A ghosthunters guide to Mumbai

In India, there is a small crew of people that go out at night, armed with EMF sensors or detectors, EVP recorders, motion sensor cameras, and touch sensors, to explore myths about the paranormal. Yes, you can call them desi ghosthunters.

One such team is The Parapsychology and Investigations Research Society (PAIRS), group of paranormal investigators and researchers, parapsychologists, demonologists, spiritual healers, and counsellors. Their modus operandi includes heading to “active spots” armed with equipment to try to record and, later, analyse these abnormal energies.

“Before we go to a location,” says demonologist Sarbajeet Mohanty, “we try to get a recent picture of the location so that psychic mediums can give a reading of what to expect or find at the locations, which provides a roadmap for the investigators.” Mohanty founded PAIRs with psychic developer Pooja Vijay.

Disclaimer: PAIRS highly recommends you do not venture into these places without proper knowledge. All PAIRS investigators have been researching this field from the past 6 to 10 years and are certified. Enter at your own risk. 

Amar Dham Crematorium, Panvel

Cemeteries and crematoriums are apparently common hunting grounds for ghosts – location certainly does matter. This particular burial ground has spooked many a passer-by. One story goes that a woman crossing the street outside at night suddenly got goose bumps, and at that very moment the nearby lights went off, including those on her scooter. Others have spoken about seeing apparitions and moving shadows and hold them responsible for the accidents that happen in the area.

During their investigations, the PAIRS psychic team found that the location had multiple spirits, as recorded through changes on the temperature sensor and EMF sensor.

Amar Dham Crematorium, HOC Colony, Panvel, Navi Mumbai 410 206.

Mumbai Pune Highway

The story goes that PAIRS member Jignesh Unadkat was riding his motorcycle on the highway, near Bhingari, Old Panvel, when a wayward car forced him to the side of the road. It was then that he realised there was someone standing in front of him, and he veered off the road to avoid hitting the person. His bike was damaged, but he survived. When he went to look for the person, he realised there was no one there.

A few days later, Jignesh, along with Mohanty, returned to the spot to investigate this strange phenomenon, armed with a PAIRS Spirit Box app (developed by Brian Holloway of Soul Seekers, Javier Sanz of  Spain Paranormal). “Jignesh got two replies to questions,” says Mohanty. “One was, ‘Do you recognize me…my bike overturned here some days back’ to which he got a ‘yes’. The other was ‘How did you die?’ to which he got a one-word reply, ‘accident’.”

While this may be a “real” story, there are many legends associated with the place. Another story has a well-dressed lady asking for a lift. Those that don’t stop are treated to a vision of the women running alongside their vehicle, with an evil smile, saying, “You’re next”. Many crashes have been attributed to it. Mohanty says there is also a ‘fake road appearing out of nowhere, which if taken leads to death’.

Vasai Fort

Vasai Fort, or Bassein Fort, is a sprawling structure built by the Portuguese that overlooks the Arabian Sea. The fort has been under the control of the Portuguese, the British, and the Marathas and has been silent witness to many deaths. It is one of the many places in the city that locals truly believe is haunted – though that didn’t stop Coldplay from shooting their video there.

Shishir Kumar, former journalist and founder-president of paranormal research organisation Team Pentacle, and his team conducted an investigation at Vasai Fort. Initially, they didn’t think it was haunted because it still had many people living in the vicinity. “The first time,” says Kumar, “everything went smoothly and none machines worked. Then I used this trick where I asked the spirits to clap as I clap, and that started happening.”

Mohanty adds that their psychic readings reveal a woman who was murdered and whose body was dumped near the well in the fort. Village lore says a lady, assumed to be a witch, committed suicide in that same well, but her body was never found.

Vasai Fort, Killa Road, Police Colony, Vasai (w), Vasai 401201

Mukesh Mills

Mukesh Mills was built in 1870s by the East India Company and was shut down in 1892 after a strike. Soon after, a fire broke out, killing thousands of people. This dark history is possibly what led to it being considered haunted. The mill is a popular shooting location, and there are many stories of how no one, not even film crew, venture there after dark. In fact actor Bipasha Basu has claimed she was unable to speak her dialogues in one room because of some strange power.

