This is one great Mumbai landmark that really flies under the radar. This is one of the coolest places in Mumbai, but no one seems to visit it, talk about it or even know about it. The Mahalaxmi racecourse - headquarters of the RWITC - the Royal Western India Turf club - located on a humongous 225 acres of land in one of most expensive and desirable areas of South Mumbai.
Just the sheer size of this property makes this a Mumbai marvel - because the city is so crowded, so chockfull, so cramped, so gummed up - that even sardines in their cans feel relaxed and spread out as compared to Mumbaikars. The property prices are high enough to make even Doland Trump bhai suck in a breath and shout ‘We are winning so much that we will one day buy a plot in Mumbai! Agli baar, trump sarkar!’. Even Sheikh Chilli of Arabia thinks twice before investing in land here and the Sultan of Brunei shook his head and went back on his gold-plated private jet.
And in the midst of all this, we have 225 acres of beautifully maintained greenery which is used for races only for a few days in a year! Isn’t that amazing?
I don't think people in Mumbai really appreciate the historical significance of the place - but this racecourse is more than 150 years old, and is a wonderful heritage structure with a lot of historical value. It was built in 1883!
Horse racing was always a big thing with the British, and the first thing they built once they had taken over a town and pacified the natives was to build a...no, not a racecourse silly! The first thing was a fort, then a court and gallows to hang all those who opposed them, then a port for their ships to haul away their loot, a bank to store the money they stole from the locals...and once they were good and rich and safe - a racecourse!
The first racecourse was built in India in Guindy, Madras - in 1777! The East India Company had won the battle of Plassey in 1757 and conquered Bengal. The EIC further established its hold in India by defeating the Mughal armies in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 and had the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II by the balls and squeezed out huge monies and the ‘Diwani’ or ‘right to collect land tax’ of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from him - making them the de facto owners and rulers of North and East India.
We are used to it, so it doesn't really register...but we have the most amazing anomaly in the world right here under our noses.
Mumbai metropolis is one of the largest and most densely packed cities in the world - so chock full of people that you can’t swing a cat without braining a bunch of people - and breaking a few shop windows as well. Seriously, there are people living on top of people living on top of people.
The cost of land and building is also ridiculous - enough to make even Onassis and Donald Trump suck in their breath with a startled ‘what ho!’. You could probably buy a huge ranch in Texas - along with horses - for the price of a 3 BHK in South Bombay.
The traffic is so bad - so legendarily bad - that it is said that a courting couple can set out from office and get married, have a kid, get a divorce and then get back together in the time it would take to drive from office in South Bombay to home in Borivali.
And - in the midst of all this rampant and crazy metropolitan madness - we have a full-fledged forest in the middle of the city!
Not a garden - not a zoo - not a botanical park...but a proper forest - an ancient forest, still full of apex predators like leopards and prey like deer and wild pigs and monkeys, and complex an diverse tree and plant population and all sorts of Avifauna.
And this is not in some far away wilderness - but in that same Borivali suburb that our imaginary couple lives in. They could be living right on the edge of a forest and risk having their bananas stolen by monkeys and their dog to be eaten by a leopard!
How incredible is that!
It’s sweet 16 folks! Here is my latest and 16th book - ‘One Man Rides North East - the Amigo rides to Assam, Meghalaya. Manipur and Nagaland’
This is my 7th motorcycling book - after the 5 part Amigos ‘Three men on motorcycles’ series and the first solo ride story - ‘One Man Rides Alone - Bike and Hike Uttarakhand’
This is the second solo ride story, and is among my favourite trips - not only was it a thrilling solo ride, but it was to a place which I had fantasized about for many years - the mystical and little-known North-East!
No - not Nehru Science Centre… this is only ‘Nehru centre’, no science!
The Nehru centre building is something that had always intrigued me - it looks very fancy indeed. It is a pure white cylinder with scalloping all over it - sort of like some fancy origami design expanded to monstrous proportions.
It looks like the only brief given to the architect was ‘Make something different - anything you like! Money is no object! It doesn’t have to be practical at all!’
A practical design for a building is always a right-angled shape - so that you can use all of the area. When you make a circular building, a good 22% of the space is unusable!
‘Don’t worry about all that…’ I could just hear the architect saying. ‘Don’t be so prosaic! Make art! Leave a mark! It’s all government money, anyway!’
And he succeeded too! This is a very cool building - as unworldly and impractical as possible, and it really stands out amongst the blocky concrete building blocks of Mumbai. It was designed by a dude called IM Kadri. (Sounds like the answer to a philosophical question, doesnt it? ‘Who are you?’ ‘IM Kadri!’
