A brief visit to Mumbai to attend Cartier’s Travel With Style Classic Car Concours, and some time spent in the city itself, rekindled that deep and often romanticized notion of the intermingling of Western (ostensibly British) and Indian cultures.
Predictably, many of the cars displayed around the grounds of the Taj Land’s End Hotel bore that iconic mascot; the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy, while a number of heavy-shouldered (and very long) Buicks and Packards signalled the demise of the Raj and British influence, and India’s turning elsewhere for its more luxurious needs.
Some of the cars wouldn’t have looked at all out of place back in their countries of origin – the Best of Show-winning 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II cabriolet (Maharaja of Jodhpur) would sit happily outside Goodwood House, while the Buick Limousines would add dignity to any (Forties) Manhattan hotel. But others displayed an Occidental-Indian cross-fertilising fusion and that distinctly Indian readiness to embrace, shall we say, all the ‘possibilities’ that an automobile might become. That doesn’t necessarily mean pure ostentation – though a nickel-plated wedding car, or a primrose yellow 1911 Rolls with a Barker-build body equipped with a single throne in the rear, are a bit full on. Some were merely ‘thoroughly accoutred’; everything from detachable swivel seats that doubled as picnic stools to a plush-cushioned boudoir for the ‘enjoyment’ of its occupants. Others were decidedly utilitarian, such as the 1940 wartime Fordson WOT2; virtually the staff car it had been built as, but also fitted with gun rack, pulleys and spotlights for boar and tiger hunting. Its weighing scales retained its lists and statistics of past kills. A painstakingly restored 1926 Chrysler Shooting Bake presented a different take on the word shoot; kitted out with everything the photographer of the day might need. The oiled mahogany tripod with period-correct Gralfex Speed Graphic camera was a nice touch.
Strolling among the gleaming headlamps with an ever-freshened cup of Masala Chai and a white china plate of delicately cut sandwiches, you could feel the echoes of those times when these cars waited on their owners at reviews, receptions or regimental polo matches. But glancing beyond the hotel grounds to the graceful arc of the Bandra-Worli suspension bridge connecting North and South Mumbai, you were reminded of what Mumbai has become. Once arguably the most important city of the British Empire after London, it is now India’s financial powerhouse and a cauldron of cross-cultural infusions; a metropolis of almost perpetual motion. As with those distinctly Indian Rolls-Royces, it is a place where any Englishman will feel somehow at ease, while thrilled at something distinctly new and more than a little unpredictable and exotic.
That familiarity begins with the hotels. Kuoni prepared my travel arrangements and offered the Taj Mahal Palace as my first base. With an architectural flavour somewhere between a Barry and Pugin rail terminus, Brighton Pavilion and a Mogul fortress, it has an oddly flamboyant gravitas (as do so many things in India). Its restrained old-world formality nonetheless offers warmth, and its staff are attentive and kind – as sentimental as that sounds. It manifests itself in the smallest ways – a lens cloth next to your reading glasses when you return to your room, or one more cup of tea because you liked the last one so much.
It’s the perfect place from which to explore at least a little of the city. Walk out early to the slightly kitsch but evocative India Gate and see the ferries in the golden early light making ready for their trips to Elephant Island. Take advantage of this quiet time to see the streets before the rush hour begins – note the architecture; more of that noble Victorian Neo-Gothic (with the odd onion dome) in the station and law courts, then something a little more French or Venetian – blinds, lattices, and glimpses of white-fronted Art Deco apartments or new concrete offices with some shantytown pressing in behind. While traders in the tower blocks work the money markets, the dhobi wallahs pound out the city’s washing on hard white stone.
Move around; go further. Take a taxi ride, even if you don’t need to; better still, try to hitch a ride on a scooter – with someone you trust with your life. It’s almost as if that frenetic traffic flow sums up the spirit of the city. From the outside, it seems relentless and intolerant, but jump in, swim with it and you will find it somehow forgiving and all-inclusive, allowing all things from cows to coaches to join, merge and flow – with a few unpredictable stops and starts, of course.
Perhaps the things you’ll notice the most are the brilliant and flamboyant snatches of colour; bangles, a sari, a scarf. They’re like a physical manifestation of the city’s energy, and something you can easily find for yourself.
Ladies, why not visit Bombay Electric, with its eclectic mix of vintage pieces and some very vivid contemporary fashion. Gentlemen, investigate tailors like Michele Boutique or Golden Boutique; have a suit made in some sumptuous or fabulously light fabric. None of these are far from the safe haven of the Taj Mahal palace.
For a more traditional Indian artefact (and bartering experience), the Village Industries Emporiums offer hand-made textiles, scarves and carpets from more remote provinces, like Kashmir. Most of us know the stories of their weaving and embroidering; skills handed down from generation to generation, but the delicacy, intricacy and individuality of these pieces should never be taken for granted. Like the Maharajas’ Rolls-Royces, they have a distinctiveness and uniqueness that would be hard to replicate should they disappear, and we should cherish them.
Kuoni (01306 747008) offer seven nights at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Mumbai in a superior city view room with breakfast, including economy flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow and private transfers in resort.