6 p.m. on the Queen’s Necklace

MUMBAI, India—Finally, it’s 6 p.m. and the workday ends. I pack away my laptop, pluck up my backpack, and leave the fan-blown office. As I step out into the street I almost get run over by a handcart stacked high with steel rods. Begging children, speeding taxis, incense, and cows have all invaded my perception by the time I reach the end of the block. Crowded, sweaty, throbbing streets.

So I do what people have done for centuries: gravitate towards the beach. Humans love the beach. We are attracted to the magnetic sea like turtle hatchlings who follow the moon’s reflection in the ocean to locate their mother’s nest. Chowpatty Beach on Mumbai’s southern side is the most noteworthy of the nine main beaches that surround India’s island city. Spanning the distance between the financial district at Nariman Point and the  working-class industrial areas near Charni Road station, Chowpatty Beach belongs to everyone: the people’s beach, their escape.

At 6 p.m., workers spill out of brimming office buildings throughout the city onto Chowpatty Beach. Chowpatty is freedom. It’s the only place where city traffic thins enough that cabs can drive at a respectable pace for a full ten seconds without tapping the brakes. On Chowpatty youngsters can sit with members of the opposite sex and let their hands graze each other’s knees during conversation—bold behavior in an arranged-marriage society. Chowpatty is the only place in the city where filthy tall buildings cannot impede sight lines. On the beach families buy corn on the cob, grilled fresh and rubbed down with masala salt and lime juice. If they’re lucky, kids might get to indulge in kulfi—creamy, airless Indian ice-cream, sliced and served on banana leaves.

The city expands before me on both sides, a court of neighborhoods converging with Colaba on my left and Malabar Hill on my right. A brash breeze fresh off the ocean swipes the city grime from my face, allowing me to breathe. As trash swirls in the water and crows pick at discarded clothing left by families on the shore, I am the queen of the city basking on the Queen’s Necklace. Nothing but the sea, me, and thousands upon thousands of other city dwellers, snatching a brief gasp of air and sanity before returning to city life.

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