PAIRS’ investigations and psychic readings reveal that the location has “some evil and negative spirits from its dark and painful history”. “Such psychic readings are a warning for us not to venture in there,” says Mohanty, “especially if you’re a beginner.”

Mukesh Mills, Narayan A Sawant Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

St John Baptist Church

This Portuguese Jesuit Church was abandoned in the 1800s after an epidemic. Although no one visits the place any more, a Mass is conducted once a year. The claim is that the church is haunted by the evil spirit of a bride who scares anyone who enters the place. In 1977, an exorcism was conducted there, and everyone present suddenly heard a loud moaning sound and maniacal laughter. It was believed that the exorcism destroyed the spirit.

In 2016, a PAIRS team visited the space to check if it was an “active” location. “We were about to enter,” says Mohanty, “when Pooja told us that a woman was watching us from the wall nearby. When inside, we heard footsteps running away from the place. Later, one of the team members told us that while he was texting, out of the corner of his eye he saw an apparition near him. All this happened in broad daylight.” Mohanty intends to return to do proper investigation.

St John Baptist Church, Seepz Road D, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400 096

 

[This story was first published in The City Story: THE GHOSTHUNTERS’ GUIDE TO PARANORMAL MUMBAI]

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The Goan good food guide

Goan food is the new flavour of the season in Mumbai. Tourists, who travel to the sunshine state, clearly cannot get enough of the food – the choris or cutlet pav; the Portuguese-influenced rissois, vindalho and sorpotel; the coconut and amsol-filled curries; and the coconut-milk based dodol and bebinca.

It’s an experience that is now possible to avail of, sometimes at a price, in the city. There’s no feni or shack and the sunshine and sand is missing but, a few restaurants here are doing their bit to provide a feel and a taste of Goan food.

Snow Flake

Walking into this restaurant is like going back in time. Nostalgia oozes out of the marble topped tables, the sepia-tinted photos stuffed in dusty shelves and the creak fans. The day’s specials, a stock list of about ten dishes, can be found scrawled on a whiteboard in the corner. The cats at the entrance all seem to embody to susegaad feeling of the place – you may sometimes feel like stretching yourself out and curling up into a ball after a good meal here. It is here that I find food that comes closest to what my mother prepares at home – offal laden sorpotel; the tangy fish curry, ambotik; tongue roast with browned onions and just a hint of gravy and quite the best fish cutlets I’ve eaten in the city.

Snow Flake started as an ice cream shop/bakery selling food to what was once a thriving Goan population. Today, the customers are sparse but they soldier on, relying on patrons like me, keen for a taste of home.
At: 18, Ribeiro Building, first Dhobi Talao Lane.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Sushegad Gomantak

Sandwiched between shops selling Keralite fare and kebabs, this tiny restaurant isn’t easy on the eyes. What it lacks in looks, it makes up for with delicious food and warm service. The only wall décor here is a chart showcasing the fish in the Indian Ocean with their local names, a blown up clipping of a newspaper article mentioning the place and the day’s specials. There’s a menu of course, but everyone comes here for the fish – eaten fried or in a curry.

It is here that I always manage to find xinanio (mussels), best eaten fried and piping hot; kalwa (oysters), typical had in a thick curry; and muddoshi (lady fish), also eaten fried. The restaurant’s cooking style is Goan Hindu and is heavy on curries, many of which don’t feature coconut. The fried fish comes with a thick coating of rice flour and rava and isn’t oily. Other stand out dishes include prawn cutlets accompanied by a thin, green chutney; tisrya sukhe – shellfish served with a garam masala and coconut mixture; and a crab thali featuring one huge crab in a spicy red curry.
At: A11, Opposite Paradise Theatre, Mahim Shivsagar Society, LJ Road, Mahim.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Gables

This eating house is often ignored by those seeking out the more popular New Martin, which is around the corner. A visit to this four-seater restaurant will surprise you. One of the few places in the city offering free Wifi, Gables has a faux tiled roof inside, a wall mirror giving the illusion of extra space, two glass-fronted stands showcasing chops, cutlets and other fried snacks, and even a bookshelf filled with old magazines and the odd cookbook.

