Saturday, September 30, 2006

Mumbai cho bomil

On a recent Mumbai tour, we saw this fisherman at Banganga. Guess what he had in his basket?

Bombay Duck. Locals call it bombil, and the fisherfolk 'Mumbai cho bomil', but the British named it Bombay Duck, and that name has stuck.

So why did they call a fish a duck?

There's a theory going around that Bombay Duck is just a corruption of the Hindi 'Bombay Dak'. Bombay Dak (Bombay Mail) refers to the mail train in which the fish were transported during the British Raj. Another theory is that the smell of the drying fish reminded the British of the odour of the wooden railroad cars!

This fish is found only in the Arabian sea between Bombay and Kutch-Gujarat. A large part of the daily catch goes straight for drying, as there are scores of people who relish 'sukat' - dried and salted bombil.
If you take a walk on the beaches of Versova and Mahim, you can see rows of thin bamboo sticks wedged into the sand with salted bombils hanging by their tails, drying in the sun.

If you'd like a closer look here's another photo of this lizardfish. Not a pretty sight, eh?

- Satyen

The Art of Letter Writing

I went to Mani Bhavan recently, and found the original letter that Gandhi wrote to Hitler. The language is simple, the message brief.

I couldn't come away without photographing it.

The Mahatma's birthday is just round the corner, so it's a good time to catch a glimpse of the man.

Click on the photo for a clearer image - you can easily read the text.

- Deepa

Friday, September 29, 2006

Navratri Twist

"Please come for haldi kumkum at our house on Friday", says the invitation.

It's a modern-day twist to a traditional i
nvitation, texted to my mobile phone.

I am constantly amazed at how we are adapting to new technologies and change. I wrote an earlier post on the cell phone and how it's changing the lives of tradesmen. Now here it is, once again staring me in the face, this time from a mother of two children.

The 'haldi kumkum' that she is inviting me to, is an annual feature among Tamilians during the Navratri festival. Tamil women celebrate this festival with elaborate displays of their doll and statue collections in their homes. Women of the community go to each other's houses, admiring the collections and the creativity with which they are displayed. It is a time for chit-chat, much singing, and of course, a time to display your new sari collection.

I went to another haldi kumkum yesterday, here is one photo from that visit. Each doll in the collection tells a story from mythology. I wish I could post all the photos, and tell all the stories!

- Deepa

Monday, September 25, 2006

Mother Goddess of Mumbai

The Mumba Devi temple, where the city gets its name from, is in a crowded street in Bhuleshwar. Every Tuesday, there is a large gathering of devotees and you will have a hard time getting inside the temple during Navratris (The Festival of Nine Nights, towards the end of September).

Although the locals worship this goddess, the deity primarily belongs to a caste of Hindus called char-kalshis (water carriers, char = four, kalash = waterpot; 'they who carry four waterpots') and the fisherfolk of the island.

Initially the temple was near Phansi lake next to the Victoria Terminus station. In 1737, the 'Company Sarkar' - East India Company - planned to expand the Fort of Bombay, and ordered that the temple be shifted.

The new temple was built in 1753 by a goldsmith named Pandu Sonar. The wealthy and prosperous family of Pandu Sonar and his heirs became the caretakers of the temple.

A water tank in front of the temple was built by a wealthy Baniya named Nagardas Navlakhia - his surname literally meaning a man worth 9 lakhs of rupees.

Near the center of the west side of the temple wall is the five foot high stone image of Mumba Devi in orange colour. On normal days, i.e. not the festival days, the goddess is dressed in a white saari and blouse with a gold necklace and a silver crown. However, on special occasions she wears a special handwoven silk saree and several ornaments from the temple's custody.

To her left side is the goddess Annapurna on her vehicle, the peacock. Anna (food) purna (fulfilment) is the goddess who ensures everybody gets to eat in the city. For a city that has 50% of its population in slums and illegal hutments, where trains loaded with people from other states pour in every day, this is quite a task!

The vehicle of Mumba Devi is the tiger himself. This tiger is made of pure copper. This tiger was humbly gifted to the temple authorities by Vithal, a pearl trader in 1890.

The temple also houses other gods such as Sri Ganesh, Sri Hanuman, Sri Balaji (a form of Vishnu).

- Satyen

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Pigeon Chronicles (3)

[The last of 3 posts on Bombay's pigeons, inspired by a visit to the Gateway of India - see previous posts]

The only time that pigeons get into trouble in Bombay is in January during Makara Sankranti, when the kite festival begins.

