As the sun sets on Mumbai and the muezzin's call for the evening prayer rings out, signifying the end of the day's fast, the party begins at Mohammed Ali Road. During the Ramadan, for both residents and visitors (non-Muslims included), all roads lead to this part of South Mumbai. Quiet throughout year, the entire length of the street comes alive with sights, smells and sounds during the Holy Month.
At Mohammed Ali Road, the colours of the food and the women's glittering clothes contrast with the dazzle of the spotless white kurta, a long tunic worn by most of the men. The fragrance of ittar on hundreds of wrists competes with the smells of roasting meats and sugar-and-milk sweets.
The noise is overwhelming: hawkers selling food, vendors peddling cheap baubles, the clang of metal cooking pots, the crying of children and the voices of excited visitors. But just in front of Minara Masjid, under its twinkling lights, where the old men sporting white beards and solemn looks sit on benches collecting money from the devout, it is strangely quiet, even peaceful.
Small shops sell prayer caps with intricate patterns from Maharashtra, chikan (a style of embroidery) tunics from Lucknow, perfumes and ittar from Hyderabad. A young boy stands in front of a shop selling designer burkas, inviting customers in.
If the men are there to socialise and eat, the women are there to shop for kohl, henna and glass bangles,as well as dates that come from Saudi Arabia. Traders from all over India set up shop along the street for the month, vanishing with the last rays of the sun on Eid.
But during Ramadan, the area is primarily about food. It is possible – indeed, enjoyable - to have a three-course meal here amid the noise and the crowd, starting with bread and soup and ending with sinful dessert, with meat and more bread in between. The narrow street is packed on both sides with food stalls, many of them so nondescript that identifying them would be difficult. The general advice from the residents is to follow your nose: you will never go wrong.
As with Alice in Wonderland, it is best to begin at the beginning – in this case, the tricolour kebabs at Azad's Stall in the lane opposite the famous Suleiman sweet shop as you enter the road. It is not just about the colours - each variety is made with a different combination of spices. Known for its seekh kebab is Al Madina fast food, in the same lane as Minara Masjid.
Another eatery near the mosque is Chinese n' Grill, a name as odd as it is misleading, given that it is known for its grilled chicken and nalli nihari (a thick stew with succulent mutton shank). There are also a few shops selling khichda(not to be missed, say ardent foodies), a dish similar to haleem, consisting of broken wheat, lentils and shredded beef, cooked in milk and subtly flavoured with onion.
Grab dessert on your way out from the famous Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala. The phirni (pudding made with ground rice) here comes in different colours and flavours such as mango and kesar (saffron). The malpua (fried pancakes), dripping with syrup, are particularly good. In fact, just watching the malpua being made is an experience in itself – the cook, with skill and lightning speed, pours the batter into the hot ghee to form perfectly rounded pancakes; once cooked, they are soaked in sugar syrup. Suleiman's is also known to attract celebrities during this season – in the past, Hindi film stars descended on the sweet shop in droves. Legend has it there's a kebab named after Salman Khan, though the stall vendors laugh when I ask.
I remember reading that Suleiman's had introduced low-calorie sweets during Ramadan for diabetics – but this is not the time or place to think of such unpleasant things as calories and cholesterol. Whenat Mohammed Ali Road, surrender to your senses.