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No. Though I meant to. But I didn’t. So here it is. I never quite liked the idea of Mumbai. The most clichéd Hindi movies begin with ‘Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, 1000s of people move to this everyday in hope of making it big someday, with king size dreams and unfailing determination and grit… and it goes on about Mumbai, this and Mumbai that – fast paced, reckless, ruthless, unfair, unhinged city.’ I didn’t like the over glorification but somehow believed it and Mumbai became larger than life and ruthless a city in my head. When I lived in Delhi, I knew where I stand on the Mumbai-Delhi debate – Delhi of course! Delhi is great, Delhi is greener, less hectic, more vintage, more serious, and safer. I can’t say any of that about Delhi now and I am no longer on Delhi’s side on the Delhi-Mumbai debate, neither on Mumbai’s for that matter but the Mumbai I saw is certainly sweeter and far from my false perception of it.
I was in Mumbai for a day. My December travels actually began from here when I went to the city for a Visa interview at the Belgium Consulate. I hated the Consulate for making me travel. The money spent on the flight tickets and taxis could have been saved for my upcoming travels. I didn’t hate it so much after spending the day in Mumbai. I got a short notice, an email and an sms from the VFS centre about my interview on the 26th of Nov – a very unsettling date. It didn’t strike me immediately but it was on this date four years ago that Mumbai experienced a shocking terror attack. I could have maybe changed the date but it was already too late to amend as I needed my passport back before the 2nd of December. I hate this passport-not-arriving-until-the-last-minute tension. I couldn’t afford to lose one more day or all my travel tickets within Europe would go waste. It was really silly of me to book my tickets to over 8 destinations in Europe without first getting a visa but then my application was visibly strong and I didn’t see a reason why I should be denied a Schengen Visa. Therefore, I couldn’t change my date.
Without thinking much, I booked my tickets to Mumbai. I thought it’d be nice to stay there overnight (check out the night life) and hang around for two days, I wrote to a couple of couchsurfers but didn’t get very convincing replies. As my dad always does, he suggested a single day trip strongly. I also soon realized that was the best thing to do. Mumbai made me nervous. I looked up the map tones of times and made my own mental map. I wish I did this for every city I traveled after that.
If I sat down to think about it, it made me super nervous – the city’s main political leader for decades had just died and the city was sensitive, it was an anniversary of a deadly attack and the fear of Mumbai and its goons all came together and wracked my nerves. That’s when I learnt my biggest lesson in fear – that one cannot change the course of destiny and should therefore not worry, that one should ignore fear but always be vigilant and keep plan Bs ready.
I also had to do something else and it was important for me. As a cultural traveler, in love with coffee shops, I had to check out the Leopold Café but the café was one of the areas of destruction. To be here in the city of Mumbai on the anniversary felt like a brave act but Mumbaikars themselves seemed to have put that experience behind them. There wasn’t any memorial, any remembrance, except for a board near the Gateway of India, with pictures of constables who died that day
Raghuram, my Visa angel said he’d meet me outside the airport to hand over the receipt of my Visa application to me which I then had to take to the VFS, submit it, collect my interview letter and head to Leopold Café and Gateway of India before getting to the Belgian Consulate for my interview at 2 pm. I offered to drive up to Raghu’s house but Raghu being the kind soul he is, suggested he comes down to the aiport as it would be a big ride for me to the north of the city from the centre, only to come back to the centre and go all the way south. Raghu’s kindness humbled me. He was the only person who responded to my Facebook plea for help when I needed someone to submit my Visa application at the VFS. He drove down from the North to the South and back up again for me and on an urgent basis. I am indebted to him for his help.
I love early morning flights and especially when dad is dropping me at the airport. Dad didn’t drop me on this one but it was still nice. My morning flight reached on time and I found myself in Mumbai early in the morning around 8.15 pm. I love the first look of cities just outside the airports. Within minutes Raghuram arrived. After collecting my papers from him and checking them a hundred times, I asked Raghu to tell me about Copenhagen as Raghu studied there. Raghu said Copenhagen was a very very small town – ‘you can walk the entire town in 30 minutes,’ he said. Of course I didn’t believe him! After taking directions from Raghu for the thousandth time, I headed to the VFS centre in South Mumbai. I took only taxis through out the day and it cost me just as much as my flight tickets to and fro Mumbai. This I didn’t like! But the sights out of these taxi windows, driving through Mumbai was great, Mumbai is gorgeous.
