And it’s monsoon! Officially, the rain was supposed to have stopped several days ago, but in practice there are intermittent downpours – which, in fact, yesterday were almost constant and dramatic, such that the normal view across the lake to the towers of South Mumbai was completely lost for much of the time in sheets of rain. The monsoon season is four months long, and the combination of damp air with tropical heat means that even in the marbled opulence of luxury hotels there’s a slight undertone of mould and rotting fabric that everybody politely ignores.
When I arrived, late on Sunday night, the rain actually held off for the duration of my slow journey from airport to hotel – in a local taxi, the greasy interior of which gave significant pause for thought – and we drove through jubilant crowds celebrating the last day of the festival of Ganesh, the day when all of the images had been immersed in lakes and in the sea, and even at midnight the streets were thronged with people and music and parties, and many many images of the elephant god himself. Vibrant, and noisy, and chaotic, and all very splendid.
By daylight, the next morning, crossing town in order to attend a meeting in a different part of the city, the extent of shanty-town living was evident, and as is so often the case in developing countries, the experience for the foreigner is of air-conditioned luxurious ghettos, with liveried staff and sitar players, and flower-strewn marble pools….whilst the poverty and the real-world experience is only viewed fleetingly and at a distance, through hermetically sealed car windows..
Hardly surprisingly, the food is excellent…with a subtlety and delicacy in the spicing which is often missing in Indian food back in London. The names of the dishes are recognizably the same as those at home – once you’ve navigated the phonetic spellings, that is – but the standard is generally comparable with the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten in the West. On Monday, we found ourselves at one of Powai’s best restaurants, called ‘Saffron Spice’ – obviously popular with middle class locals, and with only a smattering of other foreigners (probably all recommended by the concierge at our hotel, we concluded). The dishes were light and well-cooked, with a freshness that isn’t usual in Indian food in the UK…..and I was even able to order Chicken Tikka Masala, which I hadn’t expected. I’ve always understood that it was invented in somewhere like Rotherham several decades ago, and it was significantly tongue-in-cheek that I looked for it on the restaurant menu. It was there. It arrived. It was good. And I still have my suspicions that it hails from Yorkshire!
But the best food is the ‘small’ food – the mint flavoured broken crisps served with drinks, and the myriad anonymous offerings brought round at banquets: fried potato balls, pieces of fish or meat to be skewered and dunked in spicy sauces; and more different kinds of kebab than it is possible to remember. Reminiscent of the delicacies of an Ottoman pasha, these things have more the whiff of authenticity about them than plates piled high with rice and naan-bread and various kinds of ‘stew’.
Indians seem uncomfortable with silence, and at all times of day the reception areas in the hotel are ‘busy’ with noise of some kind or another: in the mornings, a boy sits cross-legged on the floor of the lobby and makes plinky-plink noises by hitting a stick against different-sized porcelain bowls filled with coloured water (a deeply unmusical effect which very rapidly becomes irritating rather than soothing); later on, a different youth works a sitar; and in the evenings, the space is filled with the syrupy tones of an improbably hennaed chap at the grand piano in the bar, mellifluously churning out the hackneyed romantic gush that’s been doing the global rounds for ever.
More evocative of the true spirit of the place, though, was the ten minutes or so I spent in the morning – between rain showers – in a pavilion down at the edge of the lake. Looking out across the expanse, where the lush marshy vegetation gradually gave way to the flat grey waters of the lake itself, and then to the city and the distant hills beyond, the view was striking in its desolate beauty. Timeless, and brooding. Kites wheeled above the water, dipping and soaring, while the distant sound of sitar playing could be heard from across the rain-soaked lawns behind me.
I can understand how people get hooked on this place…