Unravelling the city for the curious traveller, No Footprints' Harshvardhan Tanwar has an incredible way of bringing out the extraordinary in the most banal bazaars and bylanes of Mumbai. Moeena Halim takes a tour at dawn with Tanwar for a dose of the city's culture
It’s just after 4 am, the sun hasn’t shown up yet, and apart from a few barking stray dogs, not a soul on the street seems to take notice of my taxi zipping across the suburbs to what was once the hub of the city’s textile mills, Parel. But as I’m about to learn from Harshvardhan Tanwar, founder of tour company No Footprints, the beauty of the city in the wee hours of the morning lies precisely in this misconception. Taking me on his three-hour Mumbai by Dawn tour, he shows me how one turn away from a lonesome street you might find a bustling bazaar teeming with traders -- especially at five in the morning.
There’s no better wake-up call than the smell of a fish market,” the former adman reassures me, perhaps noticing my semi-asleep state. I realise just how right he is when we reach our first stop -- the city’s first wet dock and the only one open to the public, Sassoon Docks.
“About 25-30 tons of fish arrive at this dock every day. But while that statistic is incredible enough, I also think it is one of the best places to observe the culture of the original inhabitants of Mumbai, the Kolis. You’ll find the no-nonsense Koli women responsible for every aspect of the business -- they buy the fish and sell it here or in other parts of the city. The responsibility of the men ends with their catch of the day, which they deem sufficient once the ice in their boat begins to melt,” says Tanwar, fielding aggressive fishmongers as we walk through the teeming fish market over to the dock.
“Watch how they chuck baskets full of fish. There’s no automated system here, this is how it’s done,” he says, pointing to the rhythmic way in which men in the boats transfer their catch one cane basket at a time to the dock.
The market, like our very rich coastline, has everything from eels to giant stingrays, but the city’s quintessential Bombil is undoubtedly the highlight here. “Do you know how it got its name?” Tanwar asks me, just before he offers his favourite urban legend about the Bombay Duck. “The Englishmen from the East India Company absolutely loved this local fish. It was soft yet crispy and went perfectly with their Scotch.
They missed it sorely in Calcutta and decided to have it sent across the country by mail, or ‘daak’, on the railways. When the cargo arrived, it would stink and so an Englishman, sweating after a game of cricket or polo, was often proffered the insult of smelling like the Bombay Daak. That’s how the fish got its name,” Tanwar says with a laugh.
Meaning in the mundane
Moving on to the next leg of our tour, which highlights the city’s robust vendor distribution networks, Tanwar steers my attention to the many manual labourers up and about trying to make their living. There’s the milkman with his cans of milk tied to the sides of his bicycle, the pav-wala picking up fresh bread from the bakery, and the hand-cart-operating water supplier. “Larger tankers sell water to these guys on the hand-carts who in turn provide water to the hawkers on the street,” explains the 26-year-old engineering graduate.
Tanwar began conducting research online and by meeting and talking to people a year before he took his first tour with a foreign couple in January. “I wasn’t sure whether a bunch of tourists would enjoy waking up at 5 am to learn about how trade works in Mumbai, so I offered to show them around for free. But they seemed to have liked it because they paid me,” Tanwar tells me, over the din of clucking chickens at the chicken bazaar in Crawford Market. Since that first tour earlier this year, Tanwar has hired a group of junior “explorers” as well as senior team members to guide the team.
“Mumbai has always been a very busy and hardworking city, and mornings provide the very backbone of trade in the city. Whether it is the fish, veggie or chicken market, it is the Indian mother’s emphasis on fresh food that makes mornings so important in terms of trade. For the foreign traveller it provides an important insight that we tend to take for granted,” adds Tanwar, explaining why he introduced the Mumbai by Dawn tour. Along with his Worli Village Walk, this is also extremely popular with foreign guests who seem to have finally found more to do in the city than a day-trip to Elephanta Caves. But while we enjoy getting our food farm fresh, often home delivered, we seldom give a second thought to where our food may be coming from, which makes this tour just as eye-opening for a Mumbaiite.
Perhaps what is most incredible about the sites we visit is that an hour or so later, BMC cleaners ensure that the area is left spotless. “You come to this end of Crawford Market and you’ll find no trace of the chicken market,” says Tanwar. The same is true for the herb market at Dadar’s Tilak Bridge, which is supposedly the only market for greens of this scale. “Come at about 9 am and all you’ll get is the pandemonium of honking cars,” he adds.
Apart from the foodie markets, which Tanwar also includes in his Culinary Detour, we visit one of the largest networks of newspaper vendors opposite CST station and the Dadar flower market too. “Little nuggets of history exist all over the city, all you need is someone to tell you the right ones,” says Tanwar, determined not to have Mumbai remain a transit city for tourists. As we pass the Magan David Synagogue at Mazgaon, he tells me that over 90 per cent of the students at the Jewish school are Muslims, and I can’t help but admire Tanwar’s knack for pointing out the city’s most endearing details.
He also shows off Mazgaon’s other surprises in his Hidden Island tour, and offers special Jewish heritage tours. “We’ve got a wide range of tours, but we never limit ourselves. It’s all about creativity,” he claims. “For instance, one of our clients, a honeymoon couple, told us they loved baseball, Indian history, Indian food and surprises. We found a way to work all three in -- we got them to learn to play cricket at the Oval Maidan, which overlooks several British-era buildings, and at the end of two hours they were served a typical Indian lunch by a couple of dabbawalas,” recalls Tanwar, who also lays claim to opening up Mumbai University for lectures on Hinduism, serving lunch at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and high tea at the Prince of Wales Museum grounds.
Call Harshvardhan Tanwar at 09619952576, or find No Footprints on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nofootprintsmumbai
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Detox yourself with delicious Quinoa Fried Rice by Chef Hetal Cheddha