Signs that life has changed here are not difficult to discern. On the corner of Strand Road, engulfed by the visitors who swirl around the Gateway of India, an armoured car is idling by the kerb with as much discretion as a heavy military vehicle can muster in an urban setting. Its message is, however, heeded by the guards at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Every sleek 4x4 queuing for the drop-off zone is perused with serious eyes and long-handled mirrors that probe below for dark secrets. The doorman is no less thorough, peering at me carefully as he takes my bag and feeds it to the X-ray machine.
This nervous double-checking is understandable. Five years ago Mumbai suffered the atrocities that catapulted it onto news bulletins. On 26 November 2008, 10 locations across the city witnessed gunfire as terrorists from jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba brought violence to Asia’s most cosmopolitan metropolis. The attack was tied to India’s long-running feud with Pakistan over the border region of Kashmir, but the results needed no clarification: 164 killed, more than 300 injured and a bloody smear that has stained Mumbai ever since.
The jewel of the city’s waterfront, the Taj Mahal Palace, was the site most directly affected, the gunmen bursting through its ornate entrance and burrowing in. It was 29 November before they were flushed out.
It is not hard to comprehend why Mumbai would be targeted in this manner. It is India’s most inhabited city, home to an official population of 18 million, and an unofficial one of four million more. It is its brightest light, an enclave (in those parts not defined by rank poverty) of wealth, business and culture on the Arabian Sea. Its desirability has been engraved into history for six centuries – by the Gujarat Sultanate which took control in 1407, and the Portuguese Empire which staged a takeover in 1535, rechristening it “Bom Baia” (“Beautiful Bay”); via the British who extracted Bombay from Portugal’s grasp in 1661 and clutched it until 1947. And it has been the centre-ground of the modern India – whether as the launchpad for Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement of civil disobedience, which was born in the city in 1942 and spirited the country to independence, or as the core of the Bollywood movie industry.
Panic on the streets is rarely a thing that fits neatly with tourism. But, wandering the Colaba district, to the south of the centre, I am struggling with the idea of Mumbai as dangerous – save perhaps for the mania of its traffic.
When I make it past security into the Taj Mahal Palace, all is refined. Be-suited men talk briskly on the chairs in the lobby, young couples perch on the comfy seats and there is an ingrained calm that cannot be too far removed from the ambience that must have filled the place in 1903, when the Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata unveiled his grand project.
A small memorial recalls the 31 guests and staff who died here in 2008. But beyond this, the hotel is keen to move on. And has. Just 21 days passed before it reopened, partially at least, in an act of clenched-jawed defiance – though some areas took up to two years to re-emerge, including its ground-floor bars and eateries, which were destroyed. Half a decade on, you would not know. Its Japanese restaurant Wasabi was ranked at number 20 on the San Pellegrino list of Asia’s top 50 restaurants last February. And its Harbour Bar is no less lauded – a social hotspot where what occurred seems an implausible nightmare.
The comeback is completed by a snapshot in an adjacent glass cabinet – Barack Obama smiling as he is welcomed during a state visit in 2010. Alongside, other photos salute the hotel’s magnetism: politicos George W Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hillary Clinton; actors Michael Douglas and Richard Gere; musicians – Jagger grinning, Lennon pulling his saintly face next to Yoko. The Beatles link is deep. Upstairs, the Ravi Shankar Suite is where the great sitarist shared his skills with George Harrison in 1966.
The true star, though, is neither president nor pop idol, but the hotel’s architecture: the pool in its courtyard; the staircase that sweeps gloriously up through the main hall, clinging to the walls in the way a velvet dress clings to an actress on Oscars night. At day’s end, I feel obliged to tiptoe up it. To take the lift would seem a Philistinic act.
Elsewhere in the metropolis, there is a sense that, while Mumbai has not forgotten the events of 2008, it does not wish to dwell on them. At Leopold Cafe – a tourist favourite on the Colaba Causeway, where bullets flew – guards stand silently by as visitors slurp banana lassis and beers.
There are further watchful uniformed figures at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the central railway station, where the assault began during evening rush hour. Entering this transport hub – a process akin to being carried along by a river at high water, such is the number of people – brings home to me the indiscriminate brutality of the attack. To open fire here is to aim at the very heart of this city of crowds.
