Mumbai At Dawn
At 5:00 a.m., we hit the streets of a sleeping Mumbai. The wide boulevards – habitually clogged with traffic and the incessant racket of honking horns – are bathed in quiet and the golden light of sentinel street lamps. While Mumbai slumbers, pockets of workers who service the massive population of thirteen million residents are hard at work preparing for a new day.
Our first stop is in Colaba, which is a hive of activity. Bicycles are propped up against poles; men squat on the ground sorting thousands of hot off the press newspapers (printed in 22 languages) into straight edged stacks, binding them into bundles, and loading them onto bicycles and wagons.
On the sidewalk, a young man tends his massive pot of aromatic, caramel-colored, chai, which he sells in dinky paper cups to the newspaper sorters. I still savor the memory and flavor of that silken, sweet, warm, chai, which I sipped as I walked among the piles of neatly stacked newspapers. Before the break of dawn, bicycles, wagons, baskets, and racks, are loaded up, and the men fan out across the city to ferry the newspapers to kiosks, city street corners, apartment buildings, and wherever else they are sold.
Next stop, the Byculla Street Market where mounds of herbs and greens cover the streets; chickens huddle together in trucks on crates waiting to be weighed, sold, and carted off to become tandoori chicken or chicken masala, and milk stands in sturdy, stainless steel canisters, in cartons and plastic bags, ready to be delivered to the front doors of Mumbai’s residents. We stop and chat with a family who has been selling milk in Mumbai for four generations. They are justifiably proud that their long history of on-time delivery has earned them the reputation of being their customers’ morning alarm clock.
As the new day dawns, we reach the Dadar flower market. Dadar is a flower-lover’s dream! It’s a sea of flowers from roses in every color of an artist’s palette, to sweet jasmine, football-size lotus flowers, lilies, smiling Gerber daisies, chrysanthemums, baskets of gold and amber marigolds, and an array of interesting greenery to add creative contrast and texture to floral arrangements.
While the markets are abuzz with vendors and shoppers, at Dobhi Ghat (the world’s largest outdoor laundry) piles of laundry are being scrubbed, thwacked on stone slabs, rinsed, wrung, hung up in neat rows to dry according to color and type, ironed, packaged, and loaded onto bicycles to be delivered.
From Dhobi Ghat to the Sassoon Docks – where we are greeted by the overwhelming cacophony of the market, the pungent smell of fish, and the brilliant colors of sari clad women balancing brightly colored plastic tubs of fish atop their heads as they weave their way through the market. It’s chaotic, sensational, and mesmerizing.
We dodge carts, vendors, and stinky, fishy, puddles of water, as we take in the abundant variety of fish from the tiniest sardines to humungous fish that cover an entire table. I count at least six types of prawns. Fishermen are offloading their boats and tending their nets, while seagulls squawk overhead, just waiting for the opportunity to swoop down and scoop up a fish.
Note: I highly recommend that you wear old, washable, shoes and throw them into the washing machine after your visit to the Sassoon Docks or you’ll be wondering why people won’t come near you for the next week, and your hotel room will reek of fish.
We end our dawn discovery of magical Mumbai at a hole in the wall restaurant in the Colaba neighborhood which caters to Mumbaikars who meet for breakfast, scan their newspapers, and catch up on the morning news before heading off to work.
DISCOVERING MUMBAI AT DAWN – Day Two
6:00 a.m. and we hail a cab to take us to Shivaji Park. We have heard of Mallakhamba Yoga – an ancient form of pole yoga. We had contacted the teacher and director of the yoga studio and received permission to visit. Participants climb to the top of poles or ropes suspended from the ceiling, to execute spellbinding poses, moves, and flips.
From outdoors comes the popping sound of bats whacking at balls. Shivaji Park is filled with cricketers, all dressed in white, ranging in age from five to fifty-five plus, who come to the park at dawn for a game of cricket before heading off to school or the office. School children form circles and take turns in leading an early morning gym routine for their peers. A teacher participates and keeps an eye on the children but allows them to run the show. Joggers circle the field; the elderly stroll and chat; people gather at the café for their morning cup of hot, sweet, chai.
Though it takes willpower to wake up while the city sleeps and the moon is in the sky, I would say that uncovering the sights of Mumbai at dawn is definitely a worthwhile reward.