Saturday 10th September 2016

By mira

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I struggle getting up at 5am, even more so because I haven’t adjusted my body clock a week into my trip. It is dark outside and we catch the last drizzles of monsoon, which seem only to lurk in the thick of the night. It is humid, though, which I love. Halfway to the flower market in Dadar, looking at the rare empty streets through wide yawns and sleepy eyes, I wonder if this morning was worth getting up for.

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As we approach, a few men sit scattered around piles of leaves, sorting through them in the dark of the morning, the sky is starting to whisper with light, and a little further on, piles of glorious marigolds jump out with flamboyant energy. We walk through the street, basket after basket of yellow, orange, white and red, hills of leaves, men carrying sacks filled to the rims on their heads, offloading bags and boxes from large open lorries, women sipping on chai as they arrange their overflowing baskets and wait for the first customers to arrive.

This outside market, my guide tells me, is the illegal market that disappears during the day. We enter the actual market where the action is more dense, more intense. The flurry of heady smells tickles my nose and I sneeze, my open calves are simultaneously being bitten by mosquitoes, and we navigate our way through the alleys, following the floods of flowers, marvelling at the sheer abundance and feast of colours. All possible shades of marigold radiate under hot lights, I stop at a basket of resting lotuses, there’s fresh roses and those beautiful white mogras, already laced together with a hints of red and green, ready to be presented around Ganesha’s neck.

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We’re at the beginning of September, ten days celebrating Ganpati or Ganesha, the elephant God, which brings Mumbai to life in a very different way, streets intermittently breaking out in dance and music each day as people gather for their own processions of the deity, culminating in the final procession of the larger than life Ganesha statues on the final day, which are then lead to the shores and allowed to float away into the ocean. These are probably the ten busiest days in the flower market. We find a lovely Ganesha temple at the end of the flower market, he is decorated with colourful lights and sitting peacefully, hidden behind big crates that are piled on top of one another.

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By the time we reach the vegetable market, all signs of night have disappeared and there is now a dull damp sea of white stretching above us, no indication of sunshine just yet. As with the flower market, the street outside the vegetable market is strewn with leafy greens, juicy tomatoes and a few squashed on the floor, extra-large pumpkins, brown baskets of limes, the most beautiful baby aubergines and rows of piles of bright green and red chillies. There are men sitting on crates, some moving crates and boxes, and others arranging their bunches of spinach, coriander, curry leaves, limes and ginger. I pass a couple of mobile paan vendors, rather surprising at this time in the morning (the betel nut leaf which is made fresh with various pastes, fennel and syrupy sweetness usually eaten after a meal), their table of paan ingredients stretching forth form their bellies, held with a strap around their necks.

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 There is natural daylight flooding through the inner vegetable market. A stall filled with rows of cabbages, sacks of baby green peppers shining away on the floor, a box of large gourds. I meet eyes with a man standing on his stall table in a vest, belly protruding, looking rather rugged and unshowered, another man hollers from behind me and marches ahead hunched over a large heavy brown sack, another wraps an old cloth around is head on which he places a blue crate. There’s a stall in the middle of the market twinkling with fairy lights adding just a touch of distinction, and here and there small Indian flags hang from the rusty pink and blue poles that form the stall structures.

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He then takes us to see the famous dhobi ghaat, the world’s largest open air laundry, from above – apparently it’s difficult and not so safe to go for a tour – after which we stroll through one of the other open air laundries in Colaba, music blasting at 8am. The one attraction that we really did miss out on is seeing an area in Colaba strewn with hot-off-the-press newspapers, men preparing the piles, ready to be delivered all over the city – today happened to be one of 5 no-newspaper days in the year, with the national Ganpati festival – just our luck! But we manage a cup of fresh lemongrass and ginger chai before heading back to the hotel.

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Abode Bombay, a quaint and charming boutique hotel in Colaba where I stayed this time, organises early morning tours of the city’s largest markets. A hotel and experience I would certainly recommend

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