Lured by the flashy pink poster that promises ‘Happy Sightseeing of Magnificent Mumbai’, I decide to go for a full day Mumbai Darshan tour. Reaching the Andheri east pickup point just in time, and with no prior booking in hand, I hope to not be turned away. And I’m not disappointed. “Chalo” is all that the conductor says.
I settle down by a window in the last row. Himesh Reshammiya blasts out of the speakers as the bus halts for a quick pick up at Khar. Meanwhile the conductor asks me for Rs 180 for the bus ticket fare. “But the man on the phone told me 150 rupees,” I protest. I mentally prepare myself for a long bargain, but to my surprise all that the conductor says is “Theek hai, de do.”
Forty-five minutes later, the bus abruptly halts at Mahim, and in walks the tour guide. “Mera naam hai Munna bhai, not MBBS,” he introduces himself and goes on to spell out the rules for the journey. Rule number three leaves me surprised: “Abide by the time limits set for each destination, as this tour is NOT for your enjoyment,” thunders Munna. “It’s only for your information.” Huh? I wonder. Munna elaborates, “Because we have to cover so many places in one day, and travel over 110 km in 12 hours, today’s tour is only a sneak preview, and not the full movie.” Fair enough, I think.
Post this 15-minute lecture, the bus moves on towards Mahalakshmi and en route Munna bhai traverses the aisle to collect the additional Rs 175 that we have to pay for the five stops that charge an entry fee. Confusion due to an eight-member group and the pressing need to point out ‘Mahalakshmi Race Course’ to the passengers makes Munna bhai forget to collect the entry charges from me. Soon we arrive at our first halt, ‘Mahalakshmi temple’. Twenty-minutes later we are on our way to ‘Hanging Garden’ and ‘Kamla Nehru Park’. En route, Munna bhai pin-points ‘Breach Candy hospital’, ‘American embassy’, ‘Kemp’s Corner’ and ‘Napean Sea road’.
At 11:05am sharp, the bus moves on towards the next stop, ‘Atria Mall’ at Worli. The Parsi Towers of Silence, Parsi culture, origins and death rituals are elaborately described thanks to a massive traffic-jam on Gibbs Road. ‘Mumbai’s tallest building’, ‘Shreepati Arcade’; ‘Mumbai’s biggest hospital’, ‘Jaslok Hospital’ and Lata Mangeshkar’s flat: ‘the first floor one, with the brown chattais’ draw keen interest. And on our second run along the ‘Haji Ali bay’, most of the travellers are surprised to find the access path to the dargah under the sea.
We alight at the side entrance of Atria Mall and are hushed up the elevator into the 4D theatre. A ride through a spooky mine is animated with 3D eye-glasses, a jerky forward-backward movement of our seats, nozzles emitting water sprays and light effects that resemble a thunder storm. After the show, the entire group is gathered and led down via the escalator, a first time experience for many.
‘Nehru Planetarium’ is a stone’s throw away, but as I am not particularly interested in knowing about mandakinis (galaxies) and how many prakash-varsh (light years) away they are from Earth, I (unsuccessfully) try to catch up on sleep through the 45-minute Hindi show.
Post the show, Munna bhai runs a check for the number of passengers as against the amount of money he’s collected. He passes by the last row without realising that I haven’t paid. At our next stop, ‘Taraporevala Aquarium’, I choose to give up the aquatic life on display for a plate of cool red water-melon being sold outside.
Post lunch, and a quick stroll of Marine Drive later, its time for more craning of the neck: there is the revolving restaurant high above Hotel Ambassador, the Governor’s bungalow at the far end of Back Bay and Wankhede and Brabourne stadia to spot in between the residential buildings. Munna bhai again runs a headcount, and this time confronts my five last row colleagues about my inclusion in their group. They are quite surprised and upon their denial, he narrows his eyes towards me and says, “Shayaad hum aapse paise lena bhool gaye.” I smile, nod my head in agreement, and hand him over the money.
At Nariman Point, one half of the bus sighs as the other half gets to see the various buildings from their side’s windows: Air India, Hilton Towers, Mantralaya, Vidhan Bhavan, SBI Building, etc, all the way to Fort’s ‘High Court’, ‘Rajabai Tower’ and ‘Jehangir Art Gallery’. ‘Gateway of India’ is confused with ‘India Gate’ by some passengers, but still manages to draw a collective ‘aaah’ from the entire bus, when it first comes into view.
Meanwhile, Munna bhai allots me a seat in the front, with one member of the three ladies’ group as my new neighbour. ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya’ is pleasantly restored and I’m overjoyed to find that they allow photography inside. More splendid architecture follows: ‘Town Hall’, ‘RBI’, ‘GPO’, ‘CST’, ‘BMC’ and ‘ToI’ buildings before reaching the JJ Flyover. Munna bhai however, doesn’t elaborate anything more about these buildings, beyond what their acronyms stand for.
‘Nehru Science Centre’ is allotted 35-minutes; post which, probably thanks to the scientific character of the Centre, a fellow passenger from Guwahati is interested in discussing the merits and demerits of concrete construction!
Upon entering Juhu, Munna bhai boasts that 50 per cent of Bollywood’s film stars live here, and points out to Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow Pratiksha. The entire bus is spell bound as we make a left turn towards ‘ISKCON’ and ‘Juhu Chowpatty’. At ‘ISKCON’, I hog at the newly opened Govinda’s Bakery that stocks roll, puffs, pastries and donuts!
Juhu Chowpatty is a short stroll away. The group disperses, and the designated half an hour is quickly spent in munching corn, sampling bhel puri and feeling the waters. As the group head backs to the bus, for the drop-off points till Borivali, I linger on. Watching the sun go down at the far end of the horizon is the perfect tranquil end to a hectic day of time-bound Mumbai Darshan…