and scramble towards the pavement. We’re in Mumbai, home of chaos and traffic, where business royalty and Bollywood glamour rub shoulders. Mumbai, with its head in the clouds and feet in the slums, stands in its crumbling grandeur like a twinkling jewel on the Arabian Sea. Where brand new steel and glass skyscrapers decorate the sky and colonial buildings festoon the streets. Where Armani suits pray and holy men cruise, and gaggles of rag clad children tap mischievously on car windows. It is a precarious balance of the old and the new, and the very rich and the very very poor.
From the squatting roadside barber to the office worker, one can’t escape the obvious entrepreneurial thirst of India. And Mumbai is its heaving, swirling heart centre. From all over India they flock, and there are few places in the world where money and fame are held in higher esteem. Where cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar are rock gods, and where the face of Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan is plastered across every billboard and highway underpass. So what better to do than lose oneself in the throng for a bit of retail therapy, Mumbai-style.
In recent years Mumbai has seen a resurgence of locally made high end retail, led by locals and expats alike who were tired of travelling abroad only to see so many beautiful products labelled “Made in India”. The city of bygone grandeur is now riding a wave of new Indian design which instead of leaching abroad, is alive and readily available across the city. It is inspiring and worth stopping to see.
Clustered in the southern suburb of Colaba, our first stop is twofold; Bombay Electric and Good Earth. Located behind the Taj Hotel complex, they offer beautifully and locally designed textiles, homewares, clothing and jewellery heavy with colour and motifs invoking the British Raj. Despite western price tags, the tea cups in Good Earth were so hotly coloured that I couldn’t resist; so sparklingly chintzy, perfectly festive for drinking chai. I was limited only by what I could carry and fit into my suitcase, which didn’t seem to stop me picking up couch cushions covered in retro tiffin boxes and railway prints.
Further down the Colaba Causeway, hidden deep inside the Grants Building on Arthur Bunder Road is Bungalow 8. The entrance is very easy to miss, which adds to its charm. Started by vintage junkie Maithili Ahluwalia, she has managed to imbue Indian design into fashion, furniture and homewares, carving a delightful melange scattered across three floors. Ahluwalia is included in the Times of India’s 2011 best dressed list, and with due cause; Bungalow 8 is a mish mash of vintage and modern; the perfect Mumbai mix. The old warehouse in which it sits is a destination in itself. The rooms sit secretly behind wooden doorways, up heavy staircases, and across ornately tiled floors. If it weren’t perhaps for the vintage sunglasses and hot pink shoes we purchased, we would almost feel transported back to colonial Bombay.
Back on the textile trail, and we head towards the area of Kala Ghoda. Sandwiched between Colaba and the Fort Area, it is a precinct heavy with artists and designers. It’s a short walk to the Jehangir Art Gallery, the Prince of Wales Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art. On Mahatma Gandhi Road is Fabindia, which showcases India’s diverse craftsmen and women under the one roof. Handmade Indian fashion, scarves, handbags, jewellery, shoes and furniture decorate the floor. Grab a coffee or a chai at Moshe’s on the second floor under the high beamed cavernous roof, and admire the colour and vibrancy of the hung textiles.
For those chasing a street level experience, head to the Colaba Causeway Market, where traders line the busy boulevard selling everything from trinkets and t-shirts to crafts and chai. Look for Tantra Tees, India’s locally produced t-shirts; sometimes spiritual, sometimes just very amusing, but all very Indian. Follow the traders’ banter, but don’t be badgered into a sale. Barter hard for a deal. North of the Fort area lies the Chor Bazaar, Mumbai’s outdoor antiques markets. Its name is hotly disputed amongst local rickshaw drivers, with some believing it dates back to a visit by Queen Victoria. When she stepped off her ship onto the docks, she was never again reunited with her belongings. They were instead uncovered for sale at the flea markets, which were henceforth known as the Chor Bazaar, or Thieves Market. Others believe it is called as much due to the high levels of theft and easy pickings from oblivious tourists. Just keep your eyes peeled and your wallet close and there are some fantastic antique (and not so antique) bargains to be had.
Once the shopping frenzy is over and its time for refreshment, Marine Drive is undoubtably the queen of Mumbai. Lined with hotels and apartments, caressed by the Arabian Sea, the waterfront boulevard is where Mumbai lingers in the late afternoon to enjoy the cool ocean breeze. Take a table at The Pizzeria, on the junction of Veer Nariman Road, where ice cold mocktails and juices are served up amongst the gaggle and throng of university students and post work minglers. Tables at the front are at a premium in the late afternoon, where the front windows are thrown wide open. It is a rare and perfect vantage point to watch Mumbai pass by. Behind The Pizzeria sits Not Just Jazz By The Bay, perfect for music lovers and open until late.
Or, if you’re in the mood for something quieter, head up another block to the Intercontinental Hotel, where on the top floor resides Dome. The rooftop sky bar is bedecked in white and looks out across the bay to the twinkling lights of Chowpatty Beach and Malabar Hill. It is a soft, sultry oasis from the chaos of the streets below, and live music plays every Tuesday and Thursday. A popular celebrity hangout, don’t be surprised if you spot the odd Bollywood starlet.
Ed: I wrote this piece whilst travelling through India in September and October 2011. An incredible trip in an incredible place. The “Incredible India” tourism campaign was spot on.
2 Reay House, Best Marg, Colaba
Ph: +91 22 2202 1030
1 Reay House, Best Marg, Colaba
Ph: +91 22 2287 6276
Grants Building, 1st, 2nd & 3rd floors
17 Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba
Ph: +91 22 2281 9880/1/2
137 M.G. Road, Mumbai
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Colaba Causeway, Colaba
33/31 Mutton Street
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The Pizzeria & Not Just Jazz By The Bay
143 Marine Drive
Ph: +91 22 820957/883
135 Marine Drive
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