Mel, the in-house cat, will accompany you while you eat. There are also a few Italian dishes but skip those and opt for the sorpotel (with chunky bits of pork) or sausage chilly fry mopped up with fresh pao. The prawn rava fry or calamari fry will satiate your fish cravings.
At: Opposite Shiv Mandir, Colaba.

Soul Fry

The 20-year-old place enjoys iconic status in Bandra, not the least for those weekly karaoke nights, I’m told, also serve as good matchmaking venues! The festivities apart, Meldan D’Cunha, the affable owner the place, loves experimenting with food. This finds the form of lesser known Goan, East Indian, Koli and Manglorean food. Here, the cafreal, prawn recheado, and sausage fry find place with the Portuguese-influenced crab xec xec, caldeirada (Portuguese fish stew) and Guisado De Galinha (chicken stew). These are best washed down with pints of beer for that perfect laidback vibe.
At Pali Mala Road, opposite Pali Vegetable Market, Bandra West.
Call 7208316545

New Martin Hotel, Colaba

This iconic institution in Colaba is a simple, no frills place. The formica topped tables, high seating, the two blackboards announcing the day’s specials – the interiors may not have changed even if the owners did. ‘Goan meals served here’ is proudly painted on the door shutters and a small board hanging outside.

The hotel now has Manglorean owners, but the food is still Goan though heavier on the spices. The beef chilly fry is succulent and spicy; prawns pulao has golden long grained rice heaped over a masala prawns and their pork sorpotel is adequately greasy and flavourful. Their specialty is beef steak, cooked till tender and served with generous helpings of onions and potatoes. Here, just like at Udupi restaurants, you might have to sometimes share a table with strangers. There’s no need for conversation, everyone is too busy eating.
At 11, Glamour House, Strand Road, Apollo Bandar, Colaba.

Mangoes

This rooftop restaurant in Orlem gets its name from the fact that the owners are Goan and Manglorean. They serve both kinds of cuisines. The décor here is spartan with plastic chairs and tables. It doesn’t matter because Mangoes serves some hearty Goan fare, largely focuses on non-vegetarian food. There’s the beef, and pork roast – both of which are so popular, people freeze it and take it abroad; tongue jeere mere, caldin, the street staple roce omelette, cutlets and potato chops.
At: 601, 6th floor, Almar Arcade, Near Punjab National Bank, Orlem.

Fresh Catch

A pelican with his catch of the day greets you at the entrance of this Mahim icon. It’s an indication that if nothing else, you can get good fish here.

The interiors remind me of an old aunt’s home – patterned napkins, red checked tablecloths, black chairs, sepia-tinted photos on the wall and music from the 70s and 80s. The service is warm and the food, homely. Best known for its butter garlic crab, Fresh Catch also dishes up stellar bangda jeera meera, a spicy and tangy balchao, prawns sukka and a wholesome seafood pulao filled with juicy prawns, crabmeat and shellfish. The prices may be a tad expensive for Goan grub but the food is delicious, which makes it worth it.
At Lt Kotnis Marg, Near Fire Brigade, Off L J Road, Mahim West, Mahim.
(Read a detailed reviewhere.)

Porto & Poie

The azulejo-tiled space in Juhu is the newest Goan restaurant to hit Mumbai’s shores. It’s a simply-designed space – the outdoor area has a small balcao area with a bar in the centre. On the inside are black and white photos of markets in Portugal and Goa, a tiled ceiling and laterite stone-arched windows.

