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A Mumbai Night with Novelist Chandrahas Choudhury

See the hidden side of the city, from midnight rotis to a dockside dawn.

Chowpatty Beach

Over the rainbow and into the bustle of the snack stall-filled Chowpatty Beach.

Mumbai: humid heat, teeming streets, challenging city planning and survival-of-the-fittest culture can make the day feel like war. But as evening falls and the air cools, Mumbai lets out a collective sigh – part relief, part anticipation. I’ve lived there most of my life, set my novels there, and for me, Mumbai after dark is a bouquet of sensual pleasures. Here, from sunset to sunrise, is my itinerary for the perfect Mumbai night.

Chowpatty Beach

Splashing dusk away to build up an appetite.

Chowpatty

5:30 p.m. Snack time at the beach

It’s a sweaty evening in south Mumbai. I jump out of the commuter train at Churchgate Terminus while it’s still moving, not because I’m in a hurry but to avoid being knocked over by hordes of invading commuters heading home. From here, though, it’s all peace and pleasure on the walk down Marine Drive to the city’s most storied beach.

Food stall; sculptural fruit

Left to right: When it’s chow time at Chowpatty, there’s a stall for everything, from bhelpuri to paneer sandwiches; sculptural fruit.

Chowpatty Beach is fairly desolate by day because of the heat, but between sundown and 9 p.m. it turns into a come-one-come-all fairground, packed with lovers and loners, vendors and hustlers. This tiny crescent tucked into the bay just before the posh neighbourhood of Malabar Hill is what people think of first when they think of Mumbai. Chowpatty jayenge / bhelpuri khayenge, goes the famous Bollywood film song: “To the beach we’ll go / there to eat bhelpuri.” At Chowpatty I can hear the many languages and accents of my polyglot city – English, Hindu, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati, Konkani – not to mention Mumbaiya, Mumbai’s own rapid and rugged patois redeemed by notes of melody. (The exclamation for surprise or regret, for instance, is a long, swinging Aiee-la!)

Malabar Hill; Bachelorr’s ice cream

Left to right: Malabar Hill in the mist; the renowned ice cream at Bachelorr’s is a treat worth saving room for.

My stomach starts calling for the second part of that song: bhelpuri. Moments later I’m biting into Mumbai’s signature snack from a nearby stall, a colourful toss-up of puffed rice, chopped onion, chilli and potato, tart with tamarind sauce and crunchy with crispy bits of fried chickpea flour calledsev, all wrapped in a cone of newspaper (which some people even read when they’re finished eating). Half of my bite spills out of the paper; the mess is part of the fun. For dessert, Bachelorr’s: First set up in the 1930s, this tiny, unpretentious joint has no seating but always dozens of customers, all trying to catch the attention of the harried waiters for milkshakes and ice cream. When I succeed in catching one’s eye, I shout my order – Mumbai waits for no one. Today, the creamy splendour of custard-apple ice cream is in season; my second favourite is green chilli ice cream (always in season).

Prithvi theatre

Bright ideas and lively chat abound at the café that buttresses this historic theatre.

Prithvi

7:30 p.m. The theatre

The bell rings and in the dark I hear the patter of feet shuffling through the door just before it shuts. Then the lights come on, washing over a small semicircular stage below me. A couple hundred people draw in their breath. For the next two hours, this intimate space will be our world.

No matter how famous or rich, every Mumbai actor, including the big stars of Bollywood, secretly dreams of taking a bow in this venue (capacity 180, closed Mondays). Established in 1978 close to Juhu Beach in the western suburbs in memory of the great Mumbai actor Prithviraj Kapoor, Prithvi (“the world”) Theatre is so small that those in the front row could easily whisper compliments or reproaches into the ears of the lead actors. (Some do – some even get replies.) Going to Prithvi is a rite of passage. I was taken there by my father for the first time at age 15 to see a production of Waiting for Godot, and there hasn’t been a week since that I haven’t scanned the newspapers for what’s playing – the theatre hosts over 600 shows a year. Tonight, I watch a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Dear Liar starring Mumbai’s most famous theatre couple, actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. They’re veterans, as are many in the audience. Waves of pleasure ripple back and forth between stage and crowd.

Those who love Prithvi make a whole evening of it. Outside the theatre are a small bookshop and an open-air café where I order an Irish coffee. The café is also famous for its “cutting chai”: the Indian brew of tea leaves, milk and cardamom, called “cutting” because it’s customarily served by the half-glass and thus “cut” into two. (It’s not just the people who are willful in Mumbai, but also the verbs.) Young actors and industry hopefuls, still hot from the performance, mix with renowned directors and playwrights chattering about their latest productions.

Mohammed Ali Road stalls

Into the stalls of Cho Bazaar on Mohammed Ali Road.

