Another beautiful sunny day, and, despite our protestations, Amish wanted an early start as we were going to explore the markets. “But we’re on holiday”, Mrs Chrisparkle whimpered, “I’d love a lie-in”. “If you get up late, then there’ll be nothing to see at the markets”, he insisted. Sigh. So we were all breakfasted and bathed by 9am and waiting by the red piano. Yes there really is one, right in the centre of the Oberoi lobby.
Into the car we got and headed straight off for Crawford Market. This massive structure is named after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner, Arthur Crawford, and the central fountain and other decorative sculptures were carved by Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard. It was built in 1869 and it houses hundreds and hundreds of stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine.
They say to understand a place you don’t go to the museums, you just experience life on the street. Well, I say that, even if no one else does. The teeming life that takes place inside Crawford Market begins on the streets outside. Smaller stalls that can’t get a look-in inside pitch up on the pavement; delivery vehicles park up anywhere and everywhere, with guys loading up little trolleys with lolloping uneven wheels to bring new goods to the waiting thousands inside. There’s clearly an order of seniority in the market, which you can tell from how the men are dressed – I say men, because there are hardly any women working there. There are smart men – normally looking like they’re very well fed – in business shirts and trousers, who are obviously the movers and shakers, dealmakers and traders, employers and owners. Then you have another status of guys – the majority – who work on the stalls and wear scruffier work clothes, maybe colourful short sleeved shirts and sports shirts, and well-worn trousers. You also have all those who are doing all the cleaning up and dealing with the rubbish, but everyone has their part to play – and those doing the menial work show equal pride in doing a good job as any of the wealthier businessmen. Any women there are rather no-nonsense older ladies in elegant saris whose expressions show they have spent a lifetime identifying the best quality produce and buying it at the best price.
It’s a monument to hard work and long hours, but it’s also an incredibly cheery place. Everyone is delighted if you take their photo – they like to check it afterwards for approval, and inevitably it results in a satisfied head-wobble. Some people smile for the camera, others – they tend to be older, more senior types – like to look Victorian grandees, all respectable and serious. You wonder briefly if they are not so happy having their picture taken – but the satisfied head-wobble afterwards reassures you they are. The variety of colours assaulting your senses, particularly in the flower market area, is overwhelming. Huge bowls of colour co-ordinated flower heads, yellows, pinks, oranges, whites, are everywhere; all primarily for sale to make temple offerings. You can observe the skill of the guys painstakingly assembling garlands from the raw materials – serious, diligent workers kneeling together in a mini-production line producing creations of exquisite beauty. After an hour or so wandering round here, we got a feeling of incredible privilege to be able to share in this extraordinary community.
A pause to refresh ourselves with a drink at a local restaurant, and to reflect on the extraordinary sights we’d just seen, then it was off to look at the cows in the middle of the street. These weren’t the ordinary kind of “stray” cows that wander all over India, getting in the way of cars and joining shopping queues, but an actual compound in what is basically a traffic island in the middle of the road. It’s like a farm the size of a living-room, with just two or three very healthy animals that you can feed with lush grasses supplied by some very elegant ladies who look far too well dressed to be farm girls. When we got there, however, all we could do was pat the cows as they had already had more than enough to eat. Mrs C breathed a sigh of relief as she’s a serious bovinophobe.
Across the road is where the Chor Bazaar starts. Literally the “thieves’ market”, this is an area of antique and bric-a-brac shops, great for very individualistic collectors and hoarders. Amish took us round three or four specialist shops. The first was full of clocks and watches, all mounted on display so you could barely see the wall behind; mainly grandmother clocks and pocket watches, and it’s a genuinely beautiful sight. We went into a very expensive looking antiques shop, which had some rather large works of art – huge Buddhas and great big ornamental lions – apparently a number of the TV and film companies hire them from this shop to appear in their productions. Talking of films, there was also a Bollywood Poster shop, featuring all things collectable from the world of Mumbai movies.
The area is a hive of industry in other ways too. Walk on, and the collectable shops thin out and you come across a few roads where all you see is wrecked cars. This is where Mumbai cars go to die; but fortunately they all have donor cards. Here hard working teams assault a car and break it down into tiny individual pieces. No part is wasted – tyres, mirrors, windscreen wipers, radios, seats, panels are all cut out of the old car and stacked up in the hope of being resold and reused. Men perch on plastic crates surrounded by auto wreckage; reflector lights dangle from the tops of awnings; dogs sleep under mounds of tailgates. Other businesses whose proprietors kindly allowed us to wander round and photograph included a busy working bakery, where sheets of dough were laid out on sacks over a stone slab floor before being fired up inside a fiercely hot oven; and a fabric repair workshop where second hand clothes were re-stitched and revived with care and made to look new. The men working at this mini-factory were curious to know why two middle-aged holidaymakers from England would be remotely interested in their way of life. We said that we were humbled by their endlessly positive and generous nature, that everyone makes us welcome all the time, that their country is beautiful, and also that we’re not quite middle-aged yet, thank you very much.
We could have stopped for lunch – but some days are just too exciting and engrossing to waste time with food. The sights, sounds, and smells of downtown Bombay were nourishment enough. So we crossed back to Crawford Market, this time to check out the vegetable market area. Whether it was because it was later in the day or because it was a different part of the market, I don’t know, but this area seemed a little more relaxed and laid back. It’s less colourful than the flower market – obviously – but the work that goes into the presentation of the produce is no less diligent or skilful. Each vegetable or piece of fruit is inspected, graded and arranged in patterns to make it look as visually appealing as possible. Leaves are washed and delicately displayed; garlic bulbs are pared down so that the shavings create a garlicky carpet on the floor; stallholders sit with huge old-fashioned scales surrounded by wide round wicker baskets containing beans, chillis, potatoes, herbs, and tomatoes, and the smells are sensational. There’s a great sense of community here – yes, to some extent the traders are in competition with each other to sell their wares but also they spend loads of time just chatting to each other, helping each other, sharing food and tea. On the way out of Crawford Market we passed by the spices section – a few shops and stalls crammed with jars and jars of dried spices and mixed herbs. But there are loads of other parts of the market that we would return to later in the week.
So it was rather tired but really exhilarated that we returned to the Oberoi for a much needed rest. The previous evening we had tried to go to their Ziya Indian restaurant but it was fully booked, so we had reserved a table for the following evening. It was the same kitchen that prepared our gorgeous Vegetarian Thali for Valentine’s night, but this time we were in the comfort of the restaurant itself. The food and drink manager introduced us to the chef, Mr Prashant Penkar, who personally assured us that providing Mrs C’s tasty and gluten-free dinner would be his main task, nay pleasure, of the evening. The food was a complete delight – spicy but subtle, superbly presented, a fabulous wine, and a memorable occasion in very attractive surroundings. I can’t recommend it too highly! And of course, an evening in the Oberoi isn’t complete without a glass or two in the Eau Bar to relax even more before bed.
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