It is the food prepared by Goan chef Gracian de Souza that reminds me of home. The tender marinated salted tongue with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, the crunchy and cheesy Portuguese style prawn rissois, and the classic Goan fish curry and slow cooked tenderloin chilli. The vegetarian dishes are stellar too, especially the coconutty mushroom and tendli tonnak. There’s no feni but there is Vagator Rave, with its hints of cashew and sweet pineapple, and the welcome drink, the alcohol-soaked cherry liqueur ginjinha.  Best of all, there is poee, brought in from Goa every day.
At Above Royal Garden Hotel, Juhu Tara Road; 6 pm to 1.30 am; Call 26602955
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Lady Baga

A makeshift beach with a shack, a surfboard and swaying palms greets you at the entrance of Lady Baga in Kamala Mills. One whole wall is painted blue and has the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California on it. Inside, the place channels a kitschy shack vibe with swinging hammocks, fairy lights, stars, coloured walls and cane furniture with tie-dye cushions.

Behind the bar, Eric Lobo dishes up cocktail experiments. His version of cashew feni is a potent cashew and and coconut vodka. I recommend the scotch-heavy Ginger Man, and the Bloody Mariana – a Bloody Mary with balchao and Goan sausage-infused vodka. The food, from the hands of an East India chef, is worthy of seconds. The stand out dishes include rissóis prawns, kokum & chilli pumpkin and Chef Aloo’s prawn curry – a rice plate with prawn curry with bhindi, tendli pickle, kismur, fried whitebait, and local red unpolished rice.
At Oasis Complex, Kamala Mills, Gate No 4, Lower Parel. Call 022 4931012

O Pedro

The food here isn’t Goan, not the way I’ve grown up eating it. But it is delicious and inspired by Goan food, which makes for some interesting dishes. There’s rissois stuffed with crab instead of prawns and coated with Panko crumbs; kalchi koddi served as a sauce with boiled eggs, kismur with raw papaya and shrimp, red rice sannas, and serradurra with orange segments. There’s even a sourdough poee, best paired with chorizo butter. The best one being the veal tongue prosciutto, a take on salted tongue with pickled cucumber and a garlic-mustard aioli.

The interiors, some call it granny chic, are filled with knick knacks and elements expected in an old house – cane backed chairs, hanging creepers, the red tiles and the plates on the walls. A good place to hang out at is at the polished wooden bar, sipping on the homemade Vasco Sour with its hit of Goan toddy vinegar, and tapping your feet to the music.
At: O Pedro, Unit #2, Ground Floor, Jet Airways-Godrej BKC Building, Bandra Kurla Complex.

Box:

Goa Bhavan Canteen
At Cross Road No.12, Samarth Ramdas Marg, Gulmohar Road, JVPD Scheme, Juhu.
Call 98205 97275

Goa Portuguesa
At Mili Building, TH Kataria Road, Matunga.
Call 24440707

C D’Souza
At 314, Cawasji Hormusji Street, Opposite Our Lady of Dolours Church, Marine Lines.
Call  22065893

Goan Cart
At 1st Domnic Lane, Tank Road, Orlem, Malad West.
Call 9820756797

Cozinha Goana
At: Beverly Park, WING-A, Mira Bhayandar Road, Chandan Shanti, Mira Road. Closed on Mondays.
Call: 9920854955

 

[Versions of this story appeared in The Hindu and The City Story]

Taken hostage in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack

Hello, may I speak to Srijit?”
“Yes, speaking.”
“Sir, I would like to talk to you …”
“I would love to talk, but am a little caught up.”
“Not a problem. When will you be free?”
“I wish I knew. You see, I am still stuck in the Trident and am a hostage …”

I dropped the phone.

I had entered the field of journalism exactly five months back and here I was, smack bang in the middle of covering my first terrorist attack. It all happened by accident. The day had started out as a nightmare. The previous evening, just as I was about to turn in for the night, I started receiving frantic calls from home. Their questions about my safety soon turned into hysterical lectures: As a journalist, how could I not know that Mumbai was undergoing a terror attack?

I switched on the TV and slowly pieced together the horrifying sequence of events. A group of terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba had conducted a series of attacks across south Bombay. They had targeted the CST train terminus, two hotels — Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace — Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital and the Nariman House Jewish community center.

