Street smart

Shop till you drop in Mumbai's ever-popular Linking Road, famous for its bargain footwear and lingerie
Shoes of every kind are the main attractions of Linking Road
Shoes of every kind are the main attractions of Linking Road

My first memory of Linking Road, in a strange Alice-in-Wonderland way, is yearning for baby clothes for my doll. Rows of roadside stalls, glittering with cheap, sparkly clothing... I would imagine my doll with an entire wardrobe of shiny, sequinned dresses. Linking Road has come a long way from those shiny dresses for shiny little girls. There are now malls, brands and innumerable sports-shoe shops, but in the nooks and crannies, the shiny dresses and chappals still exist.

The first thing you notice about Linking Road is shoes. Although the &lsquoposh&rsquo shoe shops are increasing in number, the real deal is still the tiny crammed shops selling the latest styles and the most aggressive bargains. There are Kolhapuri chappals, gladiator sandals, work shoes, high heels, party shoes, mojris and loads of unnamed styles. If there is one thing that marks an authentic street-shopping experience, it is the deliciousness of the bargain. With a little rush of adrenaline, you make the first move. The shopkeeper retaliates, the sweetness of the offer rejected. You continue with the relentless badgering, acting like you don&rsquot understand his pleas of cost price and 10-rupee profit margins. Suddenly, before he knows it, the mood changes, there is anger in the air, and you have walked off in a huff. When he calls out, you turn back as quickly, hand him the money and grab the pair of shoes before he can reconsider.

I walk on to arrays of the other hot selling item &mdash lingerie Cotton, satin, halter bras, boy shorts, thongs... For a nation that is remarkably shy about most things, we seem to have no problem at all discussing cup sizes with total strangers. They are great bargains though, since most are imports from China.

Take the left from the giant red KFC sign and you reach another mecca, &lsquothe cheap stuff from Bangkok&rsquo lane. T-shirts, dresses, belts, fake bags, it&rsquos the road that&rsquos been dressing broke students the city over. There is also the &lsquotights&rsquo guy &mdash find him in between the shiny stuff and superman costumes for infants &mdash who caters to the latest trend of leggings and tights in all colours and sizes but also has lovely, flirty dresses.

American fast food joints are always a little vulgar to look at, but somehow in the midst of the glitter and grime of Linking Road, KFC and McDonald&rsquos look strangely comfortable, as if they were meant to be here, hypnotising dozens of children with weird orange-coloured food. If you are looking for the ultimate Linking Road food experience, though, do what we Mumbaikars have been doing &mdash go for the Tibbs frankie. You get it in chicken, mutton and vegetarian options and it is the loveliest roll in the world. For some very late night dining, one of the chappal stalls converts into a handy fish fry and tandoori joint called Jai Jawan.

The food story here has taken quite a few twists along the years. What used to be a haven for pure street food &mdash frankies, chaats, pav bhaji &mdash is now catering to the ever-growing palate of the middle classes. Schezwan dosas, cheese pav bhaji, sushi, KFC chicken, aloo tikki burgers, smiley fries the melting pot of Mumbai is being reflected in its food. I like it Perhaps not the Schezwan dosas, but this constant evolution of food till it is unrecognisable.

That&rsquos a bit like Linking Road itself. What used to be a slightly downmarket cousin of South Bombay&rsquos Fashion Street has transformed into a branded butterfly. Almost everywhere you turn, there&rsquos an unbuttoned cricket or Bollywood star staring you in the face. New bars have mushroomed. There is Firangi Paani with its cool pub vibe, Bonobo, Mumbai Times Café and an unlimited, all-you-can-eat buffet (including sushi) at the new China Gate.

But some of the old haunts remain. Pamposh, the age-old watering hole for underage students of National College, continues to prosper, educating young students about the essentials of life &mdash pitchers and draught. Silver Arch is being given a face-lift but will no doubt be back serving the same butter chicken and yummy dal makhani Persian Darbar flourishes under the patronage of raan lovers as it did 15 years ago. And the National College sandwichwala could probably tell you more about fashion trends than the latest issue of Vogue.

Linking Road represents the soul of suburban Bombay. Slightly trashy, a bit over-shiny but something that is coming into its own, with no excuses and no apologies.

Linking Road is 2km from Bandra towards Khar in Mumbai&rsquos Bandra (W) area. The shops open at 11am and close around 10pm. Carry ready cash (no credit cards accepted here), a cheerful disposition and an aggressive bargaining strategy.

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