Travel India: Where life's a beach

Because of the heat, Mumbai's famous beaches are empty during the day. But by moonrise, they are buzzing.
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St-Tropez seafront it's not; Blackpool beach it almost could be, except for the camels. Except, also, for the hegiras, the castrated transvestites who, for a few rupees, will dance on the sand and bring you good luck.

Juhu beach it is, part of the ocean-front character of the city of Mumbai.

Almost everything that is written about Mumbai is about skyscrapers, big business, maybe film studios - or the cliches about rich tycoons and poor labourers. But it is a seaside town, built on a long, thin island like Manhattan, and the all-around sea means promenades, fishing boats, ferry trips and a dozen beaches.

Juhu is a suburb for the rich and famous and, during the day, a few venture down to the beach to hire horses and ride two or three miles, splashing along the water's edge. While the sand is soft and clean, on horseback is the closest that you would want to get to the polluted, whiffy water.

But it is when the moon comes up that the action begins. Crowds of families appear, the wives dressed in their finest saris. There are animal rides and joy-rides, entertainers, preachers, money-changers and masseurs. Kids fly kites. Men with beam-balances across their shoulders weigh out nuts and spiced seeds. Others offer lassi or put fruit through portable juice- processors. The poorest can buy water from a man with a kettle.

Across town, on the other side of the island, the Sassoon Docks fishing harbour is an explosion of colours, sounds and smells.

Armadas of fishing boats under a rainbow of coloured flags jostle to unload. Hundreds of fisherfolk, maybe a thousand, swarm like ants over the quays, weighing, shelling, filleting and piling mountains of smelly residue everywhere.

What sounds like "What am I bid?" (except it's in Hindi) rings out from dozens of auctioneers. Cavern-mouthed groupers, squid, pomfret, hammour and lobster are presented in dripping wicker baskets which are auctioned one by one. A sale takes less than a minute and each one is paid for there and then in cash.

Buyers give a rupee to women porters who carry away the baskets on their heads, with the sea breeze playing in their vivid saris.

Just south of Juhu beach, further into town, the Breach Candy Swimming Club has the biggest swimming-pool I have ever seen. A very old-established private-members' club, it sits on a secluded, rocky part of the coastline. On one side of a breakwater is the sea, on the other side is the saltwater pool, the size of a lake.

I asked the manager, Mr Mehta, if I could go in. "Of course, sir, I will show you around." There was also a 30-yard indoor pool and we walked across extensive lawns where gentlemen with white moustaches sat at tables sipping gin under palm trees. "Many long-time members spend their days here," said Mr Mehta. "If you would like membership, let me know. This is a place people fall in love with."

No seaside place is complete without a "trip round the bay". Here, it's not so much "all aboard the Daisy Mae", but more of a one-hour sail in an air-conditioned ferry across the bay to Elephanta Island. You go from the famous Gateway of India in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel out to the island to see Hindu temples and sculptures cut out of the rock 450 years ago.

Mumbai is so narrow at this point that, from the eastern shore, it is only a few blocks across the mayhem of downtown to the west-facing beach of Chowpatti. Around 8pm on a weekend evening the crowds are just reaching their peak. Unlike the custom in Europe, few go near the beach during the day because it's too hot, but after the sun has gone down the good people of Mumbai switch on their headlights and surge through the dark on thousands of bikes and scooters, or in rickshaws and taxis, for a night out in the wonderland of Chowpatti Beach.

At the back is a double row of stalls lit by garish coloured lights like a fairground, selling puri, dhosa and bhaji, along with balloons and kites. Clean, soft sand stretches maybe 150 yards down to the sea and this sweep of beach runs for about a mile around the crescent of the bay.

I was with an Indian friend who was in the tourist business. "How many people do you think are here?" I asked. "I know the answer to that," he replied, "because we have just done a survey." "Tell me!" I said.

"A hundred thousand," he said. "But that's only at one time. Allowing for comings and goings, there may be 250,000 over a day." No one seems to be in a group of less than eight or 10. Mostly there are extended families, some with the fathers lying on raffia mats having a massage from some of the scores of masseurs. The wives sit alongside, handing round snacks on banana leaves to hordes of kids, while the grannies and grandads look on in a bliss of smiles.

At one corner there is a wooden Ferris wheel propelled by two men standing precariously on a high platform, pushing the spokes with their feet.

No one goes near the water, which is polluted and strewn with litter, but this has not the slightest effect on anyone's enjoyment.

A performing monkey does gymnastics to the beat of a drummer. To one tempo it does press-ups; to another rhythm it walks on its hands, and to another it does backward somersaults. Men with charcoal-burners on their heads sell chapatis and dhansak.

Everyone seemed well-behaved. I don't suppose there were a dozen policemen for the whole mass of humanity, and they sat at the back chewing betel nuts, with their rifles lying in the sand.

It was a carnival of musicians, entertainers, fortune-tellers and beggars but the scene was of family people having a night out of innocent fun. Mumbaians do like to be beside the seaside, and Chowpatti Beach had 250,000 of them to prove it.