Mumbaiwale: On a heritage tour? Avoid these walks of shame
Ignorant tour guides, confusing trails, locals who aren’t experts, facts that tell no story - steer clear of these
I went on my first heritage walk all by myself. In 2004, I picked up a copy of Sharada Dwivedi’s Fort Walks and picked a path at random, not knowing what to expect. What I found was an afternoon of delight and discovery. The Fort area I’d visited all through my childhood and youth finally told me a story that went beyond pretty buildings and British-era offices and mapped a chronology I didn’t know existed.
I’ve been on fantastic tours of the city since then – among them the earliest walks through Khotachiwadi, Dongri, Mazagaon, the trees of Byculla zoo, and the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. I’ve also been on terrible ones, herded processions led by people making scripted speeches. I’ve been on culinary tours where the food ran out, and trailed after ‘local guides’ who knew nothing outside of their lived experiences. I also discovered from friends and colleagues that there’s worse out there. Watch out for these:
Tours with confusing titles. A new-to-Mumbai colleague signed up for a tour called Dhobi Tales expecting to see Dhobi Ghat. It turned out to be a walk through Marine Lines and Dhobi Talao. My advice: Look up the tour description and check it against a map beforehand.
Watch out for
Guides who aren’t prepared. Most dargahs are closed for prayers on Fridays. Most museums are shut on Mondays. A friend was quite disappointed when a local guide tried to take visitors to the Blue Mosque in Dongri only to find that women were denied entry. My advice: Quiz your tour organiser or guide before you book, particularly if you’ve never done a tour with them before, and they’re guaranteeing access, entry, a demonstration or a specific view.
Walks that seem more like infiltrations. A close friend cringed when her guide through Khotachiwadi barged though the quiet neighbourhood pointing at homes, residents, crucifixes and design elements with no regard for the locals’ privacy or dignity, or the local culture. “He saw it as no different from looking at animals in a zoo,” she recalls. My advice: Ask your tour leader how many locals they know; it’s usually a measure of how they view the place.
Commentary that comes from Wikipedia. Did you know this building was built by the British in 1902? Did you know this tree is called a baobab? Did you know this architecture is called Indo-Saracenic and has Indian motifs? Did you know this station is named for a Governor? Everything old was once new. If your guide can’t explain what makes the facts useful or exciting, avoid. My advice: Ask your guide why a name, place, date and design matter.
Local pride that doesn’t check privilege. That colleague’s Dhobi Talao tour? It was led by a young man who seemed keener to show off his south Mumbai status than get visitors interested in the neighbourhood. My advice: Avoid untrained guides by checking their credentials with the operator.
Facts that fit the ‘story’. Perhaps the most shocking is the time another colleague went on a free walk through Girgaum during a heritage-walk festival. The volunteer leader, also new to the city, asked them to name the person who said “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”. My colleague correctly answered Lokmanya Tilak. But the guide “corrected” the answer to Raja Ram Mohan Roy, to lead them down a road named after him! My advice: Book with established organisations and pay for quality.