“Traffic in the streets of Bombay is chaotic at best. Riding a bicycle is a dangerous occupation. However, there are hundreds of them on the streets competing with the cars and buses and lorries because it is the poor man’s mode of transport.” — Rohinton Mistry
Ah, Mumbai! It is almost as if the city has a Dissociative Identity Disorder. There’s so many facets of this city – some that irk me no end and others that make me break out in a smile. I spent most of August in the city, most of it commuting on my fatbike. In my previous (Gear and Mods) post I remarked that I wanted to digress to some chance encounters on the streets of Mumbai. These encounters are significant because the #100BeachRide is not just about ticking off beaches or kilometres on a bucket list. This ride is also about discovering people, their lives, their aspirations, stories, culture and yes, food!
I have been to Mumbai twice during the monsoons. Once in my Maruti Gypsy and this time on a fatbike. Do you see a pattern emerging here? The lanes and bylanes in Mumbai suburbs are “shit” during the monsoons. There is no other adjective for it. It is an unacceptable state of affairs in the wealthiest municipality.
“The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai also known as Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is the civic body that governs Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra and is India’s richest municipal organization. The BMC’s annual budget is more than that of some of the small states of India.”
There is no explanation I will accept – none, nada, zilch. Now I have a healthy respect for people who ride around Mumbai on road bikes with 23c tyres and 24 spoke rims. Perhaps they only stick to the highways because I can promise you this – if you try riding anything but a fatbike through Mumbai suburbs during the monsoons, you will be looking at best for a new rim or at worst a trip to the hospital to get that saddle surgically removed from your ass.
My first encounter with the men in khaki was on August 25th when I was cycling from BKC to Gateway of India. Strike 1 for Murphy’s Law because the moment I cross into Dharavi, it starts to pour. I make my way through this downpour all the way to Crawford Market. The rain lets up for a while and I find myself standing next to the Mumbai Police HQ. I find solace at a tea stall that’s overflowing with men in khaki. The conversation stops as I walk in and everyone does a double take staring at this outworlder in dripping wet clothes and a bright orange helmet. The policemen restrain their curiosity till I’m halfway through my “cutting chai”. Then their questions, which start as a trickle, turn into a flood. My life’s history is unfolded, the bicycle is examined and pronounced “imported” despite my telling them it’s not. I am plied with more chai, idli-vada and sambar, my cycling route is discussed and dissected. Everyone has an opinion on places I should not visit along the way. Calls are made to friends and relatives to arrange a place for me to stay along the route. I am chuffed. There’s more to Mumbai than just bad roads and wicked humidity.
But wait there’s more. Today is Ganesh Chaturthi, and what do people from Himachal know about celebrating it in style? Absolutely nothing.
A wireless call is made to the Fort Ganapati Pandal. A motorcycle cop is determined to escort me to the Pandal, sirens blazing. A fatbike VIP! At the Pandal, I am welcomed by Inspector More who tells me he was a state level time trialist before he got a government job. Again I am questioned and simultaneously plied with more food and chai. Then a policeman is deputed to escort me to the Fort Pandal for a “Darshan” (view). Since I am an honoured guest I don’t have to wait in the serpentine hour-long queue like mere mortals. Inspector More is also kind enough to give me his phone number and his business card in case I need any help along my tour and I am finally sent off with a hug and best wishes.
“Inspector More and all the Mumbai policemen I met – if you’re reading this, you’ve changed my perception of the police on that soaking wet morning of Ganesh Chaturthi.”
Conversations in Mumbai
How much does this bike cost? Me – ₹ 25,000 Oh! he replies with a smirk, I thought it was over a lakh. I would like something better quality
My friends did tell me that Bandra dwellers were pretentious, but now I know…
I am cycling back to BKC from Aarey. It’s late and getting dark. I am doing a quick (quick for a fatbike, that is) 30 kmph. Suddenly a car overtakes me, swerves in front of me and screeches to a stop. A guy jumps out. I notice he is dressed in a suit and tie – not an attire that muggers prefer. I pull my hand away from my EDC knife.
Sir, I am thinking of buying a bike in a budget of ₹ 30,000. Can you help me make a decision?
I stop at a roadside shack for a bhurji pao on my fatbike. The owner is a handsome bloke with an interesting tattoo and all the trappings of a Bollywood actor.
Salu bhai ka bike hai? (Is this Salman Khan’s Being Human bicycle?)
Salman Khan has been in the news recently on the launch of his electric bicycle range and my fatbike is mistaken for one. He looks disappointed when I tell him “no”, but his eyes light up when I tell him I am headed to Film City Road. Before I can explain, he rattles on –
Aap to film mein kaam karte ho kya mujhe koi chotta sa role mileaga? (You must work in the movie industry, can you get me a small role in a Bollywood flick?)
Now I could tell him that I don’t know anyone in the film industry, but he had such a besieging look on his face that I didn’t have the heart to tell him. Instead, I found myself saying “I will try my best”. He knew I was lying and I knew he knew that I was lying, but it was still worthwhile to see that smile on his face and I got an extra pao on the house.
Photograph Courtesy: Elroy Serrao/Creative Commons
Yeh cycle kyon chalata hai, yeh purana fashion hai. (Why do you ride a bicycle, it is so old-fashioned?)
Shouts the 3rd generation owner of Yazdani Restaurant & Bakery as I walk in drenched on a wet day. I look around theatrically – pretending to take in the vintage posters, the old clock and the antique brass bell that hangs on the wall. Then I retort in my loudest voice, “So is this place”.
A couple of patrons snigger in their teacups while trying hard to keep a deadpan face. The owner scowls at me. I drip my way to one of the faded wooden benches and order what every cyclist needs on a wet day – Brun Maska & Chai. A waiter as old as the bakery cuts a fresh laadi pav and slathers it with copious amounts of Amul butter. I realise by now that my jersey and helmet are dripping all over his “antique” floor and I can see that the owner is staring at me too. I sheepishly lock eyes with him, half expecting another tantrum. But it’s my lucky day for he gives me the “it’s ok” Indian head nod. And just for good measure shouts at one of the loitering waiters to clean up the mess, just so his staff doesn’t think he’s gone soft. The atmosphere, the unchanged decor, the same 50-year-old menu, prepared to “almost” the same old world goodness and slightly unhinged owners sums up an Irani Cafe for me. As I step out to unlock my fatbike in the pouring rain I overhear the owner shout “Mad or what!”
Ah, some things never change…
“If you’re in Mumbai you owe it to yourself to visit Kyani, Yazdani and Brittania – the holy trinity of Irani cafes. Grab a table, keep ordering one item each from the menu and watch the world unfold before you.”
Mumbai you’re a crazy, crazy city. I’d be happy to see you in my rearview mirror. Next – starting the #100BeachRide