The station is a symbol of Mumbai’s prowess, and not just in this dizzy surge of workers, flowing in as conduits of a booming economy. Its archaic majesty is a reminder of the British Raj. Built between 1878 and 1888, it existed as Victoria Terminus until 1996, and seems lost in another century. Its ticket hall is as much cathedral as noisy morass of queues – marble columns soaring to vaulted ceiling, stained glass framing the booking windows.
It is not alone in casting backward glances. Traces of colonial times are scattered across Mumbai. Some are mildly silly – the Gateway of India was created in expensive tribute to George V’s first footstep on Indian soil in 1911, but had been finished for only 23 years when British rule faded away. Some are splendidly dramatic – near-neighbours the Municipal Corporation Building (city hall) and the Bombay High Court still visually asserting Britain’s authority. Some are beautiful – the grassy enclave of the University of Mumbai, where the 280ft Rajabai Clock Tower, concocted by Sir Gilbert Scott between 1869 and 1878, dreams of Oxford.
Yet to stare at Mumbai’s past is to risk ignoring its present. Evolution is everywhere – the shiny new terminal morphing at the airport, set to open next year; the metro system which aims to reduce traffic congestion when its first trains roll in 2021; the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, which, since 2009 has connected the districts of Bandra and Worli across Mahim Bay – a four-mile bridge as iconic as any in San Francisco or Istanbul.
Of course, this recipe is flavoured with the standard Indian contradiction: rich and poor wedged together at uncomfortably close quarters. The financial chasm yawns along the Western Express Highway, which cuts south from the airport past slum “housing”, before delivering its more select drivers into gilded Bandra, where bedazzled fans pose for photos outside the home of Bollywood legend Shahrukh Khan, and another fine hotel, the Taj Lands End, shimmers by the ocean. In Mahalaxmi, meanwhile, men toil for meagre rupees at the giant outdoor laundry of the Dhobi Ghat as chic apartments climb to prominence nearby.
This uneven dish is served at Chowpatty Beach. It is a Sunday afternoon as I amble onto Mumbai’s key curve of sand – the closing hours of the Diwali holidays, and a day after India’s best-loved sporting son, the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, has retired in triumph at the city’s Wankhede Stadium. All India seems to be here: families gathered to eat; brave souls paddling in the dirty waves; hawkers selling spicy fare; little boys aping their hero with bat and ball; old men dozing; street kids and the appallingly penniless, begging, pleading.
It is an intoxicating, exhausting spectacle. The trick is to sample it for a while, then slip away to somewhere less frenetic. Perhaps Kyani & Co, one of Mumbai’s few remaining Iranian cafés, where sali boti (mutton stew) is doled out for 90 rupees (90p). Perhaps the National Gallery of Modern Art, one of a slew of museums in the “art quarter” of Kala Ghoda, where paintings by Picasso are shown alongside works by Vasudeo Gaitonde, India’s noted 20th-century Abstract artist.
Or perhaps Mani Bhavan. This three-storey property was Gandhi’s Mumbai home between 1917 and 1934. Now it is a museum, the spartan top-floor room preserved behind glass. I am drawn to a series of his statements, reproduced in large type. “Non-violence is the greatest virtue, cowardice the greatest vice. Non-violence always suffers, cowardice always inflicts suffering.” Such words rang with truth in India’s febrile Forties. Seventy years on, in a city whose lustre has come at a price, they are no less pertinent.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetair ways.com) and Air India (020 8745 1005; airindia.com) fly Heathrow-Mumbai non-stop.
Taj Mahal Palace (00 91 22 6665 3366; tajhotels.com). Doubles from R15,969 (£160).
Taj Lands End, Bandra (00 91 22 6668 1234; tajhotels.com). Doubles from R11,272 (£113), room only.
A three-night stay at the Taj Mahal Palace costs from £1,295pp, including BA flights, transfers and B&B, with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk).
Mani Bhavan, 19 Laburnum Road, Gamdevi (00 91 22 2380 5864; gandhi-manibhavan.org; daily R$10/£1).
National Gallery of Modern Art, Mahatma Gandhi Road (00 91 22 2288 1969; ngmaindia.gov.in; Tues-Sun; R$10/£1).
Kyani & Co, 657 Jagannath Shankar Shet Road (00 91 22 2201 1492).
Leopold Café, Colaba Causeway (00 91 22 2282 8185; leopoldcafe.com).