22 Wednesday June, 2016
By Lola Pasquier, India & Sri Lanka Specialist
I set out on my first visit to India with sky high expectations. My grandfather was there in the 1940s and ever the story teller, would always be delighting the family with fascinating tales of his time in the East. So much was his love for the country that he had made his mind up to settle down in Bombay and pursue a career with the Indian Police, but a significant meeting in the bar of the Tanglin Club, Singapore, took him back to London and his vocation in criminal law.
India was everything I had dreamed it would be. Maybe minus the chock-a-block roads and skyscrapers, but I couldn’t believe how accurate his descriptions of India were 70 years later and post-independence. Walking up to the Gateway of India in Mumbai where he first landed and looking back at the Taj Mahal Palace, being surrounded by everyone going about their daily trade in such a jovial and industrious manner. Being accosted by dozens of local tourists wanting their picture with a curious looking westerner. That tangible hustle and bustle.
We took a whistle stop tour of Mumbai’s Fort area; racing by the wonderfully colonial High Court and University of Bombay, followed by the imposing Victoria Station. We stopped off outside a narrow lane and walked into the Khotachi Wadi heritage district, a cluster of picture perfect Indo-Portuguese style teak houses and tasteful graffiti clad winding lanes, a world away from modern Mumbai.
Thrown back into the deep end, we made our way to Churchgate station where hundreds of Dabbawalas prepared for their daily round, their acclaimed supply chain process unchanged since the 1890s. We ended the day with a delicious Brun Maska and cup of Chai at legendary family run Yazdani Bakery, opened in 1951 by second generation Parsees and still going strong.
I can’t pretend that Mumbai hasn’t evolved with time. I stayed in the fantastic Oberoi on Marine Drive, a sleek and modern hotel, overlooking the Queen’s Necklace dotted with shiny skyscrapers. Mumbai is a heady, modern city, full of rooftop bars and shopping malls. But it still holds much of its rich heritage intact, which is what makes it so special.
The same goes for Bengaluru (Bangalore). Known as the garden city after all the trees imported and planted during colonial rule, it is now also India’s IT hub and has an incredibly young and vibrant feel to it. The enviable temperate climate, fantastic lakes and parks definitely adds to Bengaluru’s cool and laid-back atmosphere. We were there on a Saturday night and had craft beer in one of the countless local microbreweries, ate sushi and dim sum in a restaurant-come-trendy-bar, complete with DJ seemingly suspended in mid-air above the room, and danced along to Euro-pop amongst a crowd of very well-heeled locals. Bengaluru is now famous in India for its abundance of food trucks, selling everything from tacos to croque-monsieurs. But the dominating colonial architecture and shopping mayhem in areas such as Commercial Street are a few reminders of the heritage and make-up of modern India.
Kolkata (Calcutta) was the last stop and my favourite city; it was the most strikingly familiar too. Known as the "City of Joy" and the intellectual capital of India, it is also regarded as years behind its metropolis counterparts in terms of development. My strongest impression was how colourful and alive the city was, and how charming the Kolkatans were. There was an overriding sense of cultural pride and tolerance; despite obvious signs of poverty the city felt incredibly rich. Everything seems to happen on the street. Chai wallahs, street food vendors and barbers, careering rickshaws, bicycles balancing a dozen parcels, money converters who have a split second to make change for driving bus drivers and the daily newspapers plastered on walls for all to read.
Calcutta was the capital of the Empire, and still retains much of its colonial architecture. We spent three hours retracing our ancestors’ steps in the old colonial administrative centre of the city, South Park Street cemetery being particularly poignant. Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata all struck me as diverse and open-minded cities that offered a kaleidoscopic view of India’s rich heritage assimilating to modern times. The sense of organised chaos I had heard about in my grandfather’s stories still reigns and remains an intrinsic part of Indian society. As far as first impressions go, India could not have done much better!
For more information or to start planning your tailor-made holiday to India, please get in touch with Lola:
firstname.lastname@example.org / +44 (0) 207 819 9770