Mohammed Ali Road

10 p.m. A stroll

Despite the late hour, the clamour of traffic, radios and voices drowns out my own thoughts. I’m on Mohammed Ali Road, where it was unanimously decided many decades ago that silence belonged in the Himalayas.

Here, in a city of many different religions and cultures, lies the heart of Islamic – and carnivore – Mumbai. I make my way half-involuntarily, bumped along by the crowd, over the narrow sidewalks glutted with vendors selling everything from lingerie to handbags to religious literature to the cloying perfume – a hundred roses distilled into a drop – known as attar. Many of the women wear burkas (even those driving scooters), and an array of tasty meats are fried, grilled or roasted right on the pavement, from the familiar pleasures of tandoori chicken to the are-you-up-for-it challenge of goat testicles.

Minara Masjid Mosque

Scooters and pedestrians intermingle below the Minara Masjid Mosque.

“Hello, sir! Don’t see you very much around here these days. Gotten bored of our biryani?” shouts Abdullah, one of the waiters at Noor Mohammadi, a small restaurant that every meat-eating Mumbaikar has been to. We’ve known each other ever since he first came to work here as a teenager, and adulthood has not erased Abdullah’s impish smile (though it has added a moustache to it).

Mumbai shops

In Mumbai, shops stay open into the wee hours.

I’m lucky tonight – I have a table to myself. But on weekend nights or during Ramadan, I’ve found myself sharing with a family of four or breaking naan with a cabal of taxi drivers. Tonight I feast on hot, yeasty tandoori rotis, brought out of the kitchen in stacks and distributed to whoever raises a hand. I break off a piece of the flatbread to scoop up yellow dal topped with a glistening splash of ghee, then wrap it around a morsel of juicy beef kebab, raw onion and a fiery green mint chutney. As I eat, I try to file away my memories of the most interesting and beautiful faces that met my gaze in the past hour – there were at least five thousand.

Train

Heels in, toes out.

Churchgate

1 a.m. The last train

It’s past midnight and like any good Mumbaikar, I still can’t stop hurrying. That’s because I don’t want to miss the last northbound train to Borivali from Churchgate Terminus. The train is nearly empty, but as it rumbles northward – covering 40 kilometres and 20 stations in 70 minutes – it will fill up.

At this hour, Mumbai’s frenetic energy fades into exhaustion. The best place to experience the enormous, soul-shaking fatigue of a Mumbai night is on the last train home, mixing with street vendors after a long day’s labour, tired executives, jobless stragglers, querulous alcoholics – even the odd colourfully dressed group returning from a wedding. Many people sit, but a remarkable number choose to stand by the open doors, jostling for first place at the very edge, heels inside the compartment, toes and heads outside, keeping close watch on each other all the time. That’s Mumbai for you: It even does solitude and introspection as a crowd.

Train

For the breeze and the nighttime view, the open doorway is the best spot on the train.

The train chugs past the arrogant new skyscrapers of central Mumbai rising above tired teeming tenements. I start by the door but am soon pushed back into third place by two masters of the edge. Not far from my feet, two teenaged boys sit shoulder to shoulder on the floor, sharing a pair of earphones as they listen to Hindi film songs on a mobile phone. Soon they’re asleep, leaning their heads against each other. For millions in this hyperactive city, sleep is a fitful, fragile thing, never fully possessed but caught on the fly. Soon, at the last station, it will be time to wake up again.

Fisherman

A Mumbai fisherman takes a break. Fishing is illegal during monsoon season – otherwise, the work never stops.

Ferry Wharf

4 a.m. The fishing docks at dawn

In my cab to Ferry Wharf in the humble neighbourhood of Mazgaon on the city’s eastern seafront, I see the long passageway to the pier is already populated by dozens of people. They are big or small fish in the port city’s vast marine economy: restaurateurs, tea sellers, brightly dressed women from the city’s traditional fishing community, the Kolis – even wiry kids whose sprightly fingers peel, scale and devein fish faster than you can say Ferry Wharf.

Ferry Wharf morning

The morning scene at Ferry Wharf brims over with energy. (Photo: Colston Julian)

Like fireflies, small yellow lights glimmer in the distance: the fishing trawlers coming in after a night at sea. And then, suddenly, bedlam. The trawlers dock and their workers expertly toss huge baskets of fish – mackerel, crabs, pomfret and the floppy little fish called Bombay duck – up onto the pier. These are sold wholesale or, in the case of especially big or valuable fish, even traded in short, sharp auctions, with dozens of people jockeying for the prize. In this city that so loves dhanda – trade, business – every person here is buying, selling, bargaining and using the night to get a head start on the long day to come.

Above the cacophony, a streaky purple dawn appears like a watercolour painting. Night is over, but is it really? Sometimes I think that Mumbai lives one long, restless day, always weary, always awake. Always alive.

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INDIA     MUMBAI    

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