Technicolor Dreams in Mumbai

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It is easy to fit into one of the two Mumbai camps. There are those who hate the traffic, the crowds, the pollution and the prices. And, then there are others who fall for its cosmopolitan charm, it Gothic buildings, night life and the riot of colours. No wonder the city was christened Bombay – or the Good Bay by the Portuguese before they handed it over as dowry to the British.

`Maximum City’ Mumbai has none of the orderly chaos of other Asian cities, but, it will, test your survival skills the very first hour that you set foot on the tarmac. The chaos of the urban sprawl, the poverty and scenes of a city being forever under-construction will test your senses. Once you survive these first few hours, the city’s unique melting-pot culture will suck you in.

Nowhere is this blend of cultures, religions, races – more evident than in its buildings – the Victorian buildings in the Fort and Ballard Pier areas, the Indo-Saracenic designs in Mumbai’s iconic Gateway of India and the city museum, the art deco buildings on the scenic Marine Drive water front, Indian-Islamic architecture of the Haji Ali Dargah, the Jewish synagogue and the more modern skyscrapers redefining the city skyline.

Walking down Mumbai’s backpacker crawl Colaba Causeway – its very own Khao San Road – you realise why Danny Boyle says “you will learn about yourself, your tolerance, and about your inclusiveness’’ here.Jostling for space outside Cafe Mondegar are an odd assortment of characters – backpackers from US, Europe and Israel trying to channel the 70s hippie trail, Arab families, Nigerian entrepreneurs, pesky street vendors, a gaggle of trendy teenagers all waiting in queue to escape into `Mondy’s from the humid evening summer heat, the traffic noise that reach a crescendo every few minutes as if moving to a conductor’s baton.

Colaba Causeway, located appropriately a few hundred metres away from the Gateway of India, seems to be the beginning of all journeys in Mumbai. The Mumbai you will see will depend on the orbit that you travel in.

The backpacker’s trail includes shopping at one of its colonial bazaars or, if you fancy it, the thief-market (Chor Bazaar), watch the city’s dirty linen being washed at Dhobi Ghat, take a slum tour through what was once Asia’s largest slum. If history and culture makes you spin, drop in at the city museums, its art galleries, the centuries old Elephanta and Kanheri caves, or take part in the city’s raucous festivals for every religion – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Parsi. The chic set will shake a leg with wannabe Bollywood starlets and its trendy crowd at city’s hottest night spots and the jet setters may just get an invite to the city’s uber rich and party with one of the world’s wealthiest people. More often than not, these spinning orbits collide into each other’s world.

We get some of Mumbai’s queer denizens and LGBT allies to let you in on the city’s many secrets.

Celina Jaitley
Bollywood actor, LGBT rights supporter and ambassador of Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival

“Elephanta Caves are one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites Mumbai has to offer. They’re located on a small island in Mumbai Harbour and are made up of five Hindu caves and two Buddhist ones. The caves are more than 1,500 years old and never cease to give me goose bumps every time I am there.On the island, you’ll also see monkeys, which are interesting to photograph. Just don’t feed them or you’ll be mobbed by hundreds of hungry rascals.

Another place that I can never get enough of this is the Prince of Wales Museum now known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sanghralaya.It was built to celebrate King George V’s visit to Mumbai, while he was still the Prince of Wales, the museum houses a superb collection of art, paintings, sculpture and 2,000 year old Indus Valley artefacts. It’s known as one of the best museums in all of India, and is also fascinating for its weird architecture – a mix of Gothic and Moorish styles, lavish and exotic.

I am not really a party person, but one unforgettable place where I enjoyed hanging out over a few drinks with my mates was at Café Leopold in Colaba Mumbai.It was hit during the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008—and reopened in four days. Its atmosphere goes back to the 19th century, but has been powerfully refreshed by a cult novel. The café has in these first years of the 21st century been transformed into a shrine of sorts as well as a literary destination for both Indians and tourists.

