03 July 2021

Colaba The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai by Shabnam Minwalla

Shabnam's vale of serendipity

It was an online talk in which the author presented some of its intriguing photos, experiences and learnings, that led me to this book. Her discoveries, couched in the easy wit and bubbling energy so compelling in the talk, were just as much of a pleasure to read. 

“What Colaba doesn’t have is easy to list. What Colaba does have, is not. Its qualities are concealed by voluminous skirts and peeling paint,” writes Shabnam Minwalla, and proceeds to treat the reader to a comprehensive expose, weaving personal experiences from a range of people interviewed, with widely diverse secondary sources.

The latter include facts and administrative data from Gazetteers; iffy maps and exaggerations from travellers’ accounts; colourful descriptions from novels; even gravestone epitaphs (“doleful postcards from the past”). The one I enjoyed most was an August 2002 Busybee column which lampoons the Arabs who for decades holidayed in Colaba to revel in rain, a novelty rendered anachronistic by global weirding. The exuberant snippets provide information, they create atmosphere, and their depth and diversity well represents contemporary Colaba, a place whose character transforms from corner to corner, sometimes quite dramatically.

As for the people interviewed, most are long-term residents and colourful neighbourhood characters. The best stories come from the author herself, memories of Colaba haunted houses, lingerie shops that date back to before the word lingerie arrived in Colaba, glimpses of a prim schoolgirl, one of a horde, who transformed into hoydens tumbling down the staircase the instant the evening bell rang, only to be harangued on the way home by the fierce battleaxes of Cusrow Baug. Biographical details are introduced not in a self-congratulatory or coy manner or even in bland lists, but in a festive jumping-about that interweaves energetic adjectives, provides vivid pictures, and sometimes has you laughing aloud. The creative happiness is impressively balanced with deep, fault-finding, nit-picking research into this unabashedly grimy district of India’s financial capital.

Colaba has no medieval fortresses, tales of tragic queens, or echoes of bloody battles. Just two hundred years ago it was a jackal-infested island – fine-grained diorite, composed of feldspar and hornblende! – separated from the emerging metropolis by a temperamental creek, ghastly shipwrecks, and a cemetery greedy for colonizers. When a causeway was built, the inