India Revisited: Bombay Dreams

I questioned the wisdom of my mid-winter routing via Boston, but miraculously everything worked, and I arrived in Mumbai after an uneventful journey at 1 AM. My longtime friends, Shonali Datta and Negendrah Singh (the latter would be our guide for the trip ahead) met me at the airport and whisked me off to Mumbai’s “heritage zone” and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which would be home for the next four nights.

Mumbai—formerly known as “Bombay”—is India’s third largest city (after Calcutta and Delhi) and is home to approximately 18 million residents. It originally comprised seven separate islands but, through reclamation of the land from the sea, it is now one land mass. The name originates from an old Dutch word meaning “big bay.” There is a long promenade (that follows the sea where couples court) and it’s a hive of activity most hours of the day and night. It would remind you of the croisette in the South of France and gives the city a Mediterranean feel. It’s safe to say that Mumbai is the “Big Apple” of India, this economic center exudes energy and vibrancy. It’s the city that people come to for opportunities, and, of course, it’s an important port.

Our historic hotel (and my room) overlooks the Gate of India which was built to commemorate King George V’s 1911 visit and welcomed all subsequent Viceroys to the “Jewel in the Crown.” We are ensconced in the 285-room palace wing which is built around lush gardens and a large swimming pool— a haven of tranquility in this frenetic city.

I am always happy to be back in India. This time, it’s a privilege for me to accompany a group of clients and friends for “Incredible India Revisited,” a special itinerary I created for both first time visitors to India and veteran India aficionados alike.   The early arrivals joined me for dinner at a so-called trendy restaurant in the neighborhood called “Ellipsis.” The restaurant had an eclectic fusion menu, which turned out to be delicious. Our favorites included an arugula flatbread, fried calamari, and a steamed pork belly dumpling.

In deference to the 10-1/2 hours of time difference and inevitable jet lag, we started our first day late morning and went to the Churchgate Station in time to catch the dabbawallas at work. This is a finely tuned lunch delivery system which employs a team of 6000 who offer a daily service to over 200,000 patrons using only the local train system and bicycles – no computers! Their precision rate is near 100%! Tiffens (a special stacked metal lunch box) containing a home cooked meal are collected from individual residences, given a special numeric code, and then miraculously delivers to at your office. They even come and collect the box when you’re done and return the tiffen to your wife at home. This system has been a case study at Harvard and has captured the world’s attention.

We began an architecture-focused walk through the Heritage Zone, where we saw many wonderful examples of colonial buildings. The Victoria Rail Station, a cathedral-style edifice complete with a dome, dates back to 1988 and stands proudly with its intricately decorated iron struts still in place. The entrance is flanked, sphinx-style, by a lion representing England and a tiger representing India. The same architect designed several other important buildings including the Town Hall and the Police Headquarters. We walked by cricket fields, the university campus, the High Court and just as we were feeling the mid-day heat, we fell into the air-conditioned comfort of one of Mumbai’s best known seafood restaurants, Trishna.

At Trishna, every table was occupied with locals (always a good sign) and we tucked into a seriously good lunch of spicy prawns, crab with butter and garlic, grilled surmai, a succulent local fish they call “Indian salmon,” sautéed spinach, dal, and our first batch of garlic naan of the trip. Returning to the hotel, a few of us ducked out for some retail therapy next-door at “Good Earth,” which I would call the Pottery Barn of India because of the great linens and home décor items. We also stopped in “Bombay Electric Company” which offers ladies and gents’ fashion items. Both are worth a visit!

Our full day finished with a cocktail cruise on the bay, dodging oil drilling platforms, sailboats and passenger ferries. The impressive skyline of Mumbai twinkled in the pinky hues of a sensational sunset, and we returned to our hotel for a dinner with an Indian tasting menu.

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