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January 9, 2008 > Mumbai: a memorable trip back home

Mumbai: a memorable trip back home

By Praveena Raman

After a hiatus of 11 years, our family recently went on a vacation to visit family and friends in India. We reached Mumbai, which will always be Bombay to us, in the early hours of Wednesday after a delay of a mere 29 hours! We entered the airport with trepidation, wondering what changes were going to assail us, and were relieved to find Sahar airport with the familiar tropical scent we remembered. After being cleared with immigration and customs we were welcomed outside by my brother, and ushered into a chauffeured car and finally on our way home to Deonar, in the suburbs of Bombay. As we made our way through the morning rush hour traffic, the volume of which seemed to have more than tripled since our last visit, we went through a culture shock. We had forgotten that people here drove with one hand on the horn and with an art of cutting into the path of another vehicle with inches to spare. It seemed a miracle that there were no accidents in this seeming chaos. Apart from the cacophony of noises that assailed our senses we had also forgotten how vendors weaved in and out of the dense traffic stopped at a traffic light not worried about getting hit by a car. The length of a traffic light cycle seemed interminably long, which also helped the vendors trying to make a sale to the occupants in the vehicles.

Finally we reached home and were greeted by my mother, a retired scientist and a horticulturist. The home that my parents have built and where I had spent my teenage years always seemed like an oasis in the bustling Bombay life. A beautiful airy bungalow with a lovely tropical garden, it is a gem in this built up city. After a quick cup of freshly brewed coffee we were taken on a tour of the garden. We were shown coffee beans on the coffee plants, a cinnamon plant that had now become a hardy tree from which barks could be peeled and dried to make cinnamon sticks, and cardamom and ginger shrubs. We saw a variety of fruit trees such as mango, chikoo (sapota), coconut, and banana with orchids growing on their trunks, and a variety of roses and other tropical plants as well which were all cared for by my mother.

Within a day, our children were introduced to a very different and comfortable lifestyle. The morning started with the milkman delivering milk in bags that were boiled before use and the maid coming to do the dishes and mop and sweep the house. The gardener came in the afternoon to help with the maintenance of the exotic plants, groceries were delivered home with just a phone call, and the vegetable and fruit seller came by daily so fresh vegetables and fruits could be bought. We were also treated to a chauffeur driven car to take us around town for shopping and visiting.

The first few days in Mumbai were spent going into town and shopping for sarees, blouse pieces and colorful cloth with beautiful designs so that they could be given to be stitched by the tailor who had agreed to meet the impossible deadline set by a visiting foreigner, yours truly. Our daughter Mekala had the thrill of going to department stores with my childhood friend, having a variety of Indian dresses brought for her to choose, getting the tailor in the shop to alter her choices to her size and seeing my friend not only barter the price down with an enviable skill but also have drinks served to us by the grateful shopkeeper. The biggest changes that met us in Bombay were the different shopping malls that had sprung in the city filled with stores and McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Dominos and Subway all with menus suitable for the Indian palate and culture. It was also very pleasing to see the open markets not only filled with varieties of vegetables and fruits but also with stalls with sweet smelling flowers that are worn in the hair by women. The weather during the entire stay was very pleasant and mild.

When not shopping, our days were spent either playing Carrom and Scrabble with cousins and family, eating delicacies and visiting relatives or going into town to see some of the tourist attractions. Traditionally, when I was growing up, going into town meant traveling to South Bombay which was and is adorned by Victorian buildings and populated by educational, business and financial institutions. The road during my earlier years used to be well laid out with sparse traffic.

Over the years, as Bombay has grown even more industrialized and people have prospered, cars have multiplied and the traffic has increased tremendously. However, with this growth, Bombay has grown and extended East into the mainland (Bombay being a long island) and a new town-side in New Mumbai has sprung up. Here the roads are broad and well laid out with fountains and roundabouts adorning it. The traffic is sparse and this is now what the Old South Bombay used to be like.

