Thursday, March 10, 2011

For the Love of Food – Britannia & Co.

Mumbai has evolved over the decades, as any city daring to call itself metropolitan would; constantly adapting to social trends and demands of a population wanting the fastest and the best, in equal measure. Eateries have moved with the times as well, with restaurants bowing to the concept of “glocalised” cuisine.

However, there are some that have stood firm, and requested evolution to go knock on someone else's door. Some that have remained unchanged, with the same principles, quality of food, and ambience. Some that found the love of good food more important than commercialism. This section - For the Love of Food - is an ode to those few.

South Bombay retains more than a little of the city's old-world charm, so it's fitting to start there with Britannia & Co. at Ballard Estate. 88 years, and three generations on from its establishment by Rashid Kohinoor, Britannia still attracts tons of tourists and first-timers, in addition to loyal patrons who have made eating here a part of their routine. The big, red board outside bears a crest with a black rooster, saying “There is no greater love than the love of eating”, although owner, Boman Kohinoor's love for great food and service comes very close. He is a friendly old man, undeterred by his age, and shuffles up and down the the narrow spaces between tables every afternoon, taking down orders himself, endearing himself to those inside, and inviting onlookers from outside to take a seat.

That seat can be hard to come by at times, since Britannia is perennially packed with people either savouring their food, or succumbing to involuntary salivation as they await their orders. Orders that invariably include the famed Berry Pulao – a masterpiece of rice strewn with berries (“Imported all the way from Iran”, Kohinoor says proudly), cashews and spices, mingling with either chicken or mutton. While Berry Pulao is something of a family secret, the more traditional Parsi delicacies have a unique flavour as well. The seasonal Bombay Duck is fried to perfection and while “melt-in-your-mouth” is a phrase thrown around rather loosely in food reviews, it is completely warranted here. The same can be said of the Fish Patra, which is pomfret steamed and served in a banana leaf, traditionally called Patra ni Machhi.

Those who find fried fish and rice too dry, prefer to order Salli Boti, a tongue-tingling mutton gravy, topped generously with thin, crisp potato fries, or Dhansakh (a milder, lentil-based gravy), arguably the Parsi cuisine's most well-known dish. Both get along famously with either rice or fresh chapatis, washing down very well with a fizzy raspberry soda. More commercial items like biryanis, kheema, and cutlets are less popular, but on the menu nonetheless. It's strange, in a way, that ordering one of those would be considered experimental at Britannia.

There is one clear winner amongst the three items on the desserts menu. While it is a fairly common preparation, the caramel custard at Britannia holds down your taste-buds and tickles them into submission, leaving you no choice but to wolf down at least one, no matter how full you are. The consistency and sweetness are as perfect as humanly possible, making it an absolute treat.

Britannia has more than its fair share of loyal visitors, one of whom is Prasad Gupta, a 30-something marketing executive. He has been lunching here for several years now. When asked what he finds special about Britannia, he takes a break from the feast laid out in front of him to enumerate on his fingers. “Great food, first and foremost. Along with the quaint atmosphere and great service. The Iranian cuisine lends exclusivity”, he says, taking a quick bite of his pulao before adding, “If this was made into an air-conditioned, commercialised space, it would lose its charm. It's amazing just the way it is.”

There have been rumours that the restaurant will shut down when Old-Man Kohinoor passes away, though he says he has convinced his son to carry on the legacy. Or maybe in 2023 when the 100-year lease on the Ballard Estate property runs out. I prefer not think of what's to come, though, and savour what is. Britannia, with its high-ceilings, chandeliers, green walls and great food, has remained the same since 1923, and continues in the same vein. Go there while you still can!

Recommended Meal for Two

Bombay Duck Fry – Rs. 200/-
Mutton Berry Pulao – Rs. 350/-
Salli Boti or Dhansakh – Rs. 250/-
Caramel Custard x 2 – Rs. 160/-
Raspberry Soda x 2 - Rs. 100/-

Approximate Total – Rs. 1100/-

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Livin' la Vida Local

I was running late. I got out of my rickshaw outside Andheri station, and looked up at a board that read “C 08:25 F 12 01”. The Churchgate fast local train was arriving on Platform 2 in one minute. I had to be on that train. The next would be 7 minutes later. I didn't have that much time. I took the stairs three-at-a-time, apologetically bundling into people who “Ptch”-ed and glared at me as I rushed past. I could see the train arriving on the platform, people tumbling out with warlike cries of “Chalo!” and streaming up the stairs toward me with a chaotic fluidity. The first-class compartment was packed far beyond capacity. But on a Mumbai local train, there's always scope for more.