I won’t complain about Mumbai’s traffic because that’s the lamest thing to do, every city has the same problem! The taxi dropped me off just outside the lane on which was the VFS. After collecting my interview letter at around 10 am, I was thrilled to walk out of the lane as I felt great that I had four hours in my hand before getting to the Consulate. As I came out of the lane, Mumbai presented me with one of its nicest views – that of an inlet of the Arabian sea, tiny boats and sleepy apartments – what a sight! I hoped to stand by the pavement and take pictures but I had more things to do. The next stop was the Saudi Arabian Consulate.
I arrived at the SA consulate without an appointment. The place was packed and I explained my problem (wanting a Visa but not qualifying for one) to one of the officials who later put me to the PR manager at the Consulate. I was nervous about any meetings here as I imagined people as especially the PR manager would be rude.
It was soon my turn to meet with the PR guy. I explained everything to the PR spokesperson – I am Muslim girl, I want SA Visa because I want to go on Hajj but I have no mahram. It meant that I was seeking help as a single girl traveler to let me into the country somehow. The PR manager maybe bought my story or maybe he did not. I didn’t get the SA Visa but I truly loved visiting the SA embassy as the PR manager was genuinely affable and extremely nice ‘Sister, don’t worry, Allah will one day give you the chance go to Mecca/Madina with a mahram.’ If he said it in another way, rubbished me or asked me to leave, I’d have bittered against the manager and therefore the country. After trying my luck at the SA embassy and failing glamourously, I headed to my next destination – the Leopold Café.
I have only heard reports of notoriety about Mumbai taxi drivers but the one that drove me from the VFS to the SA Embassy and later to Leopold was quite nice, so nice that I wondered if he was up to something but he wasn’t. Culturally, Leopold Café is brilliant. Mumbai to me reflects vintage just-after-independence and pre-independence architecture, it was interesting to notice the colonial remnants and observe the rise of businesses post independence. Also, I somehow like to believe that it is the ‘Parsi’ group of people that lend their glamour to Mumbai, their love for balconies, floral wrought iron motifs, gardens, vintage buildings and westernized names for their establishments. I could somewhat draw a parallel between the Irani chai shops of Hyderabad and these lovely little coffee shops of Mumbai. Our chai stalls are far from well kept but Mumbai’s vintage coffee shop are well kept and have an old world charm. So, Leopold café as a café is brilliant, especially with its large sign board and grand font.
But I was at the café on no ordinary day. Four years ago and around the same time as I sat down at a table in the café, a sniper walked past the café’s open doors shooting people in the café. This was a detail I didn’t know before. I had thought that the sniper entered the café and opened fire. As I sat on a table imagining what it must be like for a moment as perfect and peaceful as sitting in an interesting coffee shop and relaxing, to be destroyed forever. It was an eerie feeling. One cannot completely deny the chances of an another attack on the place, and on the day and time that I was there. I made my inquiries about the nearest exit, which was only 5 meters away from me, a side door from which many people escaped on the fateful day.
I also didn’t want the imagery of the attack to overpower my love and appreciation of a vintage coffee shop. I looked around and loved everything about the café, the wooden tables, the old fans, the artwork on the walls and the plates and glasses with ‘Leopold Café’ printed on them. The café is airy, open and had its menu under the tabletop glass, it was a pity that there wasn’t the red checkered table top cover I somehow imagined.
There weren’t many people in the café on the days, 80% of the ones present were westerners the rest 20% included me and a group of three-four kids seated on one table. I couldn’t believe how brave they were because I was myself quite nervous. The waiter who waited on my table could perhaps tell that I was in a pensive mood. So without my asking (I had decided I wouldn’t ask any staff about the unfortunate day), he went on to explain how the shooting happened. Imagining it made me sad and truly mad. The waiter told me that nobody died on the table I was sitting on, but someone on a table opposite mine received a bullet and died within seconds.
I inquired about the staff that got killed that day, the waiter said that their owner was trying to help their families. And though the help didn’t seem sufficient, I didn’t prick or ask the owner at the bill counter about it. I ordered chicken sandwich and cold coffee, both great. The waiter offered to take my pictures and gave me the weirdest pictures of me ever as I hadn’t finished eating and still had the food in my mouth, as you can tell from the pictures.
