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Take a walk with Mumbai’s tour guides

The weather’s just right to take in a tour of Mumbai. Start off with these city guides as they discuss their favourite spots, pet peeves and the strange questions they get asked

travel Updated: Nov 12, 2016 17:58 IST
Anubhuti Matta
(Illustration: Jayanto)

They spend hours walking, and many more talking. The sun doesn’t sap them, the rain is no threat. But right now is when you’ll see them the happiest. With the temperatures finally dropping, it is peak time for city tours. Be it old-school highlights like the Gateway of India and Marine Drive or hip new art precincts, food trails and Bollywood tours. For the guides, you are a new story, made out of the old places they visit every day. Put on your walking shoes, and see your city through the eyes of those whose job is to show it off. Hurry, offers limited.

Watch: A Grand Mumbai Tour

THE BUS STOPS HERE
Dilip Suryavanshi,
52, heritage tour guide with Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation

Suryavanshi’s busiest period is November to February. Most foreigners visit India in winter and even locals think the weather is perfect for a rooftop ride on MTDC’s double-decker Neelambari. The bus seats 35 and Suryavanshi guides them through an hour-long trundle through south Mumbai twice a day, every weekend.

Colaba resident Suryavanshi joined the MTDC in 2000. “I knew a little more about my locality than others did, I thought it was best to share information and earn out of it,” he says. So for 16 years, he has been doing the rounds of the same places and telling the same stories – and that, he says, is the best part of his job. “It might be the same places, but with different people,” he says. “I feel connected to the world as I make a new friend every week.”

His start was a bit rickety. “I was a bundle of nerves. I had never held a mic or addressed an audience. I was so scared, I forgot most of what I had to say,” he says. “The bus would turn and break; I could hardly stand still. Now, I can talk to 100 people even if the bus falls into a pothole.”

Most foreigners want to know how people live in slums and what they do for their livelihood. Suryavanshi assures them that despite adversity, they’re surviving. Occupational hazards include sore throats and body aches, but his memories of swimming in the sea by the Gateway of India as a child come floating back each time he takes a new group out. So they can make memories too.

When: Saturdays and Sundays, 7pm to 8pm; 8.15pm to 9.15pm. Entry: Upper deck ₹180. Tickets: MTDC counter at the Gateway of India.

Watch: A preview of a Dharavi tour

SEEING HOPE IN A SLUM
Sunil Raina,
27, co-founder and slum tour guide, Slumgods Tours and Travel

Dharavi is more than slums and warehouses. It’s where you’ll find a singer who raps in Tamil and kids who can beatbox in different languages. This is the Dharavi that Raina wants the world to see. He and his partners Akash Dhangar and Sagar Vatapu set up Slumdogs, a hip-hop group to teach slum kids music in 2009. But they soon realised that Dharavi itself was worthy of the stage.

“Nowhere else in the city would you find an atmosphere where creative and friendly people from different communities live and work together in such harmony,” says Raina. “We had to tell our own people and then the world.”

They started with an equal mix of local and foreign tourists, now the locals outnumber the foreigners nine to one. In the peak winter season, 45 Slumgods guides conduct three tours each for groups of six every day. Initially, everyone is hesitant. “They ask if it is safe, if it will be clean,” Raina says. Twenty minutes in, they get comfortable because the residents are so welcoming.

His fondest memory? When Japanese party was visiting, the translator did not show up. “Using sign language for two hours, I did the tour. They smiled and nodded, so I believe it went well,” he says. Dharavi’s alleys and buzz mean the tour never gets routine. “I love what I do. My mission is to give the world a positive image of the slums,” he says.

When: Three tours a day; each about 2.5 hours long. Entry fee: ₹650 per person. URL: Slumgods.in.

THE FILMI CHAKKAR
Narendra Chettiar,
27, Bollywood tour guide

Fort resident Chettiar feels nothing less than a celebrity himself. He’s spent eight years as a tour guide to Mumbai’s film and television sets and people think he knows Shah Rukh Khan personally. “Some people also ask me for a job in the industry,” he says.

But despite the close-up view of show business, he’s still star struck. He recalls his first visit to a set in 2011, for the movie, Rascals. “I was sitting next to a man so tall, it seemed like he was standing,” Chettiar says. “It turned out to be Sanjay Dutt. He smiled and tried to speak to me but I had no idea what to say.”

These days, the stars oblige selfies when he runs into them. “But we don’t disturb them as their shoot is scheduled minute by minute. We don’t want to risk permissions for access for the next time,” he says.

Chettiar’s foreign clients are always eager to visit a set, and as a guide, he makes sure he’s up-to-the-mark with his homework. He already knows Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English and is hoping to pick up Spanish. He reads up on the actors, the director’s body of work, even where the actors live. If there’s time, he also shows the group the homes of famous actors.

He’s waiting for the day to meet his own favourites: Hrithik Roshan and Aamir Khan. “I’ve been unlucky in getting access to their shoots,” he sighs.

The job brings variety – a new set and shoot every time. “The only monotonous part is repeating the history of Bollywood but I have no qualms about it,” he says. “No question irritates me. It’s the ones who have no questions who annoy me.”

When: Daily; tour schedule and duration depend on length of shoots. Entry fee: ₹1,000 to ₹6,600 per person. URL: Bollywoodtours.in

Watch: What to expect on a Bollywood tour

FOUR DECADES ON FOOT
Freni Avari,
62, freelance tour guide

For 37 years, Avari has tried to pass on her warm feelings for Mumbai to everyone she has guided around the city – she’s long lost track of how many. She has taken people on heritage and food walks, bazaar and slum tours, and customised trips for those who wanted something different. She speaks German, Spanish, English, Marathi and Hindi.

It wasn’t a glamorous beginning. Avari was a replacement for a guide who’d backed out. “I was fresh out of college and nervous,” she recalls. Someone asked her the population figure for Mumbai and she blanked out. “I answered with the first number that came to my head, only to realise that it was wrong,” she says.

Avari’s tours make for great personal memories. Once, a Mumbai family that had settled in the US was visiting and the children wanted to visit their Chembur school. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I reached there. It was the same school I had gone to,” she says. At most times, she says, it’s only on tour that she ends up discovering new places. She’s visited the Mughal Masjid and the hamam in Bhendi Bazaar only as a guide. “I had heard a lot about the Mahim Fort but saw it properly only with my group,”she adds.

She’s tripped, fallen, spent long hours walking but thankfully has never been propositioned by single male tourists. “A new story comes out of the same place every time I visit it. And there are new people,” she says. “I have friends in countries like Germany and France after I took them out for a tour in Mumbai.”

Some tourists, however, leave her perplexed. “I have been asked if tides take place only once a year,” she recalls. “And someone once confused the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel for the mausoleum in Agra and ended up disappointed.”