On the last day of Ramzan, I went for a midnight feast in and around Muhammad Ali Road with a Jewish man as my guide. Perhaps peace in the Middle East is near.
Doing the Muhammad Ali Road crawl has become one of those must-dos of Mumbai. This neighbourhood is legendary for its meaty pleasures, particularly at this time of year. No part of the goat is spared from the lashings of oil and spice. Bread appears in a variety of fluffy avatars, freshly baked or roasted or whatever the hell it is they do to the dough. There are places that appear only to feed the good Muslim, the equally good tourist and the better gourmand during the holy month. The faithful fast during the day and once night falls, the stink of rain-black garbage slinks under the smoky aroma of meat cooking and sweets being fried. Bottles of Sosyo clink on metal and plywood tables. Women in burqas hold on to kids wailing for the malpua or the home-made ice cream. Men with their white skullcaps and beards order kebabs and curries with a certain regalia that should be out of place when the table is rickety and the chairs are made of plastic.
The first time I went to Muhammad Ali Road during Ramzan was also my first year in Mumbai. I knew even less of the city than I do now and when you add my general lack road-sense to this ignorance, what you get is one very lost human being. I had been trying to find the stretch of Crawford Market where you get paper lamps and I ended up in Nagpada, a short wander away from Kamathipura (Mumbai’s red light area). During Ramzan, the good Muslim doesn’t indulge in pleasures of the flesh (unless it’s after dark and the flesh in question is cooked and that of a goat) so maybe that’s why I didn’t realise the racy possibilities of the area I was in. Like a good Bengali, my inner GPS guided me to the food stalls rather than the brothels, and I’d discovered the Ramzan feast. I’ve still not been to Kamathipura (at least not knowingly) and if you ask me today just how I got from Nagpada to Noor Mohamedi Hotel in Bhendi Bazaar — home to a sketch by MF Husain and a dish called Chicken Sanju Baba, named after Sanjay “Munnabhai” Dutt — I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I can tell you this much: I spent hours there and when I left at about 10.30pm, things were just about heating up. Since then, I’ve been back twice and these have been the few occasions in my life when I’ve been happy to possess a cellphone. This meant I could call or text my mum to tell her not to wait up. Of course, she would wait until I got home. Because she and my dad wanted some nalli nihari without having to wade through the muck-coated lanes. Even if it smelled faintly of the white plastic bag in which it had been ‘packed’.
Going back there tonight with my Jewish guide and little tour group of mostly expatriates was fun. I expected the place to feel a little different and it did, but in a weirdly liberating way. For one thing, I got nothing more than a few stares for the camera that hung around my neck. Everyone smiled and welcomed us, and you could see they were watching from the corner of their eyes to see how the huffing-puffing white people would react to the odder bits of goat that appeared on the steel plates. Would they stick to the safety of the sloshing gravy? How would they tackle the enormous round bread that was served with the nalli nihari? Just when was someone brown at the table going to explain this dish, the pichhoda, was made of goat rump? Had that delicate looking girl slowed down her chewing because someone had told her that bheja meant brain? Somehow, it felt equal: we stare at you and take photos; you stare at us and whisper jokes about our wide-eyed touristiness.
Not that we planned it that way but days away from the monstrosity of International Burn a Quran Day and oceans away from the controversy about the Ground Zero mosque, eating at the same table as devout Muslims on the last day of Ramzan has a certain sense of solidarity about it. Yes, I know it sounds naïve but there are a few, rare occasions when I’m not a crotchety cynic and this was one of those. While Slate published a piece on how to burn a book so that it is actually burnt to cinders, a bunch of Hindus, Christians and Jews planned a Muhammad Ali food crawl. Generally, I hate this upcoming weekend — Mount Mary fair, Ganesh Chaturthi and Eid all converge upon Mumbai at this time and the city turns into a neon nightmare — but this year, I’m happy to say this is my hellhole. Because here we don’t burn Qurans. We eat paya, nalli nihari, bheja gurda, khichda, biriyani and malpua, and smoke hukkas until 2am. Then we get home safe. Year after year, despite disasters like the 9/11s, 26/11s and Godhra riots, and for years to come. Insh’allah.