‘The white churning tower stands apart from the regular rectangular blocks that aim for the sky. But when you are in front of the tower, it exudes a compelling sense of wonder. The ascending slope of green meets the building at 42 feet. Three terraced levels at the base of the structure form a podium for the tower that’s nearly 260 ft high. “The challenge was in allowing the design to reflect the essence of man,” says architect IM Kadri, who designed it in 1981.’
So, What is this giant edifice anyway?
It is a memorial to Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru - ideated by his friend and freedom struggle comrade, a lawyer called Rajni Patel. Patel had been active in the freedom struggle and had supported Gandhi by picketing liquor shops! (wonder if he considered the point that the liquor was made in India, and therefore was technically ‘swadeshi’?)
I had taken up this project of discovering Mumbai. It started with my taking up cycling as an exercise...but just going round and round in circles was boring, so I started going to specific places on cycle. I would look up interesting places and then ride out on Sunday morning to go and check it out - exercise, adventure and exploration… all in one!
But there was no need to be so strict about the cycling thing - not all places are open early on Sunday morning - and definitely not all places wanted to see a fat, sweaty and mud-splattered cyclist in tight clothes clump around their premises! These places would have to be explored in the traditional manner!
And with my usual urge to kill multiple birds with one stone - I decided to take the brat along to some of the kid-friendly places in Mumbai - some of which I remembered fondly due to my having visited them as a kid myself! The kid will have an outing, we will have some father-daughter bonding - and I will get to continue my Mumbai exploration project!
The first destination on my kid list was the Nehru Science Centre in Worli.
This is a very cool place - it is situated in a nice little campus of its own, with some small gardens and a building full of very cool scientific exhibits.
I looked it up - and found that the Nehru Science Centre was inaugurated in 1977, with a ‘Light and Sight’ section. Fascinating!
And why is that fascinating? Because ...just think of what was happening in 1977! Complete political turmoil! The country had been under two years of ‘Emergency’!
Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter - Indira Gandhi - had declared ‘a state of Emergency’ across the country in 1975 because "there is an imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances", and this gave her the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be cancelled and civil liberties to be suspended.
Most people think of Mumbai as a collection of humans - a teeming megapolis of millions of people - people people people everywhere, and nothing else. And why not - the population of Mumbai has crossed one and half million people packed into a pretty small area.
But what we tend to overlook is that the isle of Bombay was once a beautiful set of islands with creeks and mangroves and forests and beautiful virgin beaches. The British used to go tiger hunting in the jungles of Bombay, and citizens of the original villages happily led isolated and tribal existences and the jungles and seafronts were full of migrating birds.
And the amazing thing is that a lot of this still survives even today!
The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a dense jungle in the middle of Mumbai, the mangrove forests have been declared as wildlife sanctuaries, and birds still migrate to Mumbai to spend the winter in the mangrove wetlands.
I read about an interesting mangrove wetland - which was the area behind the Bhandup pumping station along the Eastern Express highway connecting Mumbai and Thane. This was well within my cycling range - so I set out on my Sunday morning ride
One of my favourite features of Facebook is the ‘Memories’ feature - where FB pops up old posts which you had posted on the same day - but years earlier! I just love it!
My memory is legendarily bad - and when FB throws up an old pic or post of something I had talked about years back - it brings back forgotten memories! It is simply magical.
Today FB popped up pics of our visit to the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco - which we had visited 8 years ago. I had forgotten this - obviously - and this suddenly jerked me back there.
The Golden Gate bridge is an iconic structure of SFO, and one that I had always wanted to see! It is as important a landmark for SFO as the Empire State building is for NY, or the Washington memorial is for Washington DC.
It is so beautiful - one can say various facts about it...like the fact that it is almost 3KM long, or that it was opened 83 years ago, or that it was an engineering marvel which really opened up access to the town etc etc - but for me, the major takeaway was how beautiful it is.
The Americans realise that it is a beautiful structure - and they took pains to ensure that people can enjoy the bridge. While it is an important driving bridge - with more than 100,000 vehicles crossing it everyday - they ensure that it is open to cyclists and pedestrians, and was built with walkways on either side. They have a visitor center and a gift shop - with a cafe, exhibits and rest rooms. Lands and waters under and around the bridge are homes to varieties of wildlife such as bobcats, harbor seals, and sea lions - and the bridge and areas around it are used for wildlife spotting.