I caught hold of the few square inches of pole by the compartment door that didn't already have hands around them, put half a foot on the train. The train started moving with half my body in suspended animation, and I braced myself for the next seven minutes I would be spending in exactly this position. Two feet were already nudging the three toes I had planted on the train for space. My hand threatened to lose its grip off the pole. My entire anatomy was stretched far beyond it was designed to. I pulled myself in as best I could, to avoid electric poles whizzing by, missing me by centimetres at best. The slightest touch could throw me off the train. I wasn't the only one, though. Hundreds like me were either playing hide-and-seek with obstacles outside, or getting crushed from every angle inside. Tens of thousands do it everyday. It has to be done. Not everyone can afford the luxury of a private vehicle in Mumbai. But we all have to get to work on time.

Yet in the midst of the madness and acquired disregard for physical well-being, there is a strange and wonderful culture within the 12 carriages of Mumbai's local trains at rush-hour. An entirely different world, invisible to all but those who are fortunate, or unfortunate enough, depending on how you look at it, to be inside. While the more anti-social variety will squeeze themselves into a snug little corner and nod away to the whims of their earphones and willingly be pushed from side to side, there are others who have, over years of travelling together at the same time, in the same carriage, every single day, developed close friendships. They bellow greetings and have discussions over the heads of some 35 people in the few metres that separate them. Parallel chit-chatting from all directions is fairly normal, and people couldn't be bothered in the least if others overhear them having a go at their bosses, or even their wives.

The more hardened, street-smart variety of train-travellers plan their journey more meticulously, ensuring they have their seats everyday by catching the train from one station ahead (Marine Lines, for a Churchgate train) and settling in while it's headed in opposite direction to avoid the barrage of commuters. An informal reservation system is in place, with each knowing where the other sits, and many being polite enough to offer their “train-buddies” their regular seat back. The fun really starts once these groups are in place. Briefcases and knees transform into tables for card-games – rummy and mindi-cot (an Indian game, translating to “collect the 10s”) being the most popular. Many commuters engaged in friendly gambling on the trains (two litre bottles of Pepsi being the prize) until several years ago, when it was outlawed by the railway authorities.

Some groups attempt to get more in touch with their spiritual sides, singing loud bhajans early in the morning, ensuring that every single person in their carriage (and the adjacent one) is well and truly awake. In relatively more silent compartments, you can see the more than the odd person, clearly not built for early mornings, nodding off on neighbouring shoulders while standing and holding on to an overhead handle.

Perhaps the simplest, and most beautiful thing I've witnessed on a Mumbai local is one particular group of six old men in their late-60s. It was the birthday of one of them and in the midst of the crowd, the other five elderly men, who had probably been travelling together for decades, got together to sing “Happy Birthday” to their old friend, with many others around the compartment joining in. It's moment like these that epitomise what Mumbai's culture is all about. There's a friendliness and a feeling of home wherever you go, even if it's among 200 people packed into 40 square feet, moving at 50 kilometres an hour.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Elephanta Caves - Rock-Cut Brilliance

Past rusty-looking ships, massive oil rigs and tiny fishing boats, ten kilometers off the shore of Mumbai, is Elephanta Island, home to ancient rock-cut architecture in the Elephanta Caves, which dates back to the 6th century A.D. The stone sculpting has withstood the trials of time, albeit with a little recent help from UNESCO, and remains awe-inspiring.

To get to the caves, you must take a ferry from the Gateway of India (Rs.130/-, plus Rs.10/- to sit on the upper deck), which will get you to the Elephanta Island jetty in just under an hour. The ferries - colourful boats capable of seating around 50 people each, start at 9am, and have a frequency of 15 to 20 minutes. It's best to go as early as possible, to avoid droves of tourists, and enjoy a peaceful morning out.

Once there, you can choose to walk along the jetty, or take a cute 20-seater coal-engine train to the main entrance, to enter the island proper. Stock up on water or snacks from the provision stores here, for there is a fair amount of walking and exploring to be done, starting with a climb up intermittent flights of stairs, extending around half a kilometer.

If you've been shirking your gym visits, you'll probably be puffing and panting in a while, as you make your way up to the caves. The stairs are lined with all manner of small stalls, selling souvenier t-shirts, guides, junk-jewellery, and other quirky locally made artifacts like painted betel leaves. If you're hungry, you can grab a vada pav (advertised as an “Indian Burgur”) on the way up, but beware of the monkeys, who have no qualms about making a meal out of a half eaten-sandwich snatched from your hands.

