PALI HILL, 12:00 PM (NOON)
As I step out of the Big Apartment Block, the quietness of the cosy 17th floor haven I’ve just left fades into a cacophony of autorickshaw buzz, motorcycle splutter and BMW 5 Series hum. All horns are poised and ready for action, if not already blasting into life every few seconds. Bandra’s streets are only wide enough for two cars to pass by one another, a reflection of the enormous premium on space in this particularly elite part of Mumbai, but that doesn’t mean those cars can’t be driven by people from opposite ends of the social ladder.
Going left up the hill, it’s only a few steps to the next junction, but the way is marked by multiple holes and loose stones in the pavement – and a little brown pile indicating that a dog has recently passed by. The sun is high in a near-cloudless sky, and it’s warm but not aggressively so, this being December and the middle of so-called winter.
Pali Market is a right from the junction. It’s not unlike a regular small-town market: piles of red tomatoes, bundles of fragrant coriander, fresh fish laid out on tables. The vendors call to me as I walk by. “Sir, you like some nice fish?” “Hello! yes! vegetables!” The obvious difference between this and a village a hundred kilometres away is that the traditional, open-air style market part of Pali Market extends along only half the street’s length and is bookended by fancy wine stores, up-market delis and cute cafes like A Chocolate Affair. Their staff are packed away behind air-conditioned behind glass doors and unlikely even to greet you as you enter, let alone holler at you in the street.
Around the corner from the end of the market, a number of dining and drinking establishments dot both sides of the street. There’s Italian and French cuisine and all manner of restaurants & cafes serving Indian food. The previous day, we sat in a renowned Punjabi-style place and shovelled in plates of chole, pav and eggs while gawking at John Abraham as he exited Gold’s Gym opposite. My hosts informed me that the reputation of this dhaba is such that on another day, he could have been sitting in the cafe beside us.
Coming back to the apartment block, having ventured no further than five hundred metres from it, I see a rickshaw parked by a hole-in-the-wall that appears to be occupied by an electronics repair expert. Two men in dhotis are carefully manoeuvring an enormous plasma screen television out of the back seat and into the man’s shop, while another five look on and offer a barrage of instructions in Hindi. Just in front of the rickshaw, two sharply dressed men stand beside a shiny Mercedes and converse in loud, clipped English. They seem to be discussing plans for the evening, and while this is a casual topic, their elocution is as crisp and clear as if they were delivering a speech in a high school contest.
Everybody seems to be moving in some way, even if it’s only in their minds, and for the most basic and most sophisticated of reasons – and everything in-between. Getting back inside the building and up to the 17th floor doesn’t quite allow a total reprieve from the sounds of the city – autorickshaw engine noise travels surprisingly far, and construction machinery hammers away in the distance – but it’s a comparative oasis of calm rising above patterns of ordered chaos.
PALI HILL, 12:00 AM (MIDNIGHT)
We’re setting off for a late evening wander 12 hours later, no particular destination in mind, just to see what the streets are like on this Sunday night. The traffic noise may have receded from what it was during the day, but we still have to dodge the odd rickshaw (who is making a killing now that he can charge according to the night rates card). The luxury vehicles are all but gone, parked away in the apartment block garages far below their sleeping owners, or back at the hire garage; wherever each car is, there’s a good chance the driver is fast asleep inside.
The market is closed, obviously, and almost all signs of its existence have disappeared. No more brightly coloured vegetables, nor even the large wooden trays they were presented in. The swiftness with which structures can be erected and dismantled in India always surprises me. Looking a little closer, we see that the poles, tables and carts may have been dragged away, but each shopkeeper (and often his family) is still there, lying on bedrolls on the concrete, trying to get some sleep before doing it all again tomorrow.
Intruding on the stillness of the market area, Soul Fry is the first of Pali Hill’s bars to make its presence felt. It had been so dormant during the day that I hadn’t even noticed it; ‘pumping’ isn’t the correct word, but ‘lively’ is. There’s a decent crowd inside… but this isn’t about Mumbai’s nightlife. That’ll come in another post. My focus here is on the streets, and that’s where two middle-aged, immaculately turned out guys chat about the evening next to a new Chevrolet. They could be the same two men I saw by the Mercedes earlier in the day.
Further on, Hawaiian Shack is just closing and the night’s patrons – mostly young twentysomethings – are spilling out into the streets. They are beautiful, extremely well-dressed and quite intoxicated. Girls scream fake cries of anguish and walk with toes pointed inwards; boys bark questions into their mobiles. Every other line is punctuated with an expletive – “Where the **** are you, dude?” – or two, if possible – “My ******* mobile gets such ****** coverage in this area.” Their accents, however, display none of the alcohol-induced degradation that their vocab does. Like those two men earlier, their elocution is so exceptional that even the swear words could be lifted from a poetry reading.
It’s time to head home; time to get off the ever-quieter streets and get some rest ourselves. Pali Hill may be known as the Beverly Hills of Mumbai, but its streets show that it isn’t reserved solely for the extremely rich. People from every level of society live their lives here, all with their own purpose, at all ends of the spectrum. It’s a place where one man may be focused solely on earning enough for his mother to get medical care, while the guy in his back seat has his mind fixed on figuring out how best to prolong the night a little longer – while the city sleeps restlessly around them.
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