Compare this to the behaviour of our Indian bridge builders - take the Bandra Worli sea link … pedestrians and cyclists are strictly not allowed...no stopping anywhere to see the beauty...no walkways or pathways...just drive over and get lost! They don't care about beauty, or tourism, or wildlife, or culture - or anything at all. Just pay the toll - and drive away fast, before I challan you!
Today is the birthday of my first travel book ‘Three Men on Motorcycles - The Amigos ride to Ladakh’!
It went live on Amazon exactly 4 years ago, on 17th April 2017.
This book was written 4 years after the actual ride in 2013 - and indeed, was largely written as an exercise to clear my mind and keep my spirits up… as it was written largely in hospital rooms where my mom was fighting her battle with cancer. I used to carry my laptop to the hospital and write when she was sleeping.
This was not my first book - it was actually my fifth.
My first one was a traditionally published professional book- ‘What they didn't teach you about Marketing.’ But my main writing was fiction - short stories (these were collected and published as ‘Bombay Thrillers’ and ‘Dipy Singh, Private detective’) and was followed by a novel - ‘Dipy Singh and The Mystery of the Office Rat.’
But all of these books had not exactly set the world on fire, but were chilling out in the depths of the charts and showed absolutely no signs of swimming their way up to bestsellerdom. I was not too worried about it - I had enjoyed writing them and was happy just for the fact that the books existed. I would have loved for them to be successful, of course - but I was happy just to have books out.
I had started writing small travel blogs during our trip to Spain in 2014 - and the character of ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ jumped straight out of my brain and into my laptop. I just loved writing about SHE and our travel adventures, and even illustrated them with little cartoons and stuff. I started writing travel blogs fairly regularly - and when I started motorcycling, I started blogging about that as well. I used to post them on a blog site and shared them on social media, and got a lot of positive feedback from readers - not just people I knew, but also from strangers.
It’s been a long break between blogs - and it struck me that I haven't written a blog post about my new book yet!
2020 has been quite a fecund year for me - this is my 5th book of the year! A new record! My 11th Travelogue, my 6th motorbiking travelogue and 15th book overall!
This has obviously been due to the fact that the lockdown limited all other activity and luckily enough the muse also blessed me and allowed my writing to flow freely. The year started with ‘One Man Goes Trekking’ - then followed the rest of the ‘Backpacking’ series - ‘One Man Goes on a Bus’ and ‘One Man Gets the Sack’. Then I went several years ahead in time and told the story of our cycling trip ‘One Man Goes Cycling’ which was pretty recent.
So now you had 5 books of the Amigos and 5 books of the Backpacking series.
Now it was time for a bit of a homecoming and writing about Motorcycle travel! But one can think of it as a coming together of the motorcycling and solo backpacking travels - as this book was about my first solo long ride. All my earlier rides had been as part of a group - either a big group like the Royal Enfield official rides or the rides with our local group - the alas now-defunct Konkan Moto Tours - and then obviously the memorable adventures of the Amigos.
But alas, the Amigos were not available for a long ride - Adi was out of India...and married...and Delzad was wrapped up in work. So what to do?
What to do? Ride Alone of course!
Bharathi SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED kicked me in the pants and reminded me of my solo travel days, and I decided to go alone for the ride. Travelling alone is a different experience altogether and is very intense and different from travelling in a group. I had ridden alone earlier - but this would be the first long ride alone - and I looked forward to it!
And Uttarakhand was a place which I had been wanting to explore on bike for quite some time. I had made numerous trips there before of course - but not on bike.
This is a continuation of my earlier blog ‘The medical mecca of Parel’.
I had mentioned that I had read about an ancient Shiva stele or bas relief in Parel and had set out on my cycle to check it out, (I had started this project of exploring Mumbai by cycle every Sunday morning and check out various interesting spots) but had gotten a bit side-tracked in admiring the many great hospitals in Parel which make it such a medical mecca, and the amazing generosity of the various people behind them.
‘Focus, dude - focus!’ I said to myself. ‘Shiva Shiva!’ I had come in search of Shiva and I had shall find that out. Google is an amazing tool for the city explorer - you use Google to search for various interesting things to see, and then use Google Maps to find your way there. I love Google.
G Maps delivered as promised, and brought me to... a really non-descript looking temple in the middle of a most nondescript road!
‘Eh?’ I looked around in puzzlement. Where was I? What was this? Had Google finally stuffed up and brought me to the wrong place? But no - ‘You have arrived’ - the tinny voice said in my ears. So I parked my cycle and went off to see where I had arrived.
I was in search of this -
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!