Literary Greats: The Writers Who Were Influenced by Mumbai

Mumbai has inspired many writers over the years
Mumbai has inspired many writers over the years | © Thomas Brown / Getty Images
Akanksha Singh

If you’re looking for inspiration, to walk in footprints made by literary greats and their contemporaries, look no further. Learn about the writers who were influenced by Mumbai, and discover where they stayed and what they wrote.

Mumbai has seen many literary greats walk its streets over the years

At first, Mumbai seems like an unlikely literary destination. Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was once called, is often dubbed India’s cultural capital. However, with its evolution from a fisherman’s village to a trade port during the British Raj and now the financial capital of India, Mumbai has seen a unique set of cultural and historical shifts to become the thriving metropolis that it is today. For this reason, perhaps, the city has seen many literary greats walk its streets over the years, defining their indefinable Bombay.

Mumbai evolved from a fisherman’s village to a trade port during the British Raj

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen spent the better part of 1999 and 2000 in Mumbai after having first arrived in India in 1998. He stayed at the Hotel Kemps Corner, and his visit might have been a quiet one if it weren’t for a fan tracking him down and, later, befriending him. While in Mumbai, Cohen spent his time absorbing the city and attending lectures on Hindu philosophy. And when he was back in his hotel room, he spent the remainder of the time reading, meditating, sketching and writing.

The Indian-Jewish community, though small, was one thing about Mumbai that captivated Cohen. Jewish himself, Cohen once joked to an Indian friend: “I am settling down here. Why don’t you find me a good Jewish bride?” He frequented the Knesset Eliyahoo, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue built in 1884, and visited the Jehangir Art Gallery, which had works by Indian-Jewish artists. In his Book of Longing (2006), Cohen would reference his time in Mumbai a handful of times, pondering that “Mumbai, like the Athens / of forty years ago / is a city to smoke in.”

The Knesset Eliyahoo is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue built in 1884

Salman Rushdie

Bombay-born, Booker Prize-winning Salman Rushdie completed his primary education at the prestigious Cathedral and John Connon School before spending later years in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The writer says the city of Mumbai still has a top spot in his heart; therefore, it’s no wonder that the city of his birth features so heavily in his works of fiction, starting with Midnight’s Children in 1981. His novel The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) features scenes from Chowpatty Beach, a city beach crowded with young couples and sugar-happy children. In the book, Rushdie wrote, “Once a year the gods came to Chowpatty Beach to bathe in the filthy sea,” in reference to the annual Ganpati festival, where idols of the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha make their way from a parade in the city to the sea.

During the annual Ganpati festival, idols of the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha make their way from a parade in the city to the sea

Mark Twain

The most unlikely candidate on this list, Mark Twain came to Bombay in 1896. In Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897), he described the city as “A bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place – the Arabian Nights come again!”

While in Bombay, Twain stayed at Watson’s Hotel (a hotel so “plush” that Queen Victoria reportedly commented on its “garishness”). Today, the once-flashy Watson’s Hotel is known as the Esplanade Mansion, a decrepit cast-iron structure and UNESCO-listed site that closed its doors in 2019 to undergo restoration.

If you find yourself in the area surrounding the Esplanade Mansion in Fort, hop over to the nearby David Sassoon Library for some quiet time. Alternatively, cross the road to the University of Mumbai Fort campus, which Twain would have undoubtedly passed on his many detours to the “great bazar” (presumably in Colaba), which he wrote about in Following the Equator (1897): “In the great bazar, the pack and jam of natives was marvellous, the sea of rich-coloured turbans and draperies an inspiring sight…”

A cyclist passes the 19th-century Esplanade Mansion, originally Watson’s Hotel, the first luxury hotel in Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai

Allen Ginsberg

The voice of the Beat Generation came to Bombay twice. Thrice if you include his first call to the city – a dream in which he sailed into the port, past the Gateway of India. On Allen Ginsberg’s second trip to Bombay, Indian writer Pupul Jayakar put him up in her Malabar Hill house. He went on to write a handful of poems and scribbles about the city in his published Indian Journals (1970). Once news of his stay in the area got out, he held court at Indian-Jewish poet Nissim Ezekiel’s flat on Warden Road and debated everything from jazz to journalism with local intellectuals. Like Twain, Ginsberg also frequented the markets.

Ginsberg also stopped by several understated (to some, dingy) chequered-tablecloth-bearing cafés in Kala Ghoda and Fort with Ezekiel and friends, sharing conversation and food. He wrote in a letter to Gregory Corso, “Hardly been diarrhetic here even as much as Paris, and I’ve really eaten the worst. Maybe I’m immune, immunised by Peru, Mexico, Tangier. But ritzy restaurants are cheaper than Tangier even. Bombay has great food all over… Come here and have a ball in the greatest, weirdest nation of history.” If you’re looking for still-standing alternatives, the Military Café in Fort is the right amount of quaint, with the right mix of exhausted ad agency writers, lawyers and office workers. The beer is cold and plenty.

Kala Ghoda is the art district in downtown Mumbai

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay, wrote in his ode To the City of Bombay, “Mother of Cities to me / But I was born in her gate / Between the palms and the sea / Where the world-end steamers wait.”

Kipling’s father, Lockwood Kipling, was the first dean of the Sir JJ School of Art, home to the famed ‘Kipling Bungalow’ – a 137-year-old house that is currently undergoing restoration and set to open in 2020. In the meantime, you can take in Kipling’s Bombay at Crawford Market – a wet market for fruit, veg and poultry that also sells household items and knick-knackery – where he walked most mornings. Alternatively, just stroll through the streets, as he once did, noting in his Kipling way, the “gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset.”

Crawford Market is a wet market for fruit, veg and poultry

Walking with Words: Mumbai in Fact & Fiction

A walking tour of Mumbai’s literary scape, Walking with Words: Mumbai in Fact & Fiction takes you on a journey from the Gateway of India to Oval Maidan. The tour covers everyone from Kipling to Rushdie and includes meet-ups with a handful of writers around the city. The tour costs 750 Indian rupees (£8), begins at 8am and finishes up at around 10.30am.

The Gateway of India dates back to the early 20th century

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.?>

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

Culture Trip Spring Sale

Save up to $1,656 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article