I thanked the waiter for his patience and gave him a tiny little gift, he thanked me sweetly. At the bill counter, I was gifted a Leopold café postcard but I got greedy and asked for more, and got them. I also bought a beer mug for keepsakes.
From Leopold Café, I walked behind the streets to get a glimpse of Mumbai’s iconic landmarks – the Gateway of India and the Taj hotel, I would have never noticed the Trident if it weren’t for the events of the day four years ago, but I did. As I walked, I loved how the café was so close to the Gateway of India, along the way I admired Mumbai’s old world charm but I couldn’t keep myself from reconstructing the terror the place saw a few years ago. Security around the place was high and the Gateway of India was cordoned off, which was good for me as I would have bothered to go closer to the Gateway, go around it and could possibly have missed my appointment. But that didn’t happen. While at the Gateway, I bothered a Westerner to take a picture of me and within that time, I told him I was in the city for a day and for a Visa interview – he told me that he from England, he had been to India 16 years ago and he came back that morning, just for his love for the city and India of course.
From the Gateway, I rushed to the Belgian Consulate and waited outside the 20-30 storied building until it was time for my appointment. Soon it was 2 pm. I was the only interviewee at the Consulate and that made me comfortable. Some Indian staff at the Consulate interviewed me for ten minutes, asking me for my itinerary, how I knew my sponsor Prateep, what I intend to do in Brussels etc. I thought it was an interview that could have also been done over the phone, I was slightly mad that I had to spend such a great deal in money and patience for this interview.
Post interview, I was told that the passport would be couriered to me. I knew that if the Consulate sends it to VFS before 5 pm, I could also collect it from there in person. I prayed hard that that would happen but it didn’t. I waited with great anxiety by the mailbox and my passport arrived two days before my departure date.
My return flight was only around 9 pm. It would have maybe been a good idea to be on my own until then but I foolishly entertained a couch request for a meet up. The person who was free to meet was a video editor at a news channel. I thought he’d be interesting but he wasn’t. I struggled to reach him over phone. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to see him so I can visit the Haji Ali Dargah but if I am meeting this couchsurfer, I wouldn’t have been able to. Bad decision. I should have just canceled it. The CSer suggested going to a mall, lame. While at the mall we had lemonade in a fancy restaurant – 800 bucks for two lemonades – damn lame. After getting rid of the boring CSer I debated heavily on whether or not I should go to Haji Ali dargah but decided against it as it would have taken a lot of time to make a proper visit. It was close to 4 pm and I headed to the VFS, on the other side of the city, to check if my passport had arrived. I hoped for good, terrific news, but no. It hadn’t. I then took the taxi back to the airport and was very happy that the driver drove me along the Marina beach and on Mumbai’s super impressive suspension bridge.
Meanwhile, I was also texting with another couchsurfer who wanted to meet over coffee. I asked him if he could meet at the airport, I knew from the profile that this CSer had a great bike that I wanted to check out. I thought it’d be cool to get pictures of me on the bike. The CSer agreed to meet outside the airport and took me to the airport canteen where I had some local delicacies for real cheap. While there, he told me that he was married with a kid and that he loves travel but can’t quite travel so much because of the child and new financial responsibilities. I thought it was weird for a married man to write meet-up requests, but there was nothing that this CSer did that was weird, he was friendly, decent and a good CSer. He had told me that his wife doesn’t mind his meeting with CSers, women or men but is a little uncomfortable when they take in solo women travelers as guests. This terrific understanding between the couple and this guys post marriage socializing needs amazed me and made me think of marriage in a new light where everything needn’t necessarily get redundant and lost because one is married. I also got a brief bike ride which I later realized was unnecessary but it wasn’t bad either.
Soon it was time for my flight back to home. One day of Mumbai was great, truly wonderful. It also gave me the flavor of what was coming up – strutting by random streets of big cities (for a day!), all alone and happy. The taxis cost quite a bit but that was also the best way to see Mumbai in a day, hop into a taxi and let it take you around – from outside these taxi windows I think Mumbai is gorgeous, lovely and glamorous.