Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aaargh!


Mumbai is, as our intrepid travel writer discovers, a city of contrasts. She’s a long way from the babycinos of Stoke Newington Church Street

Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aaargh!

Chubby Hubby and I had never considered doing India. When we got married we came up with our own personal unique version of a bucket list, which is comprised of places where it would be preferable to kick the bucket rather than visit – and India was at the top. We’re intrepid, adventurous types, but poverty and pollution are hardly an allure, so it was with trepidation that we landed at Mumbai airport, our hearts beating fast, our palms sweating. Stepping onto the tarmac was like stepping into an oven. It was hot. Really hot. But once we had made it through the rabble we found a cute little black and yellow taxi and began to wind through the narrow alleyways of the megacity as our native Indian driver chatted to us in English about Manchester United and David Beckham! It was immediately clear that Mumbai was just like any big city at rush hour.

We had treated ourselves to Business class to give Barnaby a chance to stretch his legs up and down the aisles

The sprawling city’s sensory assault soon struck and the honking of horns, Bollywood beats and mountains of vibrant spices at the roadside merged into one great cacophony of noise and colour. Not enough is made of the stench of Indian cities – people don’t warn you properly. The smell of sewers with an undertone of incense filled my nostrils and as we dodged potholes, sacred cows, women in saris and men in jeans, it was clear that this was a city of contrasts. As I gazed at the scene unfolding around me, I saw a child in rags tap at the window of a brand new imported Mercedes: a slumdog and a millionaire. A motorbike drew up by my window carrying a family of five, two children standing and holding the handlebars and a baby asleep in its mother’s arms. I nudged Chubby Hubby: an overwhelming sense of sadness and sorrow ran up and then ran down my spine. Shocked at the lack of safety and consideration for their children, we looked down at our little one sleeping soundly in his MaxiCosi and smiled, feeling blessed. We had treated ourselves to Business class to give Barnaby a chance to stretch his legs up and down the aisles instead of being confined to such a tiny space for eight hours, and having expended his energy on the plane he was sound asleep and blissfully unaware of the world around him.


“Bollywood beats and mountains of vibrant spices”

An aside: my hubby wasn’t always “Chubby”, but when we got pregnant we decided that he would give up the gym for a year so that I didn’t feel so bad about my weight gain, but since we’ve had Barnaby I now wear my weight like a badge of honour – and I don’t have stretch marks, thank you very much, I’m a god-damned tiger who has earned her stripes!

I slipped on some bangles, stepped into a pair of jeweled sandals and placed a bindi between my eyebrows (a ceremonial red dot worn on the forehead in India)

As we drew up to the Taj Palace Hotel I felt excited, exhilarated and a bit nervous but we were greeted by two warm and welcoming women wearing brightly coloured silk saris who placed fragrant garlands around our necks and handed us prayer beads. They had gorgeous tanned skin and bright white teeth that they revealed with each gentle smile. After a shower, I decided to change into something more suitable – a salwar kameez outfit – I slipped on some bangles, stepped into a pair of jeweled sandals and placed a bindi between my eyebrows (a ceremonial red dot worn on the forehead in India). Out of respect for the culture, I covered my hair with a headscarf and descended the grand staircase, which was like something out of Claridge’s, or the Dorchester.

At dinner we met Chris and Alice from Hartlepool who had already been in India for two weeks. It’s always good to have some insider info when it comes to haggling and avoiding scams and rip-offs, so we noted down some excellent restaurant recommendations. Chris had hated crowds before they got to India, but now that he’d found good beer, he was a bit more relaxed about it, and realised that he’d learnt so much about himself. “Plus it’s been ace to see the scenery and stuff,” he said, “and all the other bits around.”

The next morning, on Chris and Alice’s recommendation we wandered up to Colaba Causeway to find Leopold Café, which is nestled in the heart of the action. Tucked away behind a string of stalls, you have to know it’s there to find it. The legendary coffee shop still has bullet holes from the Mumbai attacks and was the setting for the wonderful novel, Shantaram – a must for anyone travelling in India. Chubby Hubby went for a thirst-quenching, ice-cold Heineken and I indulged in some of their famous vanilla ice cream, which was deeply creamy and packed with a proper punch of vanilla. Leopold was heaving with travellers and the air filled with the sound of clinking and merriment, but the waiters kept kicking Barnaby’s high chair as they wound their way around tables so we left.

Leopold Café, Mumbai

Leopold Café, Mumbai

As we strolled up the causeway tuk-tuk drivers swerved over to try and give us lifts. But I didn’t want to succumb to the tourist traps. I wasn’t interested in India-lite. I wanted the real thing. We marched on ahead trying to find some semblance of pavement, negotiating red splashes of paint and stepping over broken slabs and beggars. Eventually Barnaby began to tire so we flagged down a tuk-tuk, or “auto rickshaw” as they are lovingly referred to, and zipped off, winding around cars, buses, lorries and the odd sacred cow. And Real India didn’t disappoint. It was clear that despite their plight, people are happy. They smiled and waved, the women hiding shyly as we took photographs of them. But then the tables turned and we noticed that everywhere we went people were photographing us. We felt like celebrities and realised that the local people have probably never seen a white face around here before.

India and its people are dazzling and diverse

We had heard about the infamous train station and decided to witness the huge crowds firsthand. As we climbed the steps of the famous Mumbai Victoria Chhatrapati Terminus station, the gargoyles stared down at us, and we found a safe spot to watch the crowds heaving in and out of the train doors. Once you learn to look beyond the mania, however, there’s a chance to enjoy the breath-taking sight of thousands of commuters pushing in and out of the doors, just going about their business like normal commuters. It’s a truly jaw-dropping sight.

After a week of hot sunshine, warm welcomes, and an unrivalled hospitality, we realised that there is more to India than meets the eye. India and its people are dazzling and diverse. Over a cup of tea at the hotel’s poolside which boasts one of the most crystal-clear swimming pools I’ve ever seen, we looked around and realised that there was something so very English about sipping Darjeeling under a wooden fan and we laughed. In just a week Chubby Hubby had already started to do that wonderful Indian headshake that means anything and everything is possible in India. And it’s true. India is controlled chaos, but it’s a chaos that works and you have to get stuck in and give it a try. I, for one, will be booking a flight back as soon as I get home. C


The writer was a guest of British Airways and the Taj Palace Hotel