A little over two years since the devastating attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, Mumbai is applying its characteristic energy to the business of recovery.
The man aboard the Howrah Mumbai Mail from Patna, the capital of India’s north-eastern province of Bihar, to Mumbai, works in Bollywood designing computer animation for films (“Thrusting a dagger into a man’s chest; exploding buildings; children getting eaten alive by spiders … that sort of thing”).
He’s returning to Mumbai with his new wife. Dressed in a bright-pink sari with matching ribbons, fingernails and cosmetics case, she can’t sit still for excitement. It is her first time in India’s financial powerhouse – named after the goddess Mumba but still widely known by its colonial name, Bombay. “Bombay is the best city in the whole wide world,” she says, widening her eyes for emphasis. “It’s just like New York!”
Big, brash, beautiful and, more often than not, just completely bewildering, Mumbai has a population of about 20 million. It’s the fourth-biggest urban agglomeration in the world; a mega city some predict will overtake Tokyo for the top spot by 2020.
It is glitzy and glamorous yet sometimes crude to the point of vulgarity; cosmopolitan and worldly but also traditional and insular; filthy rich and dirt poor. More than 60 per cent of the city’s population lives in slums, while the world’s most expensive house – the $US1 billion ($985 million), 27-storey Antilia Mumbai in Malabar Hill – has 600 staff and only five residents.
Strategically located on the sea, Mumbai has endured countless confrontations and conquests, from Muslim invaders in the 14th century to the British East India Company, which in 1668 leased the city’s seven islands for 10 pounds of gold a year. More recently, on November 26, 2008, Muslim radicals attacked the city after arriving by boat, taking hostages in the Taj Mahal Palace and Oberoi Mumbai hotels in South Mumbai and staging shoot-out in the Victoria Terminus train station, in the backpacker cafe Leopold’s, and in the Jewish centre of Nariman House, killing an estimated 167 people. Two years later, Mumbai is back on its feet – shaken but planning new projects.
Both hotels suffered considerably during the attacks. One of the domes at the iconic 1903 Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was burnt down and its lobby was pock-marked with bullet holes. The Victorian-era heritage wing of the hotel has since undergone a $US38 million reconstruction and refurbishment and reopened last year. The hotel has a majestic grandeur, with its floating staircase, Belgian chandeliers, silk carpets and Sea Lounge cafe serving high tea with spellbinding views over the India Gate. But, perhaps understandably, staff seem distracted during my latest visit, with fewer smiles and less efficiency than I remember.
The Oberoi Mumbai, at Nariman Point, also reopened last year, its lobby refurbished in seamless marble and simple but elegant furnishings, including silk-upholstered couches and a bright-red piano. The 287 guest rooms have also been refurbished. While security is tight at the Oberoi – you are frisked at the front door and bags are searched and passed through a scanner – I find the service here attentive, warm and welcoming.
After the harrowing attacks on his hotel, the chairman of the Oberoi Group, P.R.S. Oberoi, wanted to create a radical change in the venue, something that would signify a new era for the city. It takes the form of a restaurant named Ziya, run by Indian-born maverick chef Vineet Bhatia. In 2001, he became the first Indian chef to score a Michelin star, for his former restaurant, Zaika.
A stylish space on the Oberoi Mumbai’s second floor, Ziya outraged diners when it opened in April last year in place of the hotel’s long-standing restaurant, Kandahar, which served classical cuisine from the North West Frontier, a name given to the north-west provinces of India and Pakistan during British rule.
Ziya is the complete opposite, serving single plates of well-presented dishes of Indian origin but with an emphatic contemporary spin, such as home-smoked salmon served with a vegetable chaat and chicken tikka with blue cheese. For me, Bhatia’s food is fun: light-hearted and tasty and not taking itself too seriously.
The streets between the Taj Mahal Palace and Oberoi Mumbai are being spruced up. A handful of boutiques has opened in the crumbling Victorian buildings and more than a dozen galleries, including Gallery BMB (gallerybmb.com) and Project 88 (project88.in), an outpost of the community art space Gallery 88 in Kolkata, feature contemporary art by south Asian artists.
I’m told the best place to see Mumbai’s new shopping scene is Phoenix Mall, a behemoth complex set among the slums of central Mumbai. Comprising three separate malls housing run-of-the-mill international brands, I find the place dismal and if not for the ear-piercing Hindi music and the frenzied, free-for-all taxi queue outside, it could be anywhere in the world.
While at Phoenix Mall, I decide to drop into Mumbai’s latest luxury lodging, the Four Seasons Hotel. It’s a gleaming glass tower that looks as if it’s been plucked from downtown New York City. It’s about two kilometres away and I’d prefer to catch a taxi but after 30 minutes of being beaten to the post, I walk – past noisy mechanics’ garages, houses made of odd bits of iron and plastic, mounds of rubbish and kids playing games with tyres and sticks. It’s a strange location for a hotel with an open rooftop bar and rooms from $400 a night. But this is Mumbai – city of extremes.
Close to the Bandra-Worli Sealink- a magnificent cable-stayed bridge that sweeps out over the ocean and significantly reduces the travelling time between the airport and South Mumbai – this down-and-out area is destined to become the central business district.
Besides, nobody seems to care about the hotel’s location. In fact, some slum-dwellers, who are squatting on the land, think it’s rather prestigious to have the world’s standard-setter for luxury hotels so close. Certainly, the jubilant taxi driver who takes me back to town feels this way.
Originally from the central Indian city of Bhopal, he moved to Mumbai to find his fortune more than 15 years ago. While pointing out landmarks, gorgeous Victorian-era buildings and sitting on the horn for minutes at a time, he tells me he never made his fortune – but there is no other place he would rather be.
“Bombay – greatest city in world,” he declares. “In Bombay, anything can happen!”
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is the place to be and be seen. There are 560 guest rooms in the heritage and tower wings; request a room facing the sea with views over the India Gate. Doubles cost from 11,880 rupees ($260). See tajhotels.com.
The Oberoi Mumbai is, in my view, the city’s finest hotel, with genuine sophistication surprisingly rare in luxury hotels these days. The 287 guest rooms are simple but classy, with contemporary art and silk furnishings. Doubles cost from 20,075 rupees. See oberoihotels.com.