Pay the final entry fee at the cave entrance (Rs.10/- for Indians and Rs.250/- for foreign nationals), and you're free to roam through the stone corridors for as long as you please. Local guides will try to convince you that you will not appreciate the caves without knowing the entire history surrounding them, and offer to give you a detailed tour for a fee. You can haggle with them, and settle at a price of around Rs.100-150/-, if your curiousity must be sated.

All the intricate sculpture is dedicated to Lord Shiva, with architecture detailing his various forms and scenes from his life. To the right, just as you enter, Shiva is depicted is his “cosmic dancer” avatar (Nataraja), while, the masterpiece in the center, Trimurti, depicts the three main forms of Shiva – creator, preserver, and destroyer. The attention to detail is astounding, and does make one wonder if there's more to the folklore stating that the sculptures are not made man-made.

In addition to carvings on the wall, there are several shrines (Lingas), the grandest of which is just to the right of the main entrance, in a small room with towering stone guardians (dvarapalas) flanking the openings. That several limbs of statues and carvings have fallen away over time, or been destroyed centuries ago by colonists using them for target practice, does not detract from the overall grandeur.

You can expect to see a large number of tourists, particularly foreigners, concentrated within the first cave, marvelling at their surroundings, taking pictures and guided tours. To the left of the main entrance is another small cave with stone pillars at the entrance, just ahead of a courtyard with a pedestal that was probably used for ancient dance and rituals. In here is another shrine, which you must enter barefeet. Several visitors leave behind flowers and money as offerings, which may sometimes be picked off by security guards looking to make a quick buck. The shrine is flanked by two stone lions, a trademark of the Chalukyan architecture.

Beyond the main caves, along a pathway to the left, are caves numbered 2 to 5, which have few or no sculptures, but resemble some form of ancient housing plan, with each cave comprising of several empty rooms of various sizes. Caves 3 and 4 make for some great photo opportunities if you're innovative enough - particularly a shrine exposed by a hole in the wall, flanked by fading rock guardians. Monkeys roam around the railings on the hill, and swing across trees, occasionally swooping down to grab an interesting trinket.

For all the splendor in the architecture, and the efforts being made to maintain it, it is rather sad that many visitors, locals in particular, seem to treat Elephanta Island and its caves with disregard. Discarded water bottles and wrappers can be seen almost everywhere you look, and it's disappointing that people would choose not to care about their own heritage.

Once you've explored to your heart's content, make your way back down the stairs, and do not be fooled by women standing around requesting their photographs to be taken. They will pester you for money after you click. Browse through souvenirs if it pleases you to do so, or head to the restaurant at the bottom of the stairs for a chilled beer and some very good fried fish before you take the ferry back to the shores of Mumbai.

The island locals would have you believe that the caves are not man-made, but were created by Pandava, and Banasura, ancient, super-human characters from the Mahabharata, and at times, it's easier to believe that side of the story than fathom that mere men could make walls of rock come to life in such a wondrous manner.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kolad - An adventure destination?

I've always considered myself an adventure-sport enthusiast. In that I'm enthused by the idea of adventure-sports, but rarely ever get myself down to doing anything about it. It's the thought that counts, right? I was excited to get my my feet wet with white-water rafting in Kolad.

A little over 100km away from Mumbai, Kolad is a village that is slowly gaining commercial value through the surrounding mountains, waterfalls and rapids, to become an adventure sport destination in Maharashtra. It is a scenic two-hour drive, once the Mumbai traffic has been left behind, along NH17, arguably one of India's most fun highways.

Our watery prowess was organised by Quest Adventures, headed by the amicable and infectiously enthusiastic Jehan Driver. There was a chill in the mountain air as we stopped for a cup of tea. Jehan came to receive us and had us tail his Mahindra Bolero along winding roads up the hills, to get to the starting point. We would be rafting down the river Kundalika, which is fed by a hydro-electric power dam. We made a couple of stops along the way, as Jehan would get off every now and again to familiarize us with the surroundings, giving us the history of the area and pointing out short-cuts to get back home. The initial plan had been to drive to Kolad the previous evening and stay the night, but we were dissuaded by our notion of there not being much to do in a village. We were wrong, as it turned out. Jehan and the other group members had spent the previous evening with a barbeque around a campfire, later joining in tribal revelry with the local adivasis. We would not make the same mistake next time.

