Stepping into the Indian evening, I complete my daily ritual; holding my breath as we pass the affectionately named ‘stinky street’. The moon making room for Mumbai to breathe after the humidity of today’s monsoon.
Past the merely acceptable ‘OK Chemist’ and sandwiched between the Art Deco built Liberty Cinema and Bombay Hospital on New Marine Lines, south Mumbai, the West End Hotel provides a make-shift home for the most eye-opening three weeks.
Ten days in the city and already I’m worryingly accustomed to amputees in contraptions crafted from fruit boxes and old bicycle wheels, begging outside the hospital gates. Whilst a stones throw away - confirmation of India’s economic divide at its most profound - the going rate for ‘suites’ in the absurdly rated 7* Saifee Hospital, will dent your wallet deeper than a harbour-view room at the prestigious Taj Palace Hotel.
Weaving through the crowds of topi prayer-capped men, congregated outside the local mosque, I quickly learn; twilight is the best time to see Mumbai. Lit up, but less busy to explore the stenches, heart wrenches and cultural quirks of a modern urbanised India.
Women carrying recycled totes of vegetables meander by as we walk; ingredients for dinner pre-peeled whilst gossiping in ladies-only train carriages. Up and down the Churchgate to Borivali line, seats are saved as lifelong friendships formed. This journey from commuter to companion made ever more poignant in comparison to awkward eye contact on my usual 08:50 train to London Victoria.
We walk through wafts of Mumbai’s famous street food, thick with coriander. Day-weary workers wave notes around to the sound of onions and tandoori chunks crackling in the pan. They jostle for Frankies - a chapatti with vegetables, chicken or spicy minced lamb, sprinkled with a secret masala – Mumbai’s definite must-eat.
After a yoghurt lassi in a canteen - space is so scarce we sit sideways to watch locals scoop up gravied curries and rice with their fingers from metal trays – we’re drawn towards a side street festooned with twinkling fairy lights.
Thanks to India’s highly diverse society, festival celebrations erupt on streets nigh-on daily and none more so than today’s Ganesh Chaturthi; day one of Maharashtra’s Ganpatti festival.
As we round the corner following the upbeat thumping of percussion, we’re swept into the heart of a street party. Locals jubilantly parade a 12-foot-high plaster of Paris model of elephant god Ganesh into a specially constructed pavilion on their street. Representing transitions and new beginnings, Mumbai will come to a standstill on the eleventh day, as all effigies are submerged into the sea at Chowpatty beach.
The party spirit is rife as women bump my hips, their men beating out rhythms on traditional tabla drums, as we end up improvising our best Bollywood dance moves. Firecrackers snap and a gap-toothed woman laughs as I jump at the explosions. “Ganapati Bappa Morya” they chant, cajoling Ganesh into returning to Mumbai again next year. Personally, I’d be happy to oblige.