Colaba chronicles

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on November 28, 2020

See change: Just 300 years ago, the area that we call Colaba was little more than swampy land, shifting sea and two uninviting islands   -  ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Perched at the tip of Mumbai, Colaba — as we know it today — has had a fascinating journey that spans three centuries. A writer who has spent her life there traces some of that history

Every time I leaf through my battered copy of Following the Equator, two words pop into my head. If only.

Following the Equator is an entertaining account of the journey that brought Mark Twain to Bombay in 1895. The American writer saw the city as “a bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place — the Arabian Nights come again?” Naturally, then, he filled his days with predictable activity, visiting the Government House at Malabar Point, the bungalow of a wealthy merchant in Byculla and the police courts at Mazagaon. He described Jain mandirs, the Towers of Silence and elaborate Hindu weddings. He even talked about the Bombay crow.

It seems unfair, then, that the one thing he didn’t do was explore Colaba.

For the amateur historian who is looking for peepholes into the past of Colaba, Mark Twain’s omission is disappointing. It is not, however, surprising.

After all we know that, just 300 years ago, the area that we call Colaba was little more than swampy land, shifting sea and two uninviting islands — Old Woman’s Island and Colaba Island. By the time Twain visited the city, the island (Colaba and Old Woman’s Island had become one at some point) had fused with the rest of the city and was just stirring from its millennia-long slumber. It offered little to tourists and seekers of the exotic, who were far too busy befriending bejewelled maharajas to bother with the howling jackals and cut-throat bandits that roamed this corner.

How did Colaba transform itself from this strip of snake-infested rocks to a bustling, quirky neighbourhood so central to the identity of Mumbai?

The answers can be found in the letters, travelogues and diaries of the few travellers who did visit Colaba. And although these writings are rife with inaccuracies and prejudice, they do offer a glimpse into forgotten landscapes and lives.

Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai; Shabnam Minwalla; Speaking Tiger; Non-fiction; ₹499


These first-hand accounts — which serve as low-tech time machines — were my favourite discoveries while I was researching my book Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai. They transported me to a past which has become as much a part of my Colaba as Bhavya Stores across the road.

Whenever I run errands at Colaba Post Office, for example, the cars and boxy buildings of the present fall away to reveal the island of the early 1700s. This Colaba was described by John Burnell, a mercenary with the East India Company, in his letters to his father. In these he mentions a stretch of rocky land about two miles long, from which rises a steep hill, a grove of coconut trees, three kilns and marshy mangroves alive with “fifty or threescore jackalls”. And, soaring dramatically from this desolate hump of land, two white tombs, bright against a blue sky.

Ten minutes away, on Colaba Causeway, I find myself rewinding to the 1800s. By this point, Colaba had acquired a cemetery that heaved with the victims of shipwrecks, a lunatic asylum and a cluster of churches. The British troops were also stationed in these doleful backwaters — kept safely away from the taverns and temptations of the Fort. Till 1838, the journey between Bombay on one side and Old Woman’s Island and Colaba on the other involved a smelly, rickety ferry. It was only when the causeway was built to link Colaba with the rest of the city that its fortunes and property prices looked up. Merchants and factory owners decided that Colaba was a great place to store coal, stack wood, make machine parts and build mills. It was conveniently close to the docks, and land reclamation schemes were floated to transform the scrawny teenager into an ample, but dowdy matron. Then, in 1844, the Cotton Green (the open space where cotton was sold and bought) was shifted here and Colaba became the heart of commercial Mumbai.

Shop, skip and jump: Colaba Causeway is synonymous with art deco buildings and vendors who sell everything from trinkets to pajamas   -  BLOOMBERG/ KAINAZ AMARIA


In an 1884 volume called Letters from Bombay, D Aubrey, a foreigner who visited Bombay, tells us that — before the arrival of art deco buildings and pajama-vendors of Colaba Causeway — there were open fields dotted with godowns and bales of cotton. The roads teemed with bullock carts and traders who slipped in and out of carriages and haggled under tattered umbrellas, striking deals that brought wealth, ambition, streetlights, trams, roads into Bombay. “Difficult is it for the occidentals to counteract the cunning of the native brokers who play into each other hands to baffle the Europeans and to commit every deed of craftiness that can be practiced within and without the pale of law,” Aubrey writes petulantly about the wheeling and dealing in that noisy, colourful open market. “The degree of calmness they preserve throughout their bargain defeats all the arts that can be opposed to it.”

It is with this clamour of the cotton traders in my ears that I walk to the other end of the Causeway, where I arrive at Regal Cinema. In the early 1900s, this was still a place of empty spaces and wide skies. But — as the unnamed contributor to the BB and CI Magazine (brought out by Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railways) tells us — the area had started resounding with the noise of hammers and chisels. The first of the familiar stone structures to rise was the Royal Alfred Sailors’ Home — today the office of the Director General of Police. “All Bombay gazed at the work and, as it fronted the open space that extended all the way to Back Bay, it must have been viewed with much curiosity by travelers arriving from the north by the trains of the newly-opened BB and CI Railways.”