The rafting generally starts at around 9am, marked by a loud siren indicating that the floodgates have been opened. As the growing wail echoed around , we gathered inside a small yard, stacked with rafts, oars, helmets and life-jackets, as the friendly and well-drilled rafting instructors gave us a security brief. Split into groups of eight to a raft, we clumsily put on our rafting gear, while the staff fussed over how our life-jackets weren't strapped tightly enough, or that I had worn my helmet backwards. Finally, looking reasonably like adventurers, we joined Ashish, our instructor, and headed to the raft, where we were taught how to sit, lock our legs in place and respond to calls with urgency. I was rather taken aback to know that I would not be sitting inside the raft, but on the edge. That would make things more interesting.

Equipped with the knowledge to deal with most scenarios, we carried our raft into the water. Any latent drowsiness was instantly dispelled by Ashish, who pelted all the boat's members with the icy river water, as our journey began. This would not be a very intense two hours of rafting, with no more than Grade 3 rapids, but it was definitely a start. For me, in particular, it was the first time I'd be doing more than simply getting wet in a boat. It took a while to get rhythm and co-ordination in our rowing, with more than a few clashing oars and winces, but we did a reasonable job. A total of 13 rapids awaited us, with varying levels of ferocity, each given a unique name, based on it's locational significance, or sometimes, even on amusing incidents involving previous visitors and their lost keys.

I was underwhelmed when the “Welcome” rapid came and went. The raft rocked about a little bit, and there were squeals all around; mostly people reacting to being splashed with cold water, but it was hardly exhilarating. I could only hope it would get better. It did.

Rowing and floating down the river, past overhanging mangroves and brush on the banks, I couldn't help but wish it was the monsoon. It would have been beautiful, with greener surroundings and rougher waters. I would perhaps have realised my secret desire of being bucked into the water and being rescued by the man in the tiny emergency kayak rowing alongside us, too. Such thoughts were put aside temporarily, as Ashish bellowed, “Get down!”, and we obliged by executing our well-choreographed moves to avoid any danger.

The next few rapids were slightly rougher, but things started to get more interesting at the Butterfly rapid, which led quickly into Crow's Nest and Key Waves (so named because of the case of keys lost to watery depths). The sequence probably lasted around 5 minutes, but had the boat and all its occupants rocking from side to side, with much high pitched squealing echoing around, as we all ensure our feet were wedged firmly into the sides of the boat, to avoid being thrown off.

Those 5 minutes, sadly enough, marked the high point of our journey in terms of exhilaration, for the water ahead was too calm to thrill much. After the 12th rapid (Boomshankar), we were given license to jump out of the raft and body-surf for a while. Apprehension and phobia of swimming were discussed amongst our boat's members, but after a point, I'd had enough of the chit-chat. I leant back with what I perceived to be an aura of zen-ness, into the flowing water. It didn't go quite as I had played out in my head, though, as I ended up coughing and spluttering and emerging with a sheepish thumbs-up. But flowing along with the chilly water, feet wedged into the side of the raft was relaxing. The rest of the crowd soon followed suit, and the river was filled with people swimming, splashing, or floating on their backs. Some 30 minutes later, the current lost what little energy it had and compelled us to put our backs into rowing, while chanting and singing songs, to make it more entertaining.

More physical exercise was involved in our final act of disembarking, lifting the raft and taking it uphill, and in a little over two hours, we were done. While the rafting wasn't the most heart-pounding, exhilarating, experience in the world, it was certainly a great way to spend a Sunday morning, with a fun drive, some welcome exercise and enjoyable dips in the water. A nice, convenient getaway from Mumbai's metropolitan madness, which would be even more fun during the monsoon.

The association of adventure-sport organizations, along with the local members of parliament, are trying to convert Kolad into an adventure-sports hub in Maharashtra, with rafting forming just the tip of the iceberg. The rugged terrain is a great platform for mountain and dirt-biking, for which tracks are already being created. Add to that the immense scope for trekking and rock-climbing, and Kolad may soon evolve from a small getaway village to a complete location for metropolitan thrill-seekers in Maharashtra.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Keep Walking – Kalbadevi

The plan was simple. Take a train to Mahalaxmi station, a cab to Pydhonie and then a walk around Kalbadevi – one of Mumbai's oldest neighbourhoods – to wherever the crowded by-lanes took me. In 22 years of living in the city, this was to be my first visit to the area every guidebook insists you visit. It was about time. But I was ill-prepared for what awaited me.

