Bombay from an Ex-pat Perspective

Chawl (tenements for the poor, with shared toilets) in Girgaum, Bombay
Chawl (tenements for the poor, with shared toilets) in Girgaum, Bombay

An Ex-Pat Indian Explores Bombay and New Bombay Like a Local

By NR Venkatesh

Street performer in Dadar, Bombay, he lashes himself with thick whip while seeking alms
Street performer in Dadar, Bombay, he lashes himself with thick whip while seeking alms

“Waking up in India is like waking up to life itself” said Reymond Pagé, an artist from Winnipeg, Manitoba. He documented his experiences during a 275-day family trip on travels through Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, in his book “A Change of View”.

We visited India to attend to personal matters, connect with family and friends, re-experience India, and sample our favorite foods.

I have shared below interesting experiences so that you can experience Bombay and New Bombay vicariously, like Mumbaikars (natives of the city), like us, just did.

India is a land of contradictions, often defined by chaos. But without too much dysfunction because there is a method to India’s madness. Its ability to thrive in a difficult environment has contributed to its resilience.

My wife and I recently visited India and we found a self-confident nation firing on all cylinders, shrugging off daunting challenges, including a lack of accountability and huge corruption in many of its state governments.

Covid-free India

Omlette and soft bread with butter- iconic breakfast in Bombay
Omlette and soft bread with butter- iconic breakfast in Bombay

The first thing that struck us as we landed at the international airport in Mumbai last September, was the absence of any signs of Covid-19 and the orderly movement of passengers through the airport concourse.

As if this was not enough, we were blown away when we arrived in the massive rectangular-shaped immigration hall.

It has no less than 56 immigration windows spread out neatly and there were no more than half-a-dozen passengers waiting calmly at each window. This contrasted starkly with our chaotic experience at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, our transit point.

Tourists visiting India need not have any safety concerns landing in Mumbai even late at night or early morning. There is a Prepaid Taxi Counter within the arrival facility, from where you can confidently book a taxi to your destination in Mumbai. And you are assured of a safe ride. Consider carrying some Indian Rupees with you in case your credit card is declined.

Trinkets and decorative items for sale by itinerant vendor on wheels
Trinkets and decorative items for sale by itinerant vendor on wheels

Setting up Base in New Bombay

We established a base in our own five-bedroom apartment in Vashi, New Bombay. New Bombay is a suburban extension of Bombay intended to decongest the metropolis.

Vashi is its most developed node, and it is a 75-minute cab ride from the commercial heart and traditional sights of Mumbai, like the Gateway of India and Victoria Terminus (VT) railway station.

Visitors to Bombay, especially those on a budget, could consider using New Bombay as their base to save money and enjoy the many charms of this well-planned city, where the second international airport for Mumbai is fast coming up.

When my wife and I stepped out in Vashi the first day, we had our masks on and we stood out like sore thumbs.

We did not notice signs of Covid-19, and this was a headscratcher. Puzzled, we inquired about this phenomenon, and it was a doctor acquaintance, who solved the mystery.

He said that we were not seeing Covid-19 in India because of the efficacy of India’s home-made vaccine including its effective administration and the development of herd immunity among Indians.

Reassured, my wife and I were able to travel around India, freely, for over two months, unmasked, and without fear of contracting Covid-19.

Safety Even for Single Women

Bombay's iconic Victoria Terminus railway station
Bombay’s iconic Victoria Terminus railway station

Visitors to India quickly notice the friendliness of its people. And the safety in traveling around, even for single women, while taking normal precautions.

Mumbai has a population of 23 million and it boasts world-class public transit. I had occasion to use different forms of public transport – auto-rickshaws, taxis, and even local trains during non-peak hours.

I was impressed with the availability, affordability, safety, and punctuality of the local trains.

I would not advise tourists to travel by local trains or buses in Mumbai, because of pickpockets, confronting whom can sometimes turn deadly. Note that autorickshaws ply only in the suburbs of Mumbai.

Autorickshaw experience

Dilawi gathering of residents in our apartment complex, Kaveri.
Diwali gathering of residents in our apartment complex, Kaveri.

I used autorickshaws extensively in Mumbai, often traveling long distances and sometimes to unfamiliar places. It was fascinating to watch auto drivers input the destination addresses into Google Maps on their cellphones and switch on the speakerphones.

And it was surreal to hear Australian-born and New York-based Karen Jacobson, the famous voice on Google Maps, giving directions on Mumbai streets, with their Indian names, in her Western accent, to the illiterate auto drivers, who mostly spoke little or no English.

Placing a layer of cream atop a glass of yummy 'Lassl'
Placing a layer of cream atop a glass of yummy ‘Lassl’

Enjoying Street Food

On the to-do list of many Indians visiting home is the desire to sample its street food and we were no exception. Atop the pantheon of street food sit dishes like dosa, pani puri, vada pav, and sugar cane juice.

However, I am sure that you have heard of Delhi belly – an upset stomach accompanied by diarrhea, especially as suffered by visitors to India.

We managed to avoid this painful experience by following simple dietary protocols including – drinking only bottled water, applying the overall hygiene lens to street vendors, eating and drinking piping hot foods without care, and studiously avoiding salads, raw vegetables, and dishes containing suspect water, including chutneys and other relishes.

