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December 12, 2018

Rediscover Mumbai And Its Eclectic Stories Through The Zamorin Of Bombay

Text by Shubham Ladha

The tour company’s guide, Viren D’Sa will help you explore every nook, cranny and crevice of the city

Did you know that during the British rule, Bombay did something that no other city in the world had dared to do? It had a Roman Catholic German archbishop during World War I, and he’s buried in the Cathedral of The Holy Name, in South Bombay. Or how Veer Nariman’s story is similar to that of Che Guevara? The latter was staunchly against capitalism, but to rub salt on his wounds, the Argentinian government put his face on all kinds of objects, right from T-shirts to mugs. Similarly, there was a lot of corruption — immortalised in the film Bombay Velvet (2015) — while Marine Drive was being reclaimed. When the Mayor of Bombay, Veer Nariman stood up against it he was thrown out of office and to add insult to injury, the area — from Church Gate station to Marine Drive — was named after him. Or how the Rajabai Clock Tower was built by one of the founders of the Bombay Stock Exchange? As Bombay University was running out of funds, Indian businessman, Sir Roychand Premchand made donations to the institute on the condition that they build a clock tower in honour of his mother, Rajabai. Being a devout Jain, Rajabai needed to pray every evening at sunset but as she was blind, she was greatly assisted by the chimes of the clock tower that strikingly resembles the St. Steven’s Tower in London which hosts the Big Ben.

These are just a handful of tales from a vast repertoire that Viren D’Sa will enthral you with when you decide to take a tour with his company, Zamorin of Bombay. A former manager of cultural relations at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, D’Sa realised that he had a more wholesome and personal experience of the city to offer, which coincided with his interests in history and culture. With extensive knowledge about the city and the country, in relation to the world, D’Sa’s culturally oriented city adventures (and tourists) tread beyond the prima facie, brimming with enthusiasm.

Excerpts from an interview:

From being the cultural manager at the Taj Mahal Palace to starting your own local tour company; what inspired the transition, the concept and the name behind ‘Zamorin of Bombay’?

Viren D’Sa (VD): When I was at the Taj Mahal Palace for five years as the Manager of Cultural Relations, I realised that a lot of people who were coming to Mumbai weren’t coming to stay at the Taj, but were coming to experience India as a destination. I tried to understand why my clients are here, and realised that it was for the country’s broader impact. I wanted to help people understand who we really are beyond the clichés. A lot of the Taj’s clientele came for business, but had no idea why Indians shake their head the way they do, for example. I discovered that the response I was getting from my clients towards this approach was 10 times more positive than just talking about the hotel or the city at large. Upon consulting with friends posted at Foreign Consulates, Corporates, and Concierges of other hotels, I was suggested to take up tours across Mumbai. Having hailed from generations of salaried employees, I took the risk and started my company.

Since then, it’s been growing slowly and steadily. Literally been a working MBA, I started off as a walking tour company, but while conducting them, I realised my clients weren’t identifying with the buildings nor the people. I went back to researching on the tourists as people sans labels, their places of origin and approached with a comparative analysis between their country and ours. My approach thereafter was influenced more by sociology, psychology and philosophy rather than just history. Even the time duration kept expanding; from a couple of hours to half and full days as the interest quotient grew. Today, most of my clients are repeats or through recommendations, which shows there is a great demand for understanding the Indian mind more than just understanding the monument. Because as we say, “It’s the People who make the Church”.

The name ‘Zamorin of Bombay’ was inspired by a historical reference. Zamorin was the title of the King of Calicut. When Vasco da Gama came to India, he had to take the Zamorin’s permission to enter and trade. I chose Zamorin because everyone else works with ‘Maharaja’, ‘Sultan’, ‘Nawab’, etc. And also because it was one of the first engagements India had established with the West. It goes on to show that India is nothing without the world and the world is nothing without India. I kept the name Bombay because of that famed idea that, ‘Mumbai is a city but Bombay is an emotion’. It’s the emotion that connects the locals to the city. The tours’ whole theme is to connect people to the heart of the locals and not just the city.

While on your tours, it might get monotonous taking people on the same tour over and over. How do you overcome that?

VD: I’m more excited than my clients as I take them down a new alleyway every day, meaning something new for me too. There are certain phrases which take me into autopilot but, if it’s a personality-driven tour, I can’t just rely on them. I can, however, use them as a bridge as I’m searching for what’s next.

It’s about “how you do what you do”. I don’t just point at things and talk about them. To ensure my tourists understand the world around them I take tests during the tour and see if they remember what we spoke about. I also teach them basic Hindi phraseology and make them practise it with the common man, such as vendors and the everyday citizen, so the former feel more comfortable with the language and a part of the city as language is a tool that impacts the soul.

International and Indian English are different in how their vocabulary and meanings are translated, such as ‘whiling away time’ is known as ‘time pass’, to ‘memorise’ is to ‘mug’, or if someone’s ‘graduated’, they’ve ‘passed out’ et al. I help people understand the reasons for these, and when they do understand it, it sounds fascinating and they are encouraged to try and speak it with the people around. I want my tourists to aim for nothing less than citizenship itself!

I also try to support the local people, wherein parts of my earnings on the tours are used to directly stimulate the local economy through jobs and thus self respect. For example, I ask the tourists to pose in Bollywood’s signature styles and let the photographers at the Gateway of India photograph them. In this case, they’re not only learning how to be popular in a strange country, but are more likely to keep that picture with them on their bedside, and the photographers are prevented from coming on the streets through jobs in Bombay with minimal capital – a camera, a memory card and a portable printer. In this way, we’re uplifting our own people, giving them a sense of pride and joy in what they’re doing, and at the same time we’re allowing our clients to experience us without prejudice – they will take back an impression of what India really is vis-à-vis what India is perceived to be.

Like every other human being, I’m also a little biased. My Christian with Portuguese Heritage, influences how I guide the tourists; so I tend to show more of the western influence in India and vice versa, thus creating a niche on our tours. But I also help people understand the Eastern and somestic influences too; but mainly through symbolism, architecture, food, philosophy and certainly – no dogma!

During my city adventures and cultural immersive tours like my Dharavi Slum Tours, I let the tourists discover the forts lost in time there and explore the inner alleyways. I even teach them Hindi and instruct them the social rule and cheat sheet that, “If a man is happy, no one cares, but if a woman’s happy, the entire society is too!”, and that “We don’t need security cameras there. The auntiesare enough!” When the tourists genuinely mingle with them, no one sees the former as threats, and thus barriers are broken.

I do the tours in very small groups, such as those of five or six people max. This way, it’s easier to take public transport and none of the locals are harassed, thus fostering people to people connects through authentic experiences.

Do you customise tours as well?

VD: All my tours are customised. The ones on my website are only to show; if anyone’s interested, we can do those tours but if one wants to do something different, I can customise it at no extra cost as long as it’s practical.

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