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.