I can’t help suggesting it as I am an actor but if one can, they must visit the sets of aBollywood film and see how hard we work.I believe Mumbai would definitely classify as India’s queer Capital. It is certainly more queer friendly than any other city in India.”

Sonal Giani
Activist

“Two of my best places in Mumbai are the business district of Nariman Point, which is the best spot to see the city and for a good cosy time with a loved one. The other is Cafe Leopold for its great food and amazing vibe.

Juhu beach is another interesting place – on weekends and during the day time you have a sea of humanity laying siege to the beach. As the sun sets, the creatures of the night come out of the wood works – the masseurs, the lady boys, commercial sex workers or Mumbai’s party crowd which descend there after the clubs shut to grab a bite. The wee hours of the morning are the best time for celebrity spotting – there is a good chance of you running into a Bollywood star jogging on the beach.

Ashok Row Kavi
India’s first gay activist and founder of Humsafar Trust

A must visit, if you are queer, are ‘The Walls’. This is the lovely promenade that fronts the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel and lies cheek-by-jowl to the Gateway of India, a hideous Indo-Saracen Monument for King Edward when he visited the Jewel in the Crown early last century. The Bay of Bombay slaps noisily on the left of the wall where you can park you ass and watch the colour of India wash all over you.

The Wall comes alive around 10 at night. It is inhabited by Mumbai’s slum-dog queens, toys-boys, drag- queens and every kind of homosexual identity that forms the alphabet soup called LGBTIKHD in India. If you traipse off the South End of the Wall you can see the Voodoo Pub and Disco which turns wild on Saturday night. What you miss at the Walls is packed to capacity the disco where you will be served doctored drinks and fake kebabs (they are made from soya and not meat).

Just be careful of your wallet and taking them to bed. HIV prevalence in Mumbai is hitting 10 per cent.

If you’re a la-de-daa party type, then go for the gay parties advertised on Facebook. You’ll meet the cutest queens who speak impeccable English with a funny accent which they think is actually spoken in New York.

My favourite place in Mumbai is Delhi Darbar at Falkland Road in the red-light area. Unlike Soho, this is a grimier and more grungy version in any such district in the West. It has what are called cages where British soldiers went into small hot rooms with bars, facing the road to boot, called cages which were stocked with tribal women brought in by slave traders in the late 19th century.

Every visitor must try what is called ‘Bhel-Puri’ at Vitthals that is located in a small lane opposite the imposing Victoria Terminus train terminus (now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) that looks actually like a Cathedral. Bhel Puri is becoming is a low-carb, tasty, filling and spicy mixture of puffed rice, roasted savouries and two deadly sweet and hot chutneys that can either make you eat more or shout for the Fire Brigade. So inform the waiter to go slow on the red chutney. Don’t leave Bombay without tasting Bhel Puri because even London is catching the Bhel craze and you get packed ready-to-toss sachets from India’s fast-food maker called Haldirams.

Bombay is where gay lib started when India’s gay not-for-profit the Humsafar Trust was registered way back in 1994 and India’s first gay magazine, Bombay Dost, started publication in 1991.  Bombay’s Pride started as a huge noisy demonstration in 2005 when gay men, lesbians, transsexuals and gay friendly lawyers held a sit-in at Flora Fountain (renamed as Hutatma Chowk) and explained to slightly shell shocked High Court judges, lawyers, bankers and thousands of office goers the fate of sexually marginalised groups thanks to the anti-sodomy laws of the British Raj

Parmesh Sahani
TED fellow, author, columnist, conference junkie and corporate lab-ster

One place that I would recommend to every visitor to Mumbai is the Bhau Daji Lad museum as a starting point to the city. It is an exquisite restored building that used to be the Victoria and Albert museum during the British raj. In its current avatar it is the only museum in the city completely dedicated to the city – ancient artefacts mixed with cutting edge contemporary art shows – as well as the glamorous over the top heritage building are divine. The second place I would recommend is the CST station building – again it is a beautiful heritage structure – but inside, the crowds of people and the trains are both symbols of what this city is – alive and always moving.

