Dear President Obama:
I’ve just returned from Mumbai and since you will be there in exactly two weeks, I thought you might appreciate an advancer on the city. By the way, why do your people have you arriving on the night of Diwali, the festival of lights and India’s most beloved holiday? Can you imagine India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh visiting you on Christmas? Maybe your people forgot to check the calendar. No worries, India is VERY EXCITED about your visit. The papers say that it’s the longest stay of any US president and that it comes early in your term is not going unnoticed here. Skipping Pakistan also helps.
But I digress. Mumbai – Bombay – The Big Banana, as one very arrogant and colorful local calls it. (If you meet him and he tells you that marriage isn’t good after ten years, tell him that he obviously hasn’t met Michelle…)
I stayed at the exquisite Taj Mahal Palace, where you, too will stay. It’s a lovely gesture for you to lodge there after the terrorist attack two years ago in November 2008. As you know, 166 people died in the attacks at the hotel and several other locations under a coordinated siege. Security is tight now but you already live this way and won’t notice the difference. I hear that you are taking over the entire hotel for two nights and that you and your staff will stay on the most exclusive floor. Word of warning: while the hotel is comfy and well-appointed, you might want to bring your own shampoo and conditioner. Theirs’ sucks. You will love the tub if you are into baths. It’s big enough for a six-foot man to stretch in. Don’t ask me how I know this…
For dinner, you MUST, absolutely MUST eat at Trishna. It’s a little seafood place not far from the hotel. They have their own boat and catch their stock daily. I recommend the black pepper and butter garlic shrimp, the pomfret Hyderbadi and the squid Koliwada. The atmosphere reminds me of places I’ve eaten in New Orleans: a black and white, mirrored and cozy bistro stocked with locals. Always a good sign! And the waiters – they are subtle and sublime, a rare combination not found in Delhi, where I live. They know their customer and they make you feel the perfect combination of being familiar with the place and yet on a great discovery. Before dinner, head to the top of the Intercontinental Hotel and have a drink at the Dome. It has a gorgeous view of the bay and what is called the Queen’s Necklace, the glittering lights of the city that ring the bay.
There’s plenty to see in Mumbai and I know that you will have official business, but getting down with the people would be another nice gesture. You might try visiting one of the dhobi ghats. This is where the city’s laundry is hand washed. The men who scrub and wash and rinse and hang and iron the clothes and sheets and towels are from families who have been washing for generations. In fact, the ghat is a village of washer people. I don’t know how they keep the clothes and fabrics separated and organized – it looks chaotic to me but somehow it works.
Also interesting are the famous dhaba wallahs. These are the guys who pickup and deliver hot lunches to people all over the city. Basically, this is how it works: Michelle cooks you a hot lunch and mid-day a guy picks-up the meal and delivers it to the train station. The lunch is put on a train and ferried across the city where another dhaba wallah collects it and dozens of others. He delivers them to their respective work sites, including your office. What makes this extraordinary is that nearly 200-thousand lunches move about the city this way, all organized and rarely lost. You can see the movement of the lunch boxes outside of Victoria station which is the largest train station in the world, I believe.
A few quick tips: bring powder. It’s very humid and the talc helps keep you dry. The massage at the Taj was good, but not exceptional. Breakfast overlooking the bay is a nice way to begin the day. They ran out of oranges for juicing while I was there but I doubt that you will have the same problem. Shockingly, I didn’t do any shopping but it was just a 24 hour trip and I plan to return.
I’m enclosing a few photos for you to enjoy. I live in Delhi, so if you want to meet for a cup of coffee at the American Club while you are here – it’s on me. Bring Michelle!
A supporter and faithful citizen,
Here’s the Gateway of India, built to welcome George V and Queen Mary to Bombay when they landed in the city on their way to the Delhi Durbar in 1911. (This was a big meeting of the Raj and it was there that the British decided to move the capital of colonial India from Calcutta to Delhi.)
Here’s the front of the Taj Palace Hotel:
And the back: (There’s an urban legend that the builder made a mistake and built the hotel backwards and that the architect killed himself when he saw the mistake, but this is not true…)
Here’s a view of the bay and the buildings and a pair of silly feet:
Here are a few photos of a dhobi ghat:
That’s me with my husband imbibing at the Dome:
And I couldn’t resist showing you a photo of my cub scout citizen getting his Bobcat badge: