Sunday in Mumbai, looking down at the Gateway of India – the best view is from room 461, The Gateway of India corner suite at that iconic luxury hotel, Taj Mahal Palace. Oh the crowds on a Sunday. Later, over dinner at Wasabi by Morimoto, Parveen Chander explained to the gal why there are so many people around. Mumbai anyway is, well, dense, but the area around Mumbadevi Temple and Mohamed Ali Road, slightly north and inland from the Gateway of India, is particularly fascinating.
This area is packed with successful SMEs, small and medium enterprise companies, one notch up from mom and pop shops. Many people live in cramped housing above these businesses, which are making enough money for their owners to live well but not buy s-p-a-c-e. Come Sunday, then, they head for the nearest space, which happens to be around the Gateway. They come in a variety of their own cars, including a few Tata-made Nanos, and in taxis, the non-aircon yellow and black type. Some even take rides in tall horse-drawn carriages liberally covered in thin bashed-plate silver.
At one point a line several hundred yards long has formed. My driver says they are queuing for an art gallery but I do not believe him. I think they are lining up to board one of the pleasure boats that sail out from the Gateway. The crowds buy snacks and toys and drinks from vendors who of course spring up everywhere. I see masses of T-shirts and blue jeans, and some Sunday-best suits on proud dads leading kids in frilly party frocks. A few groups of young women are in bright-coloured and rich dirndl skirts over matching skin-tight leggings. One woman is black, top to flowing tail and her face is covered. I rather liked this woman’s coiffure, to go with her delicate peppermint sari.
Inside the beautiful Taj Mahal Palace, meanwhile, is another world, although both are in harmony. No-one outside bothers hotel guests who happen to venture out, and those outside do not even want to come in. Inside today are delegations, some international religion, some domestic politics, some two-nation solidarity. I meet up with my friends Rakhee Lalvani and Deepa Harris, two of the most beautiful (and talented) sari wearers I know. We talk about the last time I was here, when I coincided with a magnificent wedding and oh, the saris and jewels on that occasion.
I head down for the hotel’s pool, such a haven of calm. You barely hear even a hint of the hubbub that is going on outside the hotel. A few birds fly over but they do not disturb the calm, either. The pool is getting more use these days, as is the gym, which seems to have doubled in size since my last visit to the hotel – Indians are into fitness, I am told, and even Bollywood stars are weaning themselves away from generous flesh and dimples. On my way to dinner, I pass the hotel’s photo gallery, President Obama with Rajan Tata, and Amitabh Bachchan in front of the Taj. Wasabi by Morimoto is full, too, with locals. Indians are also into eating well, like the specialities here, carpaccio of whitefish, and black miso-marinated cod.
Everything is full, it seems. There is not a seat to be had at Sea Grill at nine next morning (Girlahead tip, take this elegant buffet rather than the busier one downstairs in Shamiana). Since Deepa and Rakhee are telling me about Taj and weddings, and this Sea Grill is one of THE places for proposals, I look around to work out if any one group here is from the girl’s family, looking across at that group there from the would-be fiancé’s family, but no, the only group is a political one, dominated by a shouting Minister who would not be out of place yelling support at a rugby match. Get engaged here at Sea Grill, suggests the new Taj wedding booklet, or at Taj Lake Palace, the ship-like hotel in the middle of Udaipur’s Lake Pichola. There are ideas for ceremonies, and honeymoons, and renewal of vows. I think that in England, the first thing an engaged couple must do is book the venue – some are now even buying marquees, rather than renting them. In India, the first thing to do is book the jeweler. Making the necessary can take some time (does the jeweler commute by elephant?). In Old Bombay society, the family chooses its own date, usually a Sunday, rather than asking the priest for an auspicious date. On my way out from this luxury hotel, home to so many aficionados, I pass an elephant sculpture, a reminder that even the elephant-head deity Lord Ganesh is success, in Hindu terms.