I got off at the corner of Pydhonie Umbrella Mart where you can get umbrellas of all shapes, colours and sizes. It was of special significance, for it had once been owned by my mother's family. She still wonders why they sold the business; it's not like umbrellas would have ever gone out of fashion, she says.

I walked past into the lanes of Kalbadevi. Above, housewives stood in the balconies of the chawls, arms resting on dilapidated railings, watching the mid-morning sun soak the streets with less than a mild interest. The streets grew busier as I ventured further, past Pydhonie Police Station, and turned left into Abdul Rehman Street. Shop after shop here is stocked with all manner of school and office stationary. Pens, pencils, paperweights, staplers, even children's water-bottles and tiffin boxes - all sold at wholesale rates. A little ahead, at a corner on the right, an old sign-board told me that I had reached the Light of Bombay restaurant. It was, paradoxically, a dimly-lit space with few tables, serving Indian cuisine to a small number of patrons. I headed back to the main road and contemplated where to head next. White temple tops peeking over buildings to the left made up my mind for me.

The shops lining the street to the marble structures were dominated by metal workshops or vendors dealing exclusively in stoves. As the temples grew closer, the contents of these workshops seemed to develop a more spiritual taste as well, slowly changing from commercial wire mesh to copper and brass prayer ornaments and wall-hangings. The ancient temple's name was inscribed on a stone plaque in Gujarati – which I was ill-equipped to read. I asked Chirag Shah, the owner of a shop across the road called Liberty Products, to enlighten me.

“That's the Godiji Jain Dehrasar”, he said. “It's more than 200 years old; the oldest temple in this area.” I asked about his store and the area around. “This particular area is a wholesale market for everything to do with stoves. We stock LPG stoves, kerosene-wick stoves, gauges, lighters, and all the parts, big and small, associated with them” Chirag explained, pointing to the high piles of equipment around him. I thanked him and moved on to the temple. It had a quiet grandeur, though the interiors were starting to show signs of disrepair. A few visitors sat there, heads bowed in prayer, in the large, peaceful room that insulated from the fracas on the streets outside.

Leaving the temple, I entered the road opposite with its numerous jewellery shops – Zaveri bazaar. Just as I began to wonder how many shops there were, I got my answer - 40. the shops were numbered; as though they knew every visitor would ask the same question. The road - packed with hawkers, shoppers looking for the best deal and workers pulling along handcarts - started to grow narrower, evolving into Dhanji street, with more small shops trading gold jewellery, chains, and gems. As I stopped to look at a gem-setter seated at a small table, his wares laid out before him, I was knocked off balance by a man with a handcart who was in an obvious hurry. He advised me to get out of the way as I picked myself up. Undeterred, I resumed my stroll, turning right to return to the main market, emerging at the corner of Mumbadevi Jalebiwala. This century-old establishment has only two items were on the menu - jalebis and paapri chaat. Both looked inviting. The crisp tangy chaat wafers followed by fresh, sugar syrup-slathered fried batter made a great combination and I picked up more jalebis to munch on as I continued my walk.

Small shops and stalls gave way to massive jewellery showrooms, all of which seemed to be offering the best possible buy-back rates. Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri, a name I'd heard before, was the grandest, housed in an entire three-storey building. I went in and was greeted warmly by salespeople who seemed to assume that I was very rich and getting married soon. I played along, exploring the two levels of gold and diamond jewellery. A lady stood at a cash counter, wearing the look of someone who had just parted with a whole lot of money.

Promising the salesgirl that I would return when I had more money to spare, I got back on to the street, wondering where exactly I had reached. That's when I bumped into Frank and Dave, tourists from Canada, who were just returning from the madness of Crawford market, which their guide-book had insisted they experience. I asked them where exactly it was and made my way ahead. The irony of asking a tourist for directions in my own city hit me a while later. A whiff of attars greeted me as I turned the corner for Crawford Market, which was overrun with shoppers and tourists amidst tables piled with clothes, bedsheets, toys, shoes, and sandals. Bigger shops dealt in imported eatables and more complex and expensive toys. The amusingly named “Toys R Must” is still firmly etched in my mind. A man selling inflatable travel pillows took “in-your-face” marketing to the next level, smacking two pillows together inches away from my nose to make his point. My shoelaces untied themselves, but I didn't dare stop and tie them lest I get knocked over again. I turned right to into the less-crowded Lohar Chawl, a street to go to for electrical goods, lights, and chandeliers.

