City By The Sea

Mumbai shrieks in your ears and laughs in your face as it punches you on the nose, not so much tickling your senses as smashing them.

We drop the anchor in a sea of mulligatawny soup, complete with shadowy lumps. Five hundred metres away the giant Edwardian Gateway of India looms on the horizon. We will have to reach it across this choppy broth by inflatable dinghy, a prospect neither of us relishes.

The drone of a thousand hornets sweeps across the water and the stench from working fishing boats lingers in our nostrils as we motor towards the dockside. Finding nowhere to moor, we throw the tiny anchor into the toxic water close to the pier, and hitch a lift with a local skiff. I climb onto land, taking care not to touch anything, the low tide having revealed a slime covered stairway and damp Jackson Pollock walls.

Ten days earlier we were sailing in the silent, clear blue waters of the Arabian Sea; I begin to wonder why we were in such a rush to come here.

Up on the pier the relentless buzzing splinters into voices and vehicles. People shout in an effort to compete with hooting taxis; my eyes smart from the fumes of bellowing engines. Strangers smile and
nod. I plunge into the throng.

Women, like exotic tropical birds, glide by in elegant embroidered sarees, swathed in endless combinations of colour and print, oblivious to the tumult. I am dazzled by their serene beauty. Smiling men tout incongruous giant balloons and thrust gaudy postcards in my face. My nose lurches between ecstasy and torment as toe-curling odours, which donot invite close scrutiny, are replaced by sweet smelling incense and spices.

At the Unesco-listed Victoria Terminus I am on familiar territory, imagining myself back in London as I gaze at a more excessive and busier version of St Pancras. Tramping the streets of Fort, with its university, museum and official buildings, I could be in Kensington Gore; any minute I expect to see the Albert Hall.

In the afternoon we are beaten into submission by the noise and pre-monsoon heat, so we retreat to the oasis of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. Far from the madding crowd our senses are soothed under slowly rotating fans, as we sip fragrant tea in bone china cups. Later, in a dark wood-panelled bar, we graduate to the local 'Old Monk' rum. In the cool, spacious dining room we listen to the relentless club chatter, and enjoy the best Chicken Tikka Masala in Mumbai: all silver service, monogrammed china and white lawn table cloths.

It is deep within the lofty expanse of this Victorian gentleman's sailing club, however, that it happens. At the end of a corridor I find my haven. I step into the air-conditioned Reading Room. I walk between the wooden shelves, pick up a newspaper and settle into the comfort of an old leather wing back chair; the sign on the door simply says "Silence".

L Cleere

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