After watching for about three hours, I turned in for the night. This wasn’t the first time Mumbai was dealing with terrorists. The city had survived before and I was confident things would return to normal the next morning.

They did not.

My boss woke me up to say the terrorists had taken people hostage at the two hotels and I, still a trainee, was needed at work. The city wore a deserted look — everyone had stayed home. In contrast, the office was abuzz — keyboards clacking, telephones ringing, instructions being shouted and television channels blaring breaking news.

My boss walked up to us trainees and gave us numbers of rescued hostages and told us to talk to them. It was one thing I was hoping never to do as a journalist — intrude on someone’s grief to ask them, “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” Or, how do you feel? As a trainee, I didn’t have the choice. I started calling. There were four numbers; three went unanswered. The fourth got me a hostage.

Now, for someone who was stuck in his room, alone, with the blinds closed and lights off, Srijit was calm. He told me what had happened: “It started around 9 p.m. My colleague and I were having dinner when we heard the first blasts. After that everything went haywire. We decided it’s safer to remain in our rooms, on the 24th floor. We have no contact with anyone else from the Trident. The firing was constant and went on throughout the night. I lost the signal on the television; I think the terrorists cut it off so that we don’t know what is happening outside.”

The elevators were shut, and he had locked the door and pulled down the blinds. He was worried about his colleague, a U.S. citizen — he had heard reports that foreign nationals were being targeted. His minibar had a few bottles of water, a couple of boxes of nuts and biscuits and a bar of chocolate — enough stock to last him a couple of days, he told me.

Before hanging up, he had one request: “Keep me posted on what is happening outside.” He was staying in darkness and his phone was the only link to the internet and his son in Kolkata.

I did, through messages and the odd call. I fed him whatever the TV was telling me — the number of people dead, which terrorists had been captured and reports on law enforcement. In turn, he told me about the other hostages he had befriended via the intercom, how none of them were eating because they were too scared. He wasn’t hungry. He just wanted to get out.

I felt his fear, anxiety, helplessness and despair. 

I ended each call telling him those very useless words “be safe.” He took it in good grace.

By the end of the first day, he felt like a friend, someone I had known for a long time. The thought of what would happen to him terrified me. I had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day, November 27, the phone calls, and the gun battles, continued.

People watch from the top of a residential apartment as a helicopter carrying National Security Guard commandos prepares to attack militants at Nariman House at Colaba Market in Mumbai on November 28, 2008. “Every time the explosions go off, the entire building shakes,” he told me.

His inside information was more accurate than what many television channels were screening. But I didn’t tell him about reports that over 20 hostages had been killed in the hotel. Instead, I told him that India’s NSG, National Security Guard, was close to getting them evacuated. He had still barely eaten anything, and was using the intercom to speak to other hostages trapped on the same floor. On the third day, at 11 a.m., I got the call I had been waiting for.

“I am saved.”

Early morning, he had a knock on his door saying “housekeeping.” He opened it to find 20 commandos and armed men in plain clothes. He was escorted out like royalty.

Later that day, I went to meet him. We exchanged a hug. He was full of praise for the security forces who had rescued him. He was taking back “souvenirs” of his ordeal: a bottle of water and a half-eaten packet of salted peanuts.

It is difficult to explain the relationship that formed between us in those three days. I’ve never been on the front of covering any terrorist attack or violence; I don’t have it in me.

A little background: I hail from a tiny state in India called Goa, known for its peace-loving and laid-back life. I’ve only ever seen terror attacks on TV; I was completely detached from them. I was safe; everyone I knew was safe — I couldn’t fully grasp the impact of what was happening. The 26/11 attacks changed me because there was a personal element to the violence. I felt the fear, the anxiety, the helplessness and the despair.

Suffice to say, that naive trainee reporter who had led a sheltered life had finally grown up.

I wrote this essay for Ozy on the ninth anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks. Read the original piece, here