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Footloose at Fort

While the day is all about business, the evenings in Mumbai’s commercial area are about the setting sun, rays dancing over the colonial buildings, enjoying a cuppa with vada pav

I read the notification on my phone — 97-year-old Boman Rashid Kohinoor, senior partner of Britannia & Co Restaurant, passed away. Oh God! A loud exclamation escapes and I hurriedly look around feeling foolish. Just a few days back, I had walked passed it, on a business trip to this colonial-era commercial zone better known as Fort. During my two-day stay, I didn’t get a chance to eat even one Parsi meal there. Imagine walking past an iconic restaurant touted to be serving delicious Parsi and Irani meals, and finding the doors closed. I regretted it then and I regret it even more now. I missed a legend.

Rashid, Boman Kohinoor’s father, opened Britannia & Co in 1923 and it has the best reviews on every food and travel portal. But this being a business trip, time is short. And this is why I am staying at a heritage hotel, Grand Hotel, within the buzzing Ballard Estate. The rooms are reminiscent of the days gone by. The food is fresh and I like the Goan fish curry, the only day I manage to have lunch on this trip.

Built in 1926, Grand Hotel is surrounded by all prestigious commercial and government   establishments—even the streets take one to British times with the huge colonial lamps. Grand Hotel was designed by George Wittet, a well-known architect in Mumbai in those days. Wittet also designed the Gateway of India, Prince of Wales Museum, Institute of Science, and Bombay House.

The Gateway of India makes for a good evening walk, maybe an hour away at my slow speed, my mind is racing. I have the whole evening, Mumbai’s safe to walk around. Walking shoes on, camera and backpack ready, I begin my exploration.

The Fort is pretty large. The business district area gets its name from Fort George — built by the British East India Company around Bombay Castle. It extends from the docks in the east, to Azad Maidan in the west; Victoria Terminus in the north to Kala Ghoda in the south. I crossed the Victoria Terminus in the night, but I would love to see it in the day. Which direction to take? “Ma’am, the Reliance office is behind the hotel,” someone says. I take a U-turn. Long, narrow grills, tall windows, it could have been a part of Europe. A postcard captured for my Insta feed.

I come back to the hotel and gaze at the building of the Directorate of Enforcement, diagonally opposite. The previous evening, the area had been sealed as politican Raj Thackeray was summoned. His followers stayed put in the hotel lobby the entire evening. I was in Nashik the entire day, so missed this huge drama which rocked the nation on TV. Walking past clean pavements and hurried office-goers, I cross a stall selling vada pav. I have to try this Rs 15 stomach-filling delight, but maybe a little ahead. My heart is looking for Parsi food, something I don’t find in Delhi so easily. I search for the nearest joints and Yazdani Bakery pops up. It’s within walking distance and I have no agenda.

GPS on, I walk gazing at the huge structures and the signages of huge firms. My Insta feed is getting stocked up for weeks now. The evening light is low, the traffic noisy, and not one stare or comment. This isn’t India, I tell myself, not even garbage on the roads. It’s time for offices to shut, so I don’t see many cars around, only people at food stalls, taking in their evening bite before heading off home or maybe out with friends.

My GPS is taking me through an alley and I am looking around for Yazdani Bakery. I stop, for the GPS says finished. But I can’t find it; I stand in the middle of the road with not one person asking me to move, gazing at the shops. I am about 30 minutes from the hotel, no bakery in sight. I mentally curse the GPS and walk on.

A few metres and am on the crossroad. I see a church ahead—St Thomas Cathedral. This landmark I know from my visit in 2013. Built in 1718, it is dedicated to the apostle St Thomas. He was also known as ‘doubting Thomas’. The wall has engravings of a ship and names of the soldiers and sailors who passed away. It’s a quiet place but right now the doors are closed. It won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation Award and the foundation was laid in 1676—340 years old and it’s the most famous landmark here.

The famous Churchgate station was named after this cathedral, which is one of the oldest churches in India. East India Company had built a gate in the Fort area to protect their settlement. This gate was Churchgate and entrance to the cathedral. In fact, the street leading to the Church was originally called Churchgate Street. Now, it is known as Veer Nariman Road.

I gazed at the tower and the clock added in 1838. It underwent renovation for enlargement of the chancel, which was done by 1865. Something to quench my thirst — I look around. I have been walking for close to an hour now and a glass of cool water is what I need to find some more buildings to marvel at. On my left is the famous Horniman Circle and right takes me to Flora Fountain and Bombay House. I could walk straight to Kala Ghoda also. The High Court is that side and if I manage to keep walking I will come to the Taj and the Gateway of India. But this isn’t a rush to see the buildings; it’s an evening treat that I am gifting myself on this hurried trip to the financial capital of India.

I turn towards the garden in the centre of Horniman Circle. I walk through the tall gates, finding myself in green bliss, amid the traffic noise, the flashy signboards and the ancient buildings. Is this for real? How can such tall and old trees be living in this busy circle? Maybe they find me foolish, but I love this. My eternal quest for green in every city I go to is fulfilled. I want to sit, close my eyes. But I want my Insta feed to be alive while the light is still around. The sky is changing colour, the sun is orange. I try to recognise the green species, but no show for my knowledge of plant life is limited.

I gaze and turn till my 360° is complete. I see the famous Asiatic Society Library. This is home to the original 15th-century manuscript of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. Which is more precious—the building or the book? With Greek style architecture, this Town Hall was built in 1830. From orange to navy blue, dusk announces its arrival and I move out of the circle for the heart is still seeking.

Past some shopping stores, I reach the Flora Fountain. The sky is dark and the lights are twinkling. The light flow of water is enticing. The rush hour hasn’t ended. But my heart is happier for the little tinkle of droplets is somewhat calming. Do I find Victoria Terminus on my GPS? I sit on the railing, watching the hawkers and the people of Mumbai.

I head back into the same alley and this time I see Yazdani Bakery with doors about to close. How did I miss this? It wasn’t the GPS, it was my sight which failed me. Back through the same paved paths, and I stop for a vada pav—a little too big for Rs 15! But I munch my way back to the hotel.

I stop to buy a cream roll for the night at one of the stalls. Not good after losing all those calories but I will never get to experience Mumbai like this and this is guilty pleasure. Past the closed Britannia & Co. I believe the interiors too reflect the owner’s love for British royal life. I believe Boman Rashid Kohinoor’s dream came true when he met Prince William and his wife Kate during their trip to India and Bhutan in 2016.

The city of dreams doesn’t disappoint. Two hours of bliss and a night full of happy dreams — goodbye Mumbai till you call again.

Logistics and More

The city is connected to all major cities in India by road, air and rail. Other attractions include Elephanta Caves, Mahalaxmi Temples, Nehru Science Centre, Haji Ali Dargah, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumba Devi Temple, Girgaum Chowpatty, Marine Drive, Bandra-Worli Sea Link, Siddhi Vinayak Temple.                  n