Kite flying originally came to India from China. Kite fighting, where you cut 'enemy' kites, was an annual feature of my childhood in Bombay. To help cut better, the manja string is coated with crushed glass powder. I remember going to shops and carefully, very carefully, selecting the kite and the string. We'd come back, run to the terrace, and fly our kites with glee. The older kids would swagger around, showing off their skills. And then someone would spot a strange kite in the sky, and the contest would begin. The two kites would dance in the sky, their strings in contest. Victory brought cheers and jubilation, and defeat sent us running down the steps, chasing the lost kite.

I read recently, though, that kite fighting has one unexpected fallout - bird injury. Several pigeons are badly injured every year. It's the sharp kite string - manja - that does it.

PAWS is an animal welfare organisation in Bombay that rescues and treats injured birds. I couldn't find their website, but Nilesh Bhanage can be reached on +91 98201 61114, if you spot an injured bird. You can also write to them at

- Deepa

The Pigeon Chronicles (2)

Perhaps the next time you see Bombay's pigeons, you'll think of this story from the Puranas.

The story made its way into the Buddhist Jataka tales, and travelled the world. There's a wonderful Buddhist site near Hyderabad - from around 225 AD - where this story is carved on a stone slab.

And if you ever go to China, you will see the Chinese version of this story in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (the Mogao Grottoes in the Gobi desert).

- Deepa

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Pigeon Chronicles (1)

We were at the Gateway of India on a bright sunny morning, and I knew it was going to be a good day.

Even the pigeons were having a rollicking time, what with the water and the sun, and all the attention from tourists.

I read somewhere that pigeons figure in Mughal miniatures, and Emperor Shahjahan, when he was not busy building the Taj Mahal, also had time to raise fancy pigeons.

A few years ago, the Indian press was talking about the last surviving Police Pigeon Service in India. I think it was Orissa, and they approved the closing of the service because they thought $10,000 per annum was too much to spend on 300 pigeons. A pity, don't you think?

I wonder where Bombay got its fascination for pigeons from. There seem to be kabutarkhanas everywhere. And at each kabutarkhana, there is always a chana-wala selling pigeon-feed. My childhood memories are filled with watching pigeons being fed near my school, and hearing the flutter-chutter of wings as they took flight.

- Deepa

Friday, September 22, 2006

Monday at Matunga

I was hanging around Maheshwari Udyan, waiting for the car, when I spotted 10 guys, squatting on the pavement of the busy intersection.

I walked up for a closer look. They're tradesmen, waiting for work to show up. It's an informal marketplace of sorts. The guys closest to the camera are masons. There was a plumber next to them, and three carpenters.

Every morning, come 9:00 a.m., they're here at this corner, and many other corners like this, just waiting. On a good day, a customer will walk up, and the day's work begins. On a bad day, there's endless waiting, with nothing to do but drink tea.

I told my friend Sanjay about the tradesmen I saw. He said to me - "You know what, Deepa, the mobile phone has changed these guys lives."

A painter who was working at Sanjay's house told him that. Earlier, the painter would hang around at a market corner, waiting for clients to come to him. If he wasn't physically there, he'd lose the business. Now, people just call him. He does go to the marketplace, but only so he can give his mobile phone number to more people.

It's stories like these that bring home to me, the real truth of India's telephony revolution.

My tours business functions entirely on mobile phones - my guides have phones, our car drivers have phones, the tourists have phones - how else would we find each other in Bombay's mad traffic?

Below my office at Nariman Point, the sandwichwalla has a mobile phone. "Bas call karo, memsaab, office mein pahuncha denge". Just call, ma'am, we'll bring the sandwich to your office.

My grocer takes orders on his cell phone during his delivery rounds. You have to speak to him to see how this has revolutionized his life. Before the cell phone arrived, he had a phone in his shop, but no one to take calls while he was away delivering goods. With the cell phone he is like one of the Hindu Gods - always around, anytime, anywhere.

The most illiterate of men have figured out SMS texting and how to make it work for them. My driver, a recent migrant from Tamil Nadu, on one particularly clever day, figured out that he could save standard message templates and then send them to me. I caught him explaining it to my sister's driver in what was definitely a smug voice.

In return, my sister's driver who comes from a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, explained how voicemail works. And of course, in the era of lifetime incoming free schemes, they have both mastered the Indispensable Art of the Missed Call.


OK, here we go, the first post in what I hope will be a long series of posts from the Mumbai Magic team.

I have two hopes - first, that this will become a colourful little corner where I can talk about the stuff I do, the stuff I like, the stuff I hate.

Second, that my friends and family and acquaintances will contribute their own experiences of the city, so that this corner will become an enriched, collective collage of thoughts and ideas.

- Deepa