Now, when I hurry to the laundry or to buy batteries for the clock, I think about plague in the bazaars, and tea dances at the Yacht Club. About the music wafting from Majestic Hotel, and about Waterloo Mansion, Café Mondegar, Sindhi refugees and Arab tourists. I listen to the patter of the ghosts who walk alongside. And I do still wish that Mark Twain was a part of the gang.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book, Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai, was released by Speaking Tiger this month

  • Home turf: In the 1963 Hindi film Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, Colaba girl Leela Naidu was the wife of naval officer, also a Colaba resident, charged with murder   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

    At the very edge of Colaba, outside the National Gallery of Modern Art, stands a landmark rain tree that provides shade to chaiwalas, keychain-sellers and name-on-a-grain-of-rice-writers. Elsewhere in Colaba are venerable gulmohars and copper pods that grow alongside the fluttering pipals and ample banyans. It seems churlish to resent these familiar friends just because they were once outsiders. After all, in Colaba, almost all of us were once outsiders.
  • My great-grandfather, Nomanbhoy Abdeali, for example, was a Surat boy who made his fortune in the Far East. Then he decided that it was time to get his three daughters married and transplanted them from Singapore to the Bombay of the late 1920s. He moved into an apartment in Sargent House, a handsome, red-brick building off Colaba Causeway — around the same time that the gulmohars and copper pods arrived in the area.
  • The story of Sargent House and its twin, Jenkins House, runs parallel to the history of Colaba. Like its better-known neighbours — the Yacht Club, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India — Sargent House sits on land that was once swamp and sea. Like them, it is part of the brick-and-mortar skeleton around which Colaba flourished.
  • For most of its life, Colaba was a rocky wilderness that attracted neither residents nor visitors. Then in 1838, a causeway was built to connect the two southernmost islands — Colaba and Old Woman’s Island — to the rest of busy Bombay. In 1860, the entire expanse between the Apollo Bunder promenade and the causeway was reclaimed. The 43 acres were used not just for clubs and hotels, but for solid, comfortable buildings that set the tone for this new neighbourhood.
  • Jamsetji Tata, the legendary industrialist and philanthropist who founded the Tata group of companies, was among those who saw the potential of this freshly minted land. Even before he built the Taj Mahal Hotel, he constructed a string of buildings that he marketed to the new class of Englishmen streaming into Bombay — the bankers, merchants and traders, dismissively dubbed ‘boxwallahs’ by their compatriots. With this target audience in mind, Tata named the buildings after prominent Englishmen in the city. ‘On an individual level he remained a warm friend to scores of Englishmen, including several judges of the Bombay High Court,’ wrote R.M. Lala in For the Love of India: The Life and Times of Jamsetji Tata. ‘It is not accidental that the buildings he had built behind the Taj — before the hotel came up — were named after Englishmen. Reay House, Roosevelt House, Sargent House, Sandhurst House, Jenkins House and Candy House.’
  • It seems fitting that Nomanbhoy Abdeali should have chosen a home that had so recently risen from the sea, alongside other outsiders who were gradually becoming insiders. Together, these diverse, extraordinary individuals were fashioning the quiet but rich story of Colaba.
  • In Sargent House there lived Dr Ramaiah Naidu, who had worked with Marie Curie and helped set up the Tata Memorial Hospital. And his daughter, the radiant Leela Naidu, who was featured in Vogue’s list of the ten most beautiful women in the world and who acted in a handful of acclaimed movies, including Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke. This was based on that most romanticized of Colaba killers — Kawas Nanavati, the naval officer who shot his wife’s lover in cold-blood and was then portrayed as a hero by the tabloids. Leela Naidu played the half-French wife who strays.
  • Later, Leela Naidu married poet and writer Dom Moraes, who brought creative genius to this patch of Colaba. In The Solitude of Emperors, David Davidar talks of ‘Dom hammering away with one finger at his typewriter in Sargent House, spectacles slipping down his nose as the poems ran wild in his head.’ Others recall the late-night salons at No. 17, Sargent House, where inspiration and liquor flowed in equal measure.
  • The heritage building was also home to Mickey Correa and Lucila Pacheco, who were part of the swing bands at the Taj and other Colaba hotels. Then there was Harry Lyttler, the disciplinarian but brilliant British piano teacher, who stayed back in Bombay — along with his two grand and two upright pianos — even after India became independent. His students included Leela Naidu and painter Mehlli Gobhai. Then there was cricketer Rusi Modi, and Jalabala Vaidya, who became internationally famous as a stage actor — especially for her rendition of the Ramayana, in which she played all twenty-two characters.
  • As a child, I visited Sargent House often, and remember it for the grand Bohra feasts and unique, two-door elevator. My daughters know it too. For — in the kind of coincidence that only Colaba throws up—my brother and his family now live in a Tata Institute of Fundamental Research flat on the ground floor of Sargent House. My brother is a string theorist who spent many years in freezing, faraway cities. So, it’s incredible that he should find himself just three floors beneath the house that our great-grandfather moved into almost a century ago.
  • (Excerpted with permission from ‘Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai’)

Published on November 28, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor