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.