Chunks of Colaba nostalgia

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on November 21, 2019 Published on November 20, 2019

Cool quotient Watermelon juice at Edward the VIII, a Mumbai restaurant, was the harbinger of summer   -  ISTOCK.COM

Stories of childhood in this neighbourhood in Mumbai centred on the watermelon juice from Edward the VIII

It’s been just half an hour since I pressed the Send button and crossed my fingers tight.

Over the last five months, I’ve been working on a book about Colaba, the neighbourhood that perches on the southernmost tip of Mumbai. Writing this book involved a whirlwind journey through the past — through jackal-infested mangroves, bustling Cotton Green, open-air parties on the Causeway. And, of course, my childhood with all its Only-In-Colaba treats: Dahi vada at Lakshmi Vilas, baida roti at Bade Miyan; Scotch broth at Paradise; strawberry ice cream at Aga Bros and peach Melba at Kwality.

And, at the very top of the nostalgia pops: Watermelon juice at Edward the VIII.

Take it from me. The moment you get into a round of “Do you remember?” with a Colabakar of a certain vintage, this is the first memory that bobs to the surface. For we all remember the narrow eatery that was more like a train compartment than a restaurant — not so much for its delicious chicken sandwiches but for its watermelon juice. The perfect pick-me-up after a dire expedition in the unglamorous mop-and-moong-dal reaches of Colaba. And the ultimate first-day-of-the-summer-holidays treat.

Like the blazing scarlet gulmohars and the angry red patches of prickly heat, that cool glass covered with condensation and filled with a rosy liquid was the harbinger of summer. And although it feels sacrilegious — even unpatriotic — to say this, for me it was not the royal mango but the plebeian watermelon that gave the summer holidays their distinct flavour.

Which is why I always felt glum that watermelons were difficult to come by. In an age that was high on charm but low on convenience, you couldn’t merely click on a computer button and be sipping watermelon juice a day later. You couldn’t even march to the fruit stalls in Colaba Market and take your pick. All you could do was wait for the slow-moving bullock carts, heaped with dark green orbs, which wended their way through the roads and gullies whenever the mood hit them. In short, you couldn’t choose your watermelon, your watermelon chose you.

The minute a watermelon cart was sighted in our lane, the hordes descended: Mothers eager for bargains; children seeking entertainment; household employees with a reputation for knowing their fruit. The children capered around while the mothers and the domestic staff got briskly down to business — heaving the green globes in their hands, shaking them, tapping them, glaring suspiciously at them. ”How do you know it will be red inside?” they scowled at the vendor. “Last time the one you sold me was almost white.”

Then came the vendor’s turn to play his part — gesticulating, guaranteeing, apologising for past transgressions, cutting a sliver to prove that this was a watermelon like no other. Money would exchange hands and everybody would look pleased, with two exceptions. The bullocks and my mother. The bullocks because they were exhausted and my mother because the fruit that she was lugging home was three times the size of our fridge.

Today, we’ve become so used to the oval, nuclear-family-sized watermelons that we tend to forget the gigantic specimens of yesteryear.

I’m both relieved and sad that the fruit has changed. But then, if horticulturists and historians are to be believed, change is part of the story of the watermelon. Even though there’s a lot of confusion about its exact ancestors, because 18th-century taxonomists made a huge mess while classifying melons. (And even the scientific name Citrullus lanatus lanatus means hairy — seems misguided.)

Still, it’s widely accepted that the watermelon started out in the wild as a hard, green, bitter fruit in Africa, where it was also cultivated. Its seeds popped up in 5,000-year-old settlements in Libya, and its images can be spotted in 4,000-year-old Egyptian tombs. But given that the watermelon was still in its bitter, unappetising phase, why did anybody bother to cultivate and trade it? It’s largely because the watermelon served as a store for water during the dry, hot months of summer; and a sort of water-canteen during sea voyages.

Gradually, the watermelon made its way to other lands — even as selective cultivation over centuries changed its shape, colour and flavour. Finally, it resulted in the fruit that Mark Twain described as the food of the angels. And that chefs have now discovered with glee.

No longer is a watermelon only about juice and chunks. Or about a simple ice-cream or basic salad with feta and mint. Today it sits atop vegetarian poke bowls instead of fish, it’s tossed into shrimp salads and sliced to make the base of a fruit pizza topped with cream cheese and berries. It’s cut into cupcake-shaped wodges and topped with whipped cream and chocolate flakes. It’s routinely used instead of tomato in salsa and guacamole. It’s also wrapped with a strip of bacon as a starter and coated with honey-lime-chilli sauce and grilled.

If only we’d thought of these options as children, my mother would have been more welcoming of the jumbo fruit. Perhaps she would even have let us buy two!

Spicy watermelon soda
  • Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 fat green chillies, diced and the seeds largely removed
  • One diced watermelon
  • Juice from 1 lime
  • 500 ml soda
  • Method
  • Mix sugar and water and cook over medium heat till the sugar dissolves. Then add the chillies and let them soak for at least an hour. Remove the chilli pieces.
  • Purée the watermelon in a blender. Add the lime juice and about 1/4 cup of the sugar-chilli syrup. Taste and decide whether you want to add more. Then pour into glasses, dilute with soda and enjoy.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

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Published on November 20, 2019
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