To escape the scourge of shoppers, I ducked into the nondescript Old Hanuman Lane, populated by tailors and saree shops that had few patrons. It was refreshing to leave behind the madness of Crawford market and take a quiet walk through a largely deserted street lined by mossy walls. I emerged at the corner of Hasmukhrai & Sons, “The Tea People” who sell all forms of tea from Darjeeling to Oolong by the kilo. I asked a roadside channawala for directions to Bhuleshwar. He wasn't very helpful but Ritesh Shah, one of his customers, was. He asked me to follow him through winding shortcuts between condominiums and then the Anantwadi market, filled with locally-designed and produced garments. His family also had a business there and I was very curious about how they survived amidst scores of others. He told me that the designs at every shop were unique, and that a lot of their garments were sent back to be sold in their native villages. The escort ended near his shop, some hundred meters from Bhuleshwar market, and my solitary expedition resumed.

Bhuleshwar is known for its stainless-steel market, with dozens of shops selling cutlery and utensils, both new and used. At several vendors you can trade in your old pots and pans for discounts on new items. Forks and spoons were strewn around almost disdainfully or filled inside recycled pressure cookers, as local housewives haggled to get the best price for their old kadais. Closeby, Panjarpole Compound enclosed something of a flea-market, with imitation jewellery, sarees, peacock feathers and idols on display, which culminated at the back-entrance of the Digambar Jain Temple. I now had just one more place to visit before giving my feet a well-deserved rest.

It was a long walk to Chor Bazaar, which, being just off Mohammad Ali Road, wasn't technically “in the neighbourhood”. I had heard much about how everything here, ranging from electronics, car-parts, antiques and clothes, were actually stolen, giving the place its name. I wanted to see for myself.

Objects for sale were strewn on mattresses on the ground. Nothing was packaged or had a price-tag. An old man sat at a table selling old photographs, envelopes and that which he claimed were written by Mahatma Gandhi. Posters of old Bollywood movies were hung at the stall adjacent, amongst ancient gramophones. The sunglasses on display looked most enticing and I almost ended up buying what I thought was a stolen Ray-Ban until I picked it up and saw that it was a knock-off, cleverly named Ray-Ben. I also looked keenly through the litany of earphones laid out on a table-cloth. Some part of me hoped that I might find the Panasonic headset I had lost a few months ago. I was amazed at the sheer number of people, mostly locals, who were genuinely interested in buying things from here. I could now see why people referred to Chor Bazaar as an experience.

Four hours on and back where I had started, my feet beseeched me to sit down and get something to drink before heading home. Across the road was Jabbari Restaurant, a place my father had told me about once. He said that the tea here was believed to have strange healing powers to sort out throat ailments. My throat was a bit scratchy, so I went in and ordered the Jabbari masala chai. Infused with all manner of ayurvedic herbs, it tasted vile and seemed to burn my insides as it went down. But I kept going until I had reached the bottom of the cup. As terrible as it was, I have to admit that my throat felt squeaky clean for the rest of the day.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Keep Walking - Mohd. Ali Road

For future reference, "Keep Walking" is the heading I'll be giving to all articles that revolve around, well, walking

Located under the busy JJ Flyover, Mohammed Ali Road is full of old buildings, hawkers and handcarts that radiate energy and industry. The area is best known for its Iftar food during the month of Ramadan but that is just one of the many attractions that draw people to this medley of bustling streets.

Strike out in any direction from Minara Masjid, which sits squarely at the centre of area, and you'll find your surroundings change seamlessly. A footpath paved with perfumers gives way to a line of shops selling traditional caps and prayer-mats and, just as you notice something has changed, you'll stumble upon a nondescript lane dedicated to shoes. The air is rich with the smell of perfumes, spices and freshly baked bread from the bakeries around that do an admirable job of masking the pollution. Each one of the lanes branching off from Mohammed Ali Road seems to hide small, colourful shops that will reveal their secrets as reward for your exploration.

One of the area's most interesting attractions is its lane of attar (also spelt attr or ittar) shops. These are natural, oil-based, non-alcoholic perfumes that are popular in India, the Middle-East and other places that have a prominent Muslim culture. Mohammed. Ali Road has been Mumbai's hub for the attar industry since 1978 and is home to countless vendors who stock shelf-upon-shelf of brightly-coloured glass bottles, each labelled with the name of a fragrance. Competition from mainstream perfume makers means that you'll find many attars that are made to mimic popular fragrances; some come reasonably close.

