For me, there was a fleeting moment in Mumbai that told a bigger story. I was wandering the streets of Colaba, one of the city’s fancier neighbourhoods, trying to find Bungalow 8, the concept store where, rumour has it, Madonna shops when she’s in town. I’m pacing outside the Anthropologie-like lifestyle boutique, unsure if I’ve got the right address because there’s a man cooking heroin near the entrance. Could this juxtaposition be possible? In Mumbai, the answer is yes.
Most cities are mosaics, patchworks of moods and relative privilege. Mumbai is a complete jumble. Colourful houseboats float in the harbour just beyond the iconic Gateway of India. Cracked sidewalks front faded colonial mansions. Over half the population lives in a slum, including some not far from the world’s largest private residence, which has 27 stories and a staff of 600.
The shopping scene is another intense smorgasbord: traditional fabrics meet updated designs and vice versa. The sari remains ubiquitous, and you can see distinct variations on both glamorous restaurant patrons and women doing roadwork. Before I arrived in Mumbai, I consulted Waris Ahluwalia for his take on the coolest places in town. The Indian-American designer and actor, best known for both his House of Waris jewellery and his roles in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys, cited Ritu Kumar for the best hand-embroidered saris in town; the designer is credited by the local glitterati with reviving interest in traditional dress. Caftans also abound—a great bet for anyone who’s planning to stop in for butter chicken at the Fenix (conveniently located inside the Oberoi hotel, because you’ll need a nap afterwards).
My dining and shopping experiences in Mumbai have been largely successful, but on a previous visit in 2010 I found the nightlife mixed. This time around, the options are more abundant and increasingly slick. Aer, the rooftop bar of the Four Seasons, is the place for two-for-one cocktails and champagne during its sunset happy hour.
India has been independent from Britain since 1947, but many colonial-era clubs remain. “The Bombay Gymkhana, The Royal Willingdon and Breach Candy are where Mumbai’s oldest families go for sun and tennis,” Ahluwalia tells me. “Worth a visit if you can snag an invite.” (I did not.) Instead, I hung around the no-membership-required Oval Maidan—a massive field where you can hop between 100 simultaneous cricket games—and then went to Bachelorr’s for late-night fresh fruit and lychee-watermelon ice cream. While I was walking home along Marine Drive’s seaside promenade, thick with couples, families and at least one monkey, a man with a huge bunch of helium-filled balloons approached me. “Big balloon, ma’am?” he asked. “Party for one?” I was unusually tempted. On a moonlit Mumbai night, it all just seemed to make sense.
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My home base for the week was the five-star Oberoi Mumbai. Security was tight—a white-gloved guard patted me down upon every entry while saluting me with his other hand. But through its revolving doors lay a Zen paradise, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Arabian Sea.
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