One of the places in New Mumbai that was fascinating in my visit was a temple dedicated to the God Hanuman (the Monkey God whose story is described in the Epic Ramayana) which is right in the middle of the South Indian Educational Society's (S.I.E.S.) Management College campus. There is a 33-foot idol of Hanuman in the standing posture carved from a single piece of granite and is India's tallest monolithic carving. The 55-ton statue stands on a pedestal in the shape of a lotus, hands joined in prayer, eyes closed in meditation and adorned with earrings, armlets and bangles.

Among the tourist attractions in South Bombay, Gateway of India is still worthwhile visiting as well as some of the institutions near it like the Elphinstone College, Prince of Wales Museum, Jehangir Art gallery and the Taj Mahal Hotel. The Cottage Industry Emporium in this area (5 minutes walking distance form the Gateway of India) is a great place to shop and the Khyber Restaurant opposite the Prince of Wales Museum and Elphinstone College is worth a visit for its' delicious lunch.

Gateway of India
Built by George Wittet as a triumphal arch to commemorate the visit by King George V and Queen Mary, the Gateway of India, also became a symbol of the end of colonial rule as the last British ships sailed from here out of India. With its four turrets and intricate design etched on yellow basalt it is a beautiful structure that is a symbolic entrance from the Arabian Sea into India. There is regular ferry service from here to the Elephanta Island, another popular tourist haunt.

Taj Mahal Hotel
A few feet from the Gateway of India, is the world famous Taj Mahal Hotel which was built in 1903. Jamshedji Tata, a prominent Indian industrialist had it designed by a European artist with a mixture of Moorish, Oriental and Florentine styles of architecture. The Taj with its high vaulted ceilings, onyx pillars and graceful archways makes a dramatic backdrop to the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea.

Elphinstone College
A few feet from the Gateway of India and the Taj, is Elphinstone College. The Elphinstone Institution, comprised of a high school and a college, was founded in 1827 and is one of the oldest educational institutions in the University of Bombay System. Named after Mountstuart Elphinstone a Governor of Bombay (currently Mumbai), Elphinstone College formally separated from the high school in 1856. It has played an important role in advancing the political and scientific areas in India and has also helped in shaping the art, culture, and history of the country.

Prince of Wales Museum
Opposite to the Elphinstone College is the Prince of Wales Museum which has an outstanding collection of artifacts and information relating to the Indian history and culture. The building has an Indo-Saracenic style of architecture comprising of domes prominent in the Islamic style, Victorian towers and Moorish arches from Spain. The central hall contains sculptures of Hindu deities and beautiful temple art, Buddhist thangkas or cloth painting from Nepal and Tibet and Maratha weaponry. A spectacular collection of more than 2,000 miniature paintings are found on the first floor as also an exhibit with artifacts relating to the Indus Valley Civilization

Jehangir Art gallery
This famous art gallery is next door to the Prince of Wales Museum. Built in 1952 it is operated by the Bombay Art Society. With four exhibition halls, it is a popular venue for artists to showcase their work. The gallery also has the Samovar cafˇ frequented by creative artists and gallery visitors

Ten days flew away all too soon and it was time to come back to Fremont. Our suitcases which had increased by one during our stay in India were packed with gifts, clothes from the tailor and those bought at the stores. Intermingled with these were also some books and CDs that we managed to buy. After sadly bidding my mother, brother and his family goodbye we made our way to the airport. Back here in Fremont the quiet in the house was deafening and we actually missed the cacophony of traffic noises that were constantly there 24 hours a day in Mumbai. We look back fondly on our wonderful holiday there and the gracious and friendly hospitality of family and friends making our stay memorable and also look forward to our next visit back home.

Some dos and don'ts if you go to Mumbai:

Visit Bombay in December. The weather is the most pleasant at this time of the year.

Eat only cooked food, avoid salads

Drink only boiled or bottled water.

Also rinse your mouth only with boiled or bottled water

Stay in reputable hotels near the airport or in town.

Wear full sleeved shirts in the evening to avoid mosquitoes.

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