“A child’s eye view of Mum­bai is en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate for a first­time vis­i­tor like me”


India Today - - COVER STORY -

Mum­bai was sup­posed to be a pit stop. Al­though I’d trav­elled through­out In­dia, I thought I had all the good cities fig­ured out, and didn’t need an­other one to com­pli­cate things. What I knew of Mum­bai was that it was big, had pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive real es­tate, and a lot of movie stars.

In 2009, I was on a book re­search trip and needed to change planes in Mum­bai to get from Kochi to Kolkata. I would have spent a few hours in the air­port, if not for two rea­sons. The first was my nine-yearold daugh­ter, who’d come with me. Pia loved Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and dreamed of Rahul and An­jali danc­ing through the streets. The sec­ond rea­son was the lure of the older gen­er­a­tion. My mother, Karin, and my step­fa­ther, Bharat, were booked into the Royal Bom­bay Yacht Club and thought they could get us a room. My mother had been there a few times with Bharat, who was a long­time mem­ber, and they had promised us that the club was oneof-a-kind, with great food, in­ter­est­ing lodgers and a prime lo­ca­tion.

Pia was ex­cited when the driver who was help­ing my par­ents, Dar­shan Singh, ar­rived at the air­port in a Fiat to get us. He was an el­derly man with an im­pres­sive beard and al­ways, a fresh pas­tel-col­ored tur­ban. The small kir­pan that shone men­ac­ingly against his white cloth­ing caught Pia’s at­ten­tion right away. But what sealed her ad­mi­ra­tion was his off-the-cuff re­mark that he’d per­formed in a movie—Of­fice

Space—which had some scenes shot in In­dia. He played the driver. Lit­tle did we know that he’d be the sole ac­tor we’d meet dur­ing the stay.


It was a hot, slow two hours to the Royal Bom­bay Yacht Club, but when we drove onto Marine Drive, I be­gan to re­vive. The views of proud Art Deco apart­ment build­ings and sparkling ocean made me re­alise Mum­bai re­ally was some­thing spe­cial. To see so many peo­ple of all ages look­ing re­laxed as they made their beach walks, made me want to

jump from the Fiat and join them.

A few more turns in the noisy car brought us past hand­some stone build­ings and throngs of tourists. And then, like some­thing out of an Indo-Saracenic fairy tale, a tall, yel­low stone tow­ered build­ing with a Gothic arched port de cochere loomed.

“The Yacht Club!” Dar­shan an­nounced proudly. It was tricky for him to get to the other side of Apollo Bun­der, be­cause he had to take into ac­count con­crete traf­fic bar­ri­ers, a bus stop with mov­ing buses, taxis bound for Gate­way to In­dia, and jay­walk­ing tourists. But in short or­der our driver pulled into the club’s port de cochere. I gazed out the car win­dow up a few steps to a small open re­cep­tion area dom­i­nated with a real life pre­server on the wall. Would some­one ever re­quire such as­sis­tance this far from the water? I won­dered as two grown men wear­ing Vic­to­rian-style sailor suit uni­forms got busy un­load­ing the Fiat.

The duty man­ager tasked me with hand­ing over the pass­ports and sign­ing my ad­dress and other per­sonal de­tails into a gi­ant, cloth­cov­ered guest­book that looked like a relic of the club’s found­ing year, 1846. But I knew that was an im­pos­si­bil­ity, be­cause over the course of 160 years, many vis­i­tors had come: first English ones, then mostly In­dian, in­clud­ing lots from out­side of Bom­bay who wanted a home away from home. That’s right! I had stopped think­ing of the city as Mum­bai but as Bom­bay in the ten min­utes I’d been in the aged club.

The sailor suits were the first sign that quirky tra­di­tion was ev­ery­thing at the Yacht Club. A small, beau­ti­fully de­signed brass el­e­va­tor with an ex­posed pul­ley sys­tem was op­er­ated by two qui­etly pa­tient men who ro­tated to cover day and night. The el­e­va­tor trav­elled the club’s four up­per floors in a slow, stately fash­ion, with a dis­tinc­tive whoosh­ing sound that is like no other el­e­va­tor I know. Some­times at night the el­e­va­tor filled with mos­qui­toes, but the at­ten­dant had too much dig­nity to slap at them. Pia and I did not have qualms, but we usu­ally ran down the gi­ant wooden spi­ral stair­case in the morn­ing, rather than com­pete with other guests for space in the tiny brass box.

Pia skipped ea­gerly down the hall­ways, clad in the orig­i­nal orange, cream and blue Vic­to­rian tiles, and rooms had sim­ple wooden fur­ni­ture. There was a TV that Pia fig­ured out right away, tun­ing it to

I had stopped think­ing of the city as Mum­bai but as Bom­bay in the ten min­utes I’d been at the Royal Bom­bay Yacht Club

VTV. I was charmed that each guest room had a study area with a desk and easy chairs and floor to ceil­ing views of the Gate­way of In­dia and the bay.

That night, I got the bad news that the Royal Bom­bay Yacht Club main­tained Raj-era re­stric­tions on chil­dren. Per­sons un­der 16 were wel­come to stay in guest rooms, but they were not al­lowed in most places in the club. Pia could sit in the sunny gallery where break­fast was served and en­joy eggs and toast with the rest of us, but that was it. She could not eat dhansak and the other famed dishes, and cer­tainly not have a sweet lime in the fa­mous Dol­phin Bar. This meant that when the grand­par­ents took off on sev­eral evenings to meet friends in th­ese hal­lowed places, for sup­per and re­fresh­ments, I was stuck with or­der­ing from the room ser­vice menu or tak­ing Pia out on the town by my­self.

The Yacht Club was close to a lot of restau­rants and cafes, I let Pia’s tastes guide us past the bal­loon­wal­lahs and roam­ing pariah dogs to an ex­cel­lent Chi­nese restau­rant. Once she’d dis­cov­ered hakka noo­dles, we went there again. And again. For­tu­nately, there were also nights that we went out with the grand­par­ents to meet friends and rel­a­tives over home-cooked In­dian meals.

Our day­time ad­ven­tures in­cluded look­ing at the minia­ture dolls in the tableaus from Gand­hiji’s life at Mani Bha­van, skip­ping through the Hang­ing Gar­dens, and tip­toe­ing through the gilded Adish­warji Jain Tem­ple. We watched hun­dreds of men beat­ing laun­dry at Dhobi Ghat, all the while won­der­ing where our clothes were. When we vis­ited Bharat’s rel­a­tives, a new aunt placed an en­tire box of dozens of coloured glass ban­gles in Pia’s hands. Her eyes shone as bright as the jew­ellery she’d been given.

As we got back from that fam­ily house to drive slowly out of the packed streets of Ghatkopar and back to­ward the South, I re­alised my ca­sual pit stop had turned into some­thing spe­cial. It was a child’s eye view of Mum­bai, and en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate for a first-time vis­i­tor like me.


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