“I cannot begin to tell you how many brands of attar I keep,” says Aleem Bhai, a venerable old man sitting among stacks of attar, surma, and mehendi, at a store called Attar-al-Hafiz, close to Minara Masjid. “Sandal, Shamama, Rose, Amber, Al Hami, Oudh... shall I keep going?” I ask him how old the store is. “Older than you, my boy,” he says, smiling through his beard.

Manufacturers too have their own stores. A few shops to the left is Al Hami Bros. Rotating displays of the latest fragrances from the Al Hami brand adorn the windows. Hundreds of fragrances intermingle and wash over you as you enter. From sprays to roll-ons, petite glass bottles and massive plastic containers – it's all here and you can sample it.

“My family has been running this business since 1939,” says Abbas Hami, one of the owners. He's interrupted by a young lady looking for a perfume that smells like Dove soap. After making her sample three different (and rather strong) fragrances and making a sale, he returns and continues. “Everything in our showcases is manufactured by us. We supply our products to local distributors and also export them to the Middle-East”.

Flower-based fragrances are priced at Rs 60- Rs 600 for 10ml and are also sold by the kilo. Wood-based fragrances like oudh and sandalwood make up the higher-end of the market. Oudh is made from an agarwood-(or eaglewood) based resin called aquilaria agallocha and the price for 10 ml can be anywhere between Rs 6,000 to a staggering Rs 40,000. Dehnal Oudh, a kind which is imported from Saudi Arabia, is considered the best. Sandalwood resin perfumes start at the same price and go up to Rs 25,000. The wood-based fragrances have a soothing, mild scent that is unlike most commercial perfumes.

The shopkeepers are patient and helpful, which is important, because picking out the right scent is neither quick nor easy. Some people like the traditional, strong, Rose attar, while others swear by the milder Amber. Those who buy attar, prefer it to perfume because it is cheaper, available in smaller quantities and, most importantly, it is natural. Prices are usually fixed, so bargaining won't get you far. Fragrances from some of the lesser-known brands may contain chemicals, so be sure to check with the vendor you're buying from.

Besides attar, Mohammed Ali Road is also famous for its surma and kajal and most attar stores stock popular brands like Budhia and Khojati. Kajal is a cosmetic eyeliner and surma is a powdered Unani eye product that can be both cosmetic and medicinal. To see the entire range, however, past Attar Al-Hafiz for a few minutes, and in a lane on the left called Palagali, you'll find Datu Manji Padamshi Surmawala. A massive painted eye adorns the wall of this 200-year-old establishment, which is home to a wide selection of surmas and kajals, in addition to rosewater eyedrops. Their products can be found at Unani stores all over India.

A winding wooden staircase leads to the sales counter on the first floor. Manufacturing is carried out under the same roof, on the ground floor, and you can see the process for yourself on request. The company was started 200 years ago by Ratan Bai Surmawala who sold her surmas in little pouches. From there, it passed through several generations of the family to reach Arif Banatwalla, the current owner.

He tells me that surma can be of many kinds, from various cosmetic ones to those that cool the eyes, or are meant especially for older people. “All our formulae are FDA-approved, completely natural and have no harmful ingredients,” he says. “Budhia No. 13 is the most popular for cosmetic use. Then there's No. 11 for styes and Mamira surma for the early stages of cataract.” The salesgirls are helpful and will show you how to use the surma and even apply it for you if you wish to sample it. Prices for a 3 gm bottle that would last a month if used everyday range from Rs 20 to Rs 60.

A trip to Mohammed Ali Road can't end before tasting some of the food. Most people flock there during Ramzan, but good food can be got here all year round, with many of the food stalls opening at 7 pm till the wee hours of the morning. If you walk back towards Minara Masjid, you'll reach Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala, the most famous of the area's sweetshops. Don't leave without tasting the firni (Rs 30) and gulping down a hot, sugar-syrup-slathered malpua (Rs 60). At the food stalls, you can have specialities like bater (quail) and teetar (partridge). Or just grab a bhuna gosht (mutton) roll or baida roti (mince-stuffed bread) if you're in a hurry. A tiny stall selling mawa jalebis is open only during Ramzan, and these heavenly desserts should not be missed.

The area is less crowded during the afternoon, making this the best time to visit. But to eat at the food stalls you'll have to brave the evening rush. Avoid going on a Friday afternoon, as the streets will be busier than usual, with the Muslim faithful clamouring to the mosque as the azaan (call to prayer) echoes around the market.

