Mumbai Memoir ~ Behind the Bazaar!
The Islamic month of Ramzan is practised with religious fervour among the Muslims world-wide. Inspite of its Hindu majority, Mumbai’s cosmopolitan nature has exposed its citizens to diverse religious and ethnic cultures. South Mumbai’s ‘Bhendi Bazaar’ is a Muslim dominated area. Followers of various sects of Islam, namely Sunni, Shias, Dawoodi Bohras Dhakkhani, Konkani, Malbari Muslims and Ismaili Khojas have their own settlements in this region.
The area that roughly spans present day Crawford Market (now Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market) to J.J Hospital is locally referred to as ‘Bhendi Bazaar’. During colonial rule, it is believed, the British refferred to this area as ‘Behind the Bazaar’ (i.e behind the market). Unable to pronounce the exact words, the locals colloquially started referring it as ‘Bhendi Bazaar’!
Throughout the year this densely populated area rattles with commercial activities. Besides the congested residential accommodations, retail shops selling clothes, imitation jewellery, fashion accessories, cutlery, perfumes, henna, hardware goods & Islamic religious books, sprawl on its main streets. The area is also famous for its restaurants, namely Zaika, Shalimar, Noor Mohammedi etc that offer Moghulai cuisines on a daily basis.
For a solo tourist it may be a chaotic experience to explore the narrow lanes of ‘Bhendi Bazaar’, unless a local guide helps to navigate through the ‘sea of people’ and the ‘ever green’ traffic that moves around. Many visitors flock to explore its buzzing streets, while the holy month of Ramzan unfolds the moon above. Due to the fast from dawn to dusk, the mornings may seem dull here. But at night, like an Indian bride beautifully decked, the streets of Bhendi Bazaar glitter with pomp and pride.
This year I was invited for ‘Iftaari’ (a get-together party offering snacks at dusk to break the day’s fast) by my childhood friend who lives in the heart of Bhendi Bazaar. After the Iftaar, she showed me around and helped me explore the raw electrifying ambiance of the place.
The most iconic structure of Bhendi Bazaar is the 126 year old ‘Minara Masjid’ (Minara mosque) that stands overlooking the Mohammed Ali Road. Like a grand old man, it has witnessed the metamorphosis of its precinct since the colonial rule in pre-Independent India, the partition of India in 1947, the local communist discipline in the 50s, the rise of the notorious Mumbai underworld in the 80s and the communal riots during the 1990s.
Since the last decade, besides its holy identity, the mosque has become a popular landmark for friends, family and tourists to meet up for ‘Iftaar’ snacks during Ramzan. The lane adjacent to the mosque dishes out mind boggling non-vegetarian delicacies that tempt every adventurous foodie. The menu ranges from smoking hot spicy starters to aromatic, lip smacking 4 course cuisines that captivates one’s senses. One may feel like a Moghul emperor as one feasts on the spicy barbequed kebabs, baida roti (deep fried preparation of egg & minced meat wrapped in a corn flour based dough), Haleem, Nalli Nihari, Paya soup (bone soup), Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Shawarma, Chicken & Mutton Biryani and various other slow cooked ‘Bara Handi’ delicacies (made out of 12 spicy preparations) that are served on tables laid on the streets of Bhendi Bazaar. Both Muslims and non-Muslims enjoy the food along with their friends & family here. For the one’s having a sweet tooth, Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala (a sweet meat shop) is a must visit. Besides other Indian sweets, the shop boasts of its Phirni, Malpau, Jalebis and Faloodas. Calorie conscious Mumbai’kars too excuse themselves for a night, after tasting the sweets here.
As I walked further north on the Mohammed Ali road the streets were full of shops of various kinds. Everyone was in a pre- Eid shopping mood. Kids enjoying on the ferrous wheel and teenage boys zooming on their speed bikes typically adds to the night life at Bhendi Bazaar during Ramzan. As I walked away from the Minara Masjid area, beautiful ‘taraabi’ verses (lines read from the Holy Quran) could be heard in the background. This is how a ‘taarabi’ sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFT3-Xf6O1k. Due to my Hindu upbringing I was unable to understand it, but I believe, that the peace that radiates from a well read ‘taraabi’ needs no particular religious background to sense it soulfully.
As I entered the Bohri Mohalla (the area dominated by the followers of the Dawoodi Bohra sect) a calm ambiance surrounded me. Besides the distant buzz at the foods stalls around the corner, prayers were been heard from the huge mausoleum named ‘Raudat Tahera’. Outside the mausoleum, ice cold jaggery juice was been served to all, irrespective of religion, caste or creed. After drinking the juice, within no time all my fatigue (due to continuous walk) vanished in a jiffy. I found the Bohri hospitality sweeter than the jaggery juice which was been served with heartfelt sentiments of communal harmony.
As I bid good bye to the Bhendi Bazaar area, I noticed a unique sight from over the fly over bridge that cuts through the main road. A Hindu temple of Lord Shiva is located on the West side of the bridge which overlooks the minarets of a mosque on the East side of the bridge. It seemed as if the temple’s golden canopy and the minarets were exchanging greetings with each other, thus promoting the secular Indian legacy of ‘Unity in Diversity’ that reflects during the festivities of Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar!
Photo credits to Aditya Chichkar