Get out of the mall

Updated: Feb 01, 2020, 07:29 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

So much of what makes Bombay special is located in nooks and crannies that don't get the attention they deserve

A file photo of the Koli Seafood Festival in Versova. File pic
A file photo of the Koli Seafood Festival in Versova. File pic

Lindsay PereiraIf you have been to one mall, you have been to them all. I say this not to disparage these ugly monstrosities that give millions of us access to free air-conditioning and clean washrooms, but to point out that we now spend more time inside them than is good for us. This isn't a rant about consumerism either, even though it has been pointed out by many that we purchase more than we have ever needed. It is simply a reminder that there is a world outside them with the potential to offer a lot more happiness than window shopping can.

I grew up in a Bombay that had no malls. It's hard for a millennial to understand what that feels like because it sometimes feels as if our weekends have always involved excursions to a Phoenix or an Inorbit. It's true though, and the absence of giant shopping centres encouraged us all to seek avenues of entertainment that didn't involve the use of a credit card. We didn't have credit cards either anyway, because the salaries we were paid back then wouldn't buy us dinner at a fancy restaurant today.

Bombay still is a charming city, despite what we may believe, provided we go hunting for that charm. It is harder to find these days, what with roads that barely function as such, crowds that threaten to stampede, and public transport that almost always involves taking one's life in one's hands. For those who persevere though, there are still lights at the end of these government-funded tunnels.

Take Malad, for instance, a suburb I grew up in, and one I continue to love despite the best efforts of television actors moving into the neighbourhood. Today, this is a place of chaos, marked by unregulated construction and skyscrapers serviced by single-lane streets. It is hard to appreciate, especially if you happen to try visiting it via Link Road and find yourself crawling inch by painful inch for hours. Growing up there, however, was magical in a number of ways.

Stop by Orlem for proof, especially during Christmas, when every street lights up and there are cribs erected on every major corner. Stop by a local pub, preferably one hidden away from the major junctions, and you may find a menu unlike any other in the city. Or follow Marve Road down to where it ends, by the beach, and eat greasy snacks at the tiny restaurants there that haven't changed since the 1980s.

Bombay's largest suburbs still hold remnants of times past. You can still duck into side streets at Marine Drive and find a restaurant like Snowflake, where the clock appears to have stopped moving a century ago. Or walk a few hundred metres past the Gateway of India towards the bylanes of Colaba for a peek at how residents lived when the British were still their neighbours.

If you were to stop by Versova a week or so ago, you could have surprised yourself with its annual Seafood Festival. It's the kind of place that drives Instagram-users insane, because of what every stall offers for a few hundred rupees. For authentic Maharashtrian cuisine that usually involves a few hours of driving outside the city, it's an experience no mall can ever hope to match.

I like Versova for its drinking holes too, and remember stumbling into one a few hundred feet from the seashore late one weekend. It was lit by a solitary tube-light and furnished with just two long wooden tables. Around me sat fishermen drinking beer and eating fish that had supposedly been caught an hour ago. When I asked for vodka, the waiter found me a dusty quarter that had presumably been ignored for years. I didn't complain because the experience alone was worth the risk.

People who have lived in Bombay for years always have their secret spots that make them feel most at home — stalls like the one selling authentic Goan food in Orlem, bars like Schumania in Borivli populated by locals who went to school together, nondescript eateries like those in King's Circle offering South Indian dishes that can only be found in Chennai, lavish sadhyas prepared for Onam at restaurants near PM Road.

To spend time at these places is to get a sense of why Bombay has flourished for as long as it has; why it manages to accommodate all cuisines, cultures and voices; and why there is no city like it on Earth. Who needs a mall anyway?

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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