Those who travel on JJ Flyover, rushing towards posh South Mumbai, miss the adventure of getting stuck in the din below and investigating the innards of Mohammed Ali Road: The sights, sounds and smells only get better with each bylane you explore.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Year's Eve – A time to let Go(a)

People come to Goa with a sense of abandon, locking tiresome jobs and failing relationships firmly in closets back home. Year-long teetotalers may be found passed-out,faces in the sand, while eternal introverts discover hidden social sparks. The Goan philosophy of susegad, which professes being relaxed and happy, is a way of life here, for locals and travelers alike.

Although Goa, like Ibiza, is a party destination by definition, there's something more that attracts tens of thousands of tourists to celebrate the new year here. Perhaps it's because Goa embraces all who set foot on its sunny shores. There's something for everyone, irrespective of nationality, stature, and most importantly, budget. From hole-in-the-wall lodges to five-star hotels, sea-side shacks to fine-dining restaurants, underground rave parties to discotheques, Goa ensures everyone has a good time.

Although India's smallest state gets overbearingly crowded with tourists at the year-end, people just don't seem to want to go elsewhere. Charlotte Conway, a cartoonist from Newcastle, enjoys the freedom it offers. “You can just do what you like here, it's so chilled out”, she says, warming her hands by a bonfire outside a shack at Anjuna beach, her head bobbing to the music in the background, “and Goa has the best psychedelic trance music scene in the world, so it's the most obvious choice for me.” Others have simpler reasons. “I come here for the sun,”, says Alexei from Russia, pointing to the sky to re-affirm himself“too cold back home.”

Goa started to establish itself as India's “Party State” in the late-1960s, when musicians and hippies from America hitchhiked across the globe along the 'Hippie Trail' and found Goa's untouched beaches and Portuguese architecture the perfect environment to settle down, and set up flea markets, restaurants and yoga centers. The hippie revolution has since evolved into a deep-rooted trance music culture in Goa, which draws people from far corners of the globe to congregate at the beaches for the annual Sunburn Festival - a non-stop, three-day long party with live performances from the world's most famous trance music artists. Sunburn takes place at the end of each year, with the New Year’s Eve celebration providing a fitting after-party.

However, trance music and outdoor rave parties are merely appetizers on Goa’s menu. Small Portuguese casas line quaint streets that are almost desolated through the year, but burst to life during the festive season. Shacks, restaurants, pubs, and colourful flea markets nudge each other for space. Live musicians strum Spanish guitars, as sun-tanned (and sun-burnt) tourists sit at beach-side shacks, sipping chilled beer to counter spicy Goan curries, while their chairs sink slowly into the sand. More enthusiastic visitors whiz across the sea on jet-skis or boats in the distance. The shacks are innumerable and line all of Goa's beaches, most notably Calangute, Baga, and Candolim. Disappointment at finding a colourful little Irish pub full is soon quelled by the discovery of an alluring cafe a few metres away. Cheap alcohol and good food are found in large quantities and are a large part of Goa's appeal.

The number of party locations to choose from for New Year’s Eve borders on the absurd. It is no exaggeration to say that there are parties everywhere, and very few require an invitation or prior booking. For dancing the night away to mainstream house music Club Cubana, with its poolside bars and dance floors, is perfect, as is Nine Bar or Tito's. Others interested in the trance culture end up at Anjuna's rave parties, with laserlights and chemical imbalance taking centre stage, amidst people trading their sanity to unite with the music. Every beach has a buzz about it, with live musicians and DJs spinning tracks over seas of flowery shirts, dresses, and shorts, and a general aura of inebriated happiness all around. Fireworks at the stroke of midnight make the night-sky as colourful as the shores below. Just being at one place isn't quite enough for everyone, though. “There are so many places to go to for New Year’s Eve. My friends and I generally get out on bikes and hop from one party to another until sunrise”, says Prochie, a student from Mumbai who visits Goa several times a year. While party-hopping is a good idea, the midnight traffic jam it causes on New Year's Eve can spoil the fun.

While beaches are the most popular places in Goa, Panjim City has its own appeal. It's casinos are the main attraction. Most are on massive yachts; amusingly this allows them to exploit a loophole in the law that forbids cards being dealt on “Indian soil.” Indian tourists tend to flock to them in hordes to waltz with lady luck, and drink away the highs and lows of gambling. The city's numerous restaurants and pubs are decked with bright lights and brim with boisterous patrons having a good time.

No matter how crowded or commercial it gets , Goa holds a special place in the hearts of party-goers from the world over , as a place to indulge, break free and lose themselves, uninhibited. As Goa-lovers often declare: It's more than just a place; it's a state of mind.