“A child’s eye view of Mumbai is entirely appropriate for a firsttime visitor like me”
NOISY, CROWDED YET UPLIFTING, MUMBAI MORPHED A CASUAL PIT STOP INTO SOMETHING SPECIAL
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.
OLD WORLD CHARM
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.