My favourite night out place is the Marine Drive.  It is glamorous – with the Queens Necklace of buildings all alongside it. It is pedestrian-friendly which I love. It has a choice of restaurants on it of all kinds – street as well as high end. And it is dreamlike – for decades it has been the symbol of success and aspiration – everyone who comes to Mumbai stands here looks at the sea and wonders if he will be able to make it in this harsh beautiful crazy city.

The delicious berry pulao at Britannia restaurant in Ballard Estate is a must-try. A classic dish – in a classic legendary Irani restaurant.

Jehangir Jani
Artist

There are not many ramps to sashay down in Mumbai, but I think it is one of the friendliest cities in India. Even if you are impossibly self proclamatory, all you may attract is a snigger. Minimum homophobia if you know your limits and don’t smell of lust.

Walk around Colaba Causeway and downtown. There are street shops, heritage buildings, art galleries and museums too. One can shop for camp blingy stuff as well as uber haute or traditional wear between coffee, sandwiches and local snacks in cafes. And of course one can eye multi colored candy.

My favourite eating out place in the city is Indigo the restaurant and their delis. It is pricey but worth it. Excellent choice of wines, cocktails and food and great ambience. It is a favourite place of the Mumbai queens and the wannabes. The Humsafar Trust office, is a must visit, because it is FABULOUS.  A friendly space where you can be given the ropes on how to go gay safely in Mumbai. One should spend time in this ‘Birdcage’ like place and look at the salutary work all the Agathors and divas are doing.  Vicky is the alter ego of Robin Williams who has to manage the show. Don’t be surprised if someone flutters false eyelashes at you. They do it to make you feel wanted.

Jeff Roy
US-based filmmaker, musician, who is in India for his Fulbright-mtvU fellowship

Mumbai can’t really be treated like a typical tourist city. There are few tourist spots to visit, and the ones that do exist, won’t take much time out of your day. Besides visiting Elephanta Island, or going outside the city for an excursion, the best way to experience the city is to live like a Mumbaikar (local). My favourite areas to stroll around are Colaba and Bandra. Colaba is a great shopping district located at the base of architecturally stunning South Mumbai. This area is still pretty touristy, though, which is why you should also visit. Bandra, one of the northern suburbs, has over the years become the focal point of art and film culture. Many of Bollywood’s heaviest hitters live in this former Portuguese colony.

For the adventure-seekers who want a cheap, local place to hang out late night, try Janata Bar, in Bandra. There’s no place better for your Masala Papad and Kingfisher strong.For those with a few bucks to spend, try Blue Frog, a popular night-time establishment and a great venue for music acts in Lower Parel, Mumbai, or Bonobo, a rooftop lounge with a great music selection in the heart of Bandra’s shopping district.

The only true way to experience Mumbai is by taking the suburban trains. Take the Western Railway from Churchgate to Bandra (or vice versa) during rush hour(5pm-9pm). Be prepared to surrender all sense of personal space and become one with the crowd. Two words of advice: stay close to the walls and, especially for the inexperienced ones, keep your belongings at home.

Mumbai is largely what you make of it. If you are looking for queer-friendly social spaces, it’sthere. Mumbai, being the largest city in India (the fourth largest city in the world) with a massive (and liberal) film industry, it is one of the best places in India for LGBTQHIA individuals to live openly. And, though PDAs are still a rarity throughout India, India’s homosocial public spaces make same-sex handholding, hugging, or whatever, the mode d’emploi. Mumbai is by no means Bangkok. But, the gay scene has been growing in size and stature ever since the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2009 and continues to make progress. If it’s a party you want, just make sure to do your homework online first.

 

(A version of this article appeared in Out There magaazine)

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