Seven hours of riding the cycle through a city I’ve called home for most of my life confirmed a few facts about Mumbai.
The half moon was making its slow ascent across an inky sky as a light sea breeze tickled the stray strands of hair at the nape of my neck. The butterflies in my stomach seemed to have settled down. Unsure smiles, polite introductions and generic conversations followed. Then I heard the familiar, shrill sound of my childhood. Tring Tring. And the butterflies soared all the way up to the involuntary smile on my face.
On a Saturday night when most women my age are nursing either babies or a well-deserved glass of Chardonnay, I had decided to join 17 other outliers – strangers – on a midnight bicycle ride across South Mumbai. We were all gathered in front of a cycle shop in one of Colaba’s Pasta lanes. The night air stirred with the murmur of tentative small talk until we were given the green signal to choose our vehicles for the night. A little wobble, a quick ring of the bell and we were on our way.
We followed our guides through the yellow and brown streets of Mumbai. We huddled together when Suraj distributed nuggets of information about historic landmarks. We followed Nano’s lead while crossing the CST junction, avoiding the tipsy cars hurtling down the road. We rose from our bicycle seats and pumped harder when Mayur asked us to go full throttle on steep slopes. We gratefully accepted oranges, bananas, peanuts, chai and, finally, fluffy white idlis handed out by Hiren. Slowly and steadily, we made our way from the Southern tip of Mumbai to Marine Drive and Girgaum Chowpatty, up Malabar Hill and then down to Kemps Corner and Peddar Road, cycling past Haji Ali and Worli Sea Face to finally end the journey at Worli village.
Seven hours of riding through a city I’ve called home for most of my life confirmed a few facts about Mumbai that I’ve observed over the years.
1. The city never fails to fascinate. The barn owl near Crawford Market that I mistook for a white plastic bag. The men who sweep the alleys of Zaveri Bazaar at 2 a.m. hunting for gold particles. The dazzling view of Queen’s Necklace from Malabar Hill. There’s a stor ,around every corner.
2. It is possible to find peace and quiet in the city. Ask the guards in front of the Sahyadri Guest House or Mumbadevi Temple, eyes peeled to the screen and heads bobbing to an unknown rhythm as they stream videos on their mobile phones. Ask the devotee bathing in the “holy” water of Banganga Tank.
3. The city never sleeps. Marine Drive, like many other parts of Mumbai, is alive and buzzing at 3:30 a.m. Children play hopscotch on the pavement. Middle-aged women adjust the dupattas over their heads as they sit around in circles exchanging gossip and giggles. Chaiwallas pass around small paper cups of steaming pre-made masala tea. Masseurs give head massages and stretch the limbs of inquisitive Americans. Lovers do what they always do.
My midnight jaunt across the city not only stripped off the layers of dust, bling and noise that envelop Mumbai during the day but also dispelled any false notions I possessed about the state of my body.
Pedaling at full speed along my old college route – past the shuttered-down Parsi Dairy, up the gradual slope of Marine Lines flyover and down to Marine Drive – was just a warm up. For the first time in my life I thought, I can’t wait to go downhill!
The panting and perspiration were forgotten in an instant when we took one final look at the bejeweled Queen’s Necklace, said goodbye to the Old Lady’s Shoe and set off from Hanging Gardens. Two wheels, a 45-degree slope with perfect curves, wind in my hair and no brakes – these are a few of my new favourite things. Aching ankles, sore backsides and aggressive street dogs don’t make it to the list.
By the time we weaved through the early-morning walkers, runners and laughter club members on Worli Sea Face and hit the brakes for one last time at the village, we were ready to let go of our vehicles.
The staple sounds of dawn made by temple bells, chants, roosters, dogs, trains intermingled and slowly wafted above the dense blanket of smog that covered the skyline. We entered the fort, perched ourselves atop the solid walls, watching the sunlight creep up over the horizon as the trawlers made their way into the sea.
Reality Tours and Travel conducts midnight bicycle rides once a month, priced at Rs. 1,500. This includes bicycle rental, experienced guides, snacks and medical aid. They also organise walks to Dharavi, markets and temples tours, street food tours and more.
Reality Tours is based on a model that encourages local development. 80 per cent of all profit from tours goes to the sister-NGO, Reality Gives.
— By arrangement with TheCityStory.com