Monsoon in Mumbai: Mixing work with pleasure in the manic metropolis

Baro, Mumbai’s eclectic and colourful home design store
To visit Mumbai in the monsoon is a kind of masochistic madness. Before you even arrive, the newspapers are full of stories of buildings collapsing in the unceasing downpour. If our heroic spacecraft were to document the traffic of the metropolis during the monsoon, the images would suggest a gigantic open-air car park.

The prospect of being trapped on the roads among the city’s hardened commuters has a damaging effect on my erratic work ethic; I elect to do the bare minimum. Half of the people I want to meet — an economist who writes lyrically, an investment banker who would have the latest on yet another corporate meltdown — appear to have fled the city.  I cut my work aspirations by half. Nonetheless, I am in a friend’s car for my first meeting at 8 am a recent Tuesday morning. Twenty-five minutes later to the stopwatch, we have proceeded all of 400 metres down Pedder Road. 

Now home to eye-catching accessories and clothes, Baro added a bazaar a few months ago
But then, in a foretaste of the rest of my couple of days that becomes instead a mix of work and culinary pleasure, the car drops me to the Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea House on a pretty street in Bandra. Owned by Hindustan Unilever, some aesthete in that giant multinational has drawn inspiration from Japanese and Chinese tea temples and repurposed an old house into an Indian equivalent with a nod to Goa. I step into what feels more large gracious dining room than café and admire the tasteful blue and white tiles and melding of old furniture. In a busy city, there is a lowering of the tempo almost as you walk in. The few other people breakfasting there looked like they might spend another hour or three. The staff is unobtrusive, never attempting to upsell or rush you. I helped myself from a rack that offered a generous mix of business and daily newspapers. 

Baro is located in Sun Mill Compound in Parel
When my host arrived, we both ordered a tulsi tea with ginger to ward off monsoonal maladies. This tasted not the least bit medicinal and left me wanting to try their good selection of Assam teas and the Darjeeling on the menu. For breakfast we had Eggs Kejriwal, a clever, healthy update on the variation available in Mumbai’s clubs. Their version was a beautifully presented poached egg in a cup fashioned from a fresh onion ring, sitting on a dense slice of brown bread with a spicy, brilliantly green coriander and mint chutney. 

I received a thoughtful tutorial on the measures introduced in July’s otherwise unexciting budget that would help the bond market. As we left around 10 am, what appeared to be the entire creative team of an ad agency arrived for a meeting.

Taking a cue from them and the auspicious beginning to my day, the rest of my trip was a mix of work and pleasure. Lunch was with the two elder sons of a childhood friend in Mumbai who are practically nephews. We were all craving Swati Snacks. Swati is starting to show its age. The menu at the Tardeo eatery remains a little too heavily skewed to crowd-pleasing junk food where other Gujarati restaurants in the city, such as Soam in Chowpatty, have moved ahead.

Tasteful blue and white tiles along with old furniture at the Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea House
A couple of work calls later and it was time for drinks at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club in Colaba. The bar is delightful, but a place with “royal” in its name should know its gin cocktails backwards. Perhaps it is too much to ask that they serve the gin and Dubonnet (a fortified wine with quinine), which the Queen’s late mother drank at lunchtime until her death aged 101, but a properly proportioned pink gin ought to be easy enough. Still, more than adequately fortified, we moved on to dinner at Rue du Liban in Kala Ghoda, one of the finest restaurants serving non-Indian cuisine to have come up in recent times. Its Lebanese food gets all the details right. Owner Jay Mehta employs a consultant in Beirut to script the enormous and diverse menu and keep quality standards consistent with that food-obsessed city. 

The Tea House in Bandra
That’s a high bar to jump, but Rue du Liban clears it with the help of its Lebanese chef presiding in Mumbai. The salads — we had a memorable beetroot salad and a plate of grilled vegetables — would make a vegetarian of a dedicated carnivore but of course there are kebabs by the armful. Even the dips of aioli and harissa had our table addicted. The fluffy pitas are the best I have eaten and might even reduce the national demand for naans. About a year old, Rue du Liban does not yet have a liquor licence because there is a synagogue next door.

Rue du Liban at Kala Ghoda
On my last morning I became entangled in yet another traffic crawl, the streets resembling a monochromatic monsoonal Rubik’s Cube. Baro in Sun Mill Compound in Parel is a perpetual rainbow, probably the most eclectic home design store in the country and certainly the most colourful. (Disclosure: I am both an addict of Gauguinesque colour palettes and a childhood friend of one of the founders.) A few months ago, Srila Chatterjee, a co-founder, added a bazaar, sourcing clothing and accessories from elegant Rasa in Jaipur and tropical chic Rangeela in Goa. Already an Aladdin’s cave of tribal paintings and mid-century styled furniture designed by co-founder Siddharth Sirohi, Baro is now also home to stylish clothing and eye-catching accessories such as necklaces made improbably in one instance by a wooden toymaker from Karnataka. 

Ossmallieh, a baked vermicelli pastry served with homemade rose petal ice cream, and a Lebanese table set for a group
Chatterjee is speaking to a group of expatriate women that morning and managed to thread stories about the craftsmen and tribal artists into a tour de force about still underpubliciced heroes of our crafts world. I listen to a beguiling story about a Gond artist as well as of a bronze sculpture of a Mahua tree that somehow survived the fire that broke out at The Taj Mahal Hotel during the terrorist attack there. The Shola (solapith) work made from a milky white sponge wood that grows in Bengal and Assam, which would put plastic flowers out of business if they were better known, is pithily described as resembling “thermacol”.

A Lebanese table set for a group
I leave half an hour later to get to my next meeting, practically next door, but the skies are water-cannoning the city again. I am drenched just getting into the car. The amphibious assault continues through the afternoon and even up the ramp of the plane I am boarding for Bengaluru.

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