I like a bit of pow-wow in any place. Let me rephrase before you think I am eternally hankering for a fight. What I mean is I would choose crooked streets over straight highways, sweaty mayhem over pristine elegance. This is why no matter where I go in this world, coming home to India, and especially Bombay, is never dull. I blame growing up in the city for my pugilistic predilections. One of the many descriptors that Mark Twain used in relation to Bombay was “pow-wow.” The place seemed to confound him: “Bewitching”, “Bewildering”, “Enchanting”, “Arabian Nights come again?”—the man was repulsed and riveted at the same time. It was a place befitting the number of exclamations he used.
At 13, I was yet to be permitted the pleasures of travelling unchaperoned outside Bombay but within its confines, I had free rein to indulge my inner flâneur. I became the weekend loafer, slacking through parts of the city I really had no business being in. My itinerary hardly ever changed: Take the BEST bus to Chowpatty; after filling up on chaat, sample some more at the khau gully in Churchgate; sometimes, pretend to shop for music I could not afford at Kala Ghoda’s Rhythm House, where the desperately-trying-to-be-hip hung out in the 1990s. The final stretch was always my favourite: trudging along to my personal Shangri-La, Victoria Terminus.
At VT, I parsed the sea of faces. I drummed up mind games to fill time like “Who’s new and who isn’t?” Spotting either was fairly simple. The former bunch bears dazed glances and open mouths. A person gyrating through the mob with minimum physical contact had been practising for the Local Train Olympics for a few years at least. When it was my turn to head back to the suburbs, I warmed up, adopted a stance that would make Usain Bolt proud and dashed off like the Flash into an incoming train. Like millions of others, Bombay taught me independent travel, in the crudest sense of the term. And it prepared me for the swirling madness that lies in the rest of India.
In August, we are showcasing and extolling the allure of domestic journeys. Hampi, celebrated for its ruins, reveals something unexpected after every visit. In Hyderabad, we feature Sufi shrines, some of which abound in nooks you wouldn’t notice. Banaras’s cosy classical music cafés leave a lasting impression on a newcomer’s heart, and in West Bengal, a heritage renaissance seems to be afoot in Serampore. It is incumbent that travellers make forays far from where they live but, every so often, it doesn’t hurt to stumble upon surprises in our own backyard.
Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.