After the terrorist attacks: The gateway to India is open to the world

Five years ago, attacks brought Mumbai global prominence for the wrong reasons. Now, the city is looking ahead, says Chris Leadbeater

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.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

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.

Staying there

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.

Touring there

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).

Visiting there

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).

Eating there

Kyani & Co, 657 Jagannath Shankar Shet Road (00 91 22 2201 1492).

Leopold Café, Colaba Causeway (00 91 22 2282 8185; leopoldcafe.com).

More information

incredibleindia.org

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before