One of our all-time favorite foods is pani puri – ‘a form of fried puff-pastry balls filled with a watery mixture of tamarind, chili, chaat masala, potato, onion, and chickpeas that we had studiously avoided on earlier visits. But not on this trip.

We were delighted to find many street vendors with signs advertising that their pani puri was made with bottled water. No wonder that many times we gleefully made meals of pani puri.

It is this same confidence in the safety of boiled water that enabled me to step of our apartment as early as 6 am, each morning, and head to the chai (tea) vendor at our street corner (whose primary clientele was autorickshaw drivers) to sip a refreshing cup of cutting chai (milk tea made with grated ginger and cardamom and served piping hot in small disposable paper cups) and bring back home several cups of tea in my flask.

At Rs. 10 (approx.10 cents US) a cup. Thanks to this convenience, we did not have to wake up our live-in housemaid to prepare our morning cup of tea.

Inorbit Mall

Inorbit mall, Vashi, New Bombay, decked-up for Diwali
Inorbit Mall, Vashi, New Bombay, decked out for Diwali

Malls are a two-decade phenomenon in India. To most locals, a visit to the mall is less of a shopping opportunity and more of a picnic-like outing to hang out with friends and family. With the opportunity for memorable selfies and tastings in the food court. Vashi has three malls.

We visited the best one, the Inorbit Mall. With a gross leasable area of 550,000 sq ft (51,000 m2), it boasts brand-name retail outlets, salons, and, of course, America-inspired fast-food outlets with an Indian twist.

Take a leisurely visit to the mall the day you arrive in Mumbai to take it easy and cope with your jet lag. I would highly recommend a trip to Inorbit Mall (there are several of them across Bombay).

A top name in Indian Food in the Inorbit Mall, Vashi, New Bombay
A top name in Indian Food in the Inorbit Mall, Vashi, New Bombay

In the same vein, I would highly recommend a visit to any D-Mart store in Bombay to understand the ingenuity of Indian hypermarkets that have successfully thwarted the expansion of Walmart in India (confined to just 29 stores to-date).

D-Marts are a hybrid of India’s traditional kirana (mom-and-pop grocery) stores combined with the best of Walmart. It would not be an overstatement to say that you will find most items of daily use, including grains and cereals, including in open bags, in any D-Mart.

Many streets in the popular areas of Mumbai are choc-a-bloc with street vendors, selling their wares out of makeshift stalls or from plastic sheets spread out on pavements.

The quality of the products on offer is not bad considering the price. My wife and I visited several local markets to experience the buzz and to also make purchases.

Iranian Restaurants

Irani Restaurant
Irani Restaurant

Iranian Restaurants were once popular fixtures around Bombay. They were founded by Zoroastrian immigrants (called Parsees in India) from Iran during the British Raj, and they served delectable distinctive fare.

However, they are a dying breed, today. So, I jumped at the opportunity to visit one and enjoy their signature breakfast of Omelette, maska-pav (soft bread and butter), and chai (tea) [Rs. 100 or 1.25 USD] – thanks to my good friend, Manmohan Rai. Tucking into my breakfast, I was transported down memory lane to my school and university days.

Popular decoration for Diwali

Heritage Village Kotachiwadi

Thanks to Manmohan, I also visit Kotachiwadi, a heritage village in Girgaum, Mumbai that is famous for its traditional Portuguese-style architecture. Girguam is tucked away in the beating heart of Mumbai.

Established in the late 1800s and settled by East Indian families (Portuguese-descendant Christians whose mother tongue is Marathi, the lingua France of Mumbai), this heritage village is also fighting a losing battle with commercial developers, who wish to redevelop these properties and make a killing.

They wish to purchase these free-standing wooden cottages (originally numbering 65, now down to 25 or so), raze them to the ground, and put up pricey skyscrapers.

I spoke to a non-resident owner living in Australia who feared for the survival of the village, thanks to the nexus between local politicians and property developers. A visit to Kotachiwadi would be most rewarding.

My wife and I eagerly look forward to our next visit to India next year, when we plan to cover India’s exotic North-East.

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6 thoughts on “Bombay from an Ex-pat Perspective

  1. Khotachiwadi is a hidden gem in the heart of Mumbai, India. This historic village boasts charming Portuguese-style architecture, narrow lanes, and colorful bungalows. Preserving its heritage amidst modern development, Khotachiwadi offers a glimpse into Mumbai’s rich past, making it a must-visit destination for history and architecture enthusiasts.

  2. Embracing Mumbai, an expat’s perspective unveils a vibrant tapestry of contrasts. The city pulses with a dynamic energy, flowing through its bustling markets, historical relics, and modern skyscrapers. From savoring street food delights to navigating the local trains, every day brings an adventure, fostering a deep connection to Bombay’s unique soul. Bombay is awesome place to visit.

  3. Bombay, now known as Mumbai, is India’s pulsating coastal metropolis. A fusion of tradition and modernity, it’s a melting pot of cultures, cuisines, and contrasts. From the historic Gateway of India to the bustling markets and Bollywood, Bombay’s vibrant spirit and diverse energy never fail to captivate residents and visitors alike.

    Nice article.

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