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.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Not-so-Famous First Words

After much name deliberation, trying to get as much of me as was humanly possible into three words, I settled upon "Left Write Cleft". Why? Because I'm left handed, a writer, and I have a cleft on my chin. See, I'm cool like that.

To introduce myself, I'm an engineer by qualification, a travel-writer by occupation; a football junkie and wordplay fanatic; a geek and a daydreamer.

This particular piece of internet space will revolve around a mixture of travel, food, alternative culture, and other such fun things. A far cry from my usual litany of satire and cynicism, but you have to grow up sometime, right?

I will (hopefully) update this blog at least once a week, so do subscribe if you like what you read, and feel free to comment, critique, or (dare I say it?) compliment, as you see fit.

That's all for now.