Venturing out to Haji Ali is a simple pleasure, on most days, most of the time. However, as I learnt the hard way, it can get rather complicated on a Sunday evening.
An estimated 80,000 people flock here every week and a large part of them seemed to be there that Sunday. Despite having grown up in Mumbai, I hadn’t, until now, been one amongst those numbers. A classic case of not knowing your own backyard, a syndrome Mumbaikars are familiar with.
But today was not the day to atone for that. With the surging crowds all around me it seemed like a better idea to return to base camp.
I made my next attempt at the summit on a weekday morning, when the 10-minute amble down the path in the middle of the sea can be quite pleasant. It offers a perspective on the city from yet another vantage point. The sea link is visible in one direction; the racecourse on the far side behind the traffic and the Mahalaxmi Temple abuts the sea to Haji Ali’s west.
The approximately 300-metre stretch from the mainland involves a veritable dodgefest however. Shopkeepers ply their trades in your face, assuring you that your visit is incomplete without flowers, devotional tapes, incense sticks and sweets. I fell face down into the tourist trap. Thirty rupees and I parted company; I was debited with jasmine and a box of agarbattis.
When I finally made it to the dargah complex, another tourist trap lay in wait — in the form of a photographer. He offered to take my picture for another Rs 30. I weighed my options, then turned him down. Despite the entry to the dargah being free, the build-up was turning out to be steep.
Finally, to the mosque itself. Sitting on an island off Worli, the dargah complex, built in the Indo-Islamic style, houses the remains of the saint Haji Ali, who is said to have built the mosque in 1431 AD before setting off on a pilgrimage to Mecca. A legend has it that his body floated back to this spot after he died; another version holds that he drowned at the present location.
However, the white-domed structure in the Arabian Sea is more than just a burial place; it is one of the city’s iconic images. (It even inspired A R Rahman’s Piya Haji Ali number in the movie Fiza, if you recall.)
People milled around the shrine, its peeling white paint studded with red and green chaddars. Others, in flagrant disregard for the multiple signboards instructing, “Bathing in the Sea is Strictly Prohibited” indulged in the mermaid routine.
Once inside, the male and female entries divide up. I offered my flowers and agarbattis from the women’s section. Legend has it that those who come to the saint with their wishes have them fulfilled. Ah, that explains that 80,000 figure.
After my brief brush with the divine I retreated towards the shaded area outside for pleasures of a more secular nature. Given the number of people who were simply sitting around, Haji Ali is more than a sacred destination.
Perched on a barricade delineating the sea from the land I indulged in a spot of people watching. The breeze was blowing. Mumbai was bustling somewhere out there in the distance. Families were eating. Children were playing. In a faux pastoral moment a couple of goats ambled past. (Apparently they are often wont to do so from Mahalaxmi.) Here was an island of calm in the midst of urban chaos. It would probably have been even better with company, as it seemed to be for the groups of friends and families.
The sun was creeping overhead to keep its appointment with noon so I began the walk back to the mainland. After this sweaty expedition I was definitely in the market for something tall and cold and Haji Ali Juice Centre beckoned. Nestling beside this busy intersection, it has been refreshing people for the last 40 years and has its share of the faithful, too. The Gangajamuna (orange and mosambi) juice (Rs 40) wasn’t spectacular, but it helped on a warm October day.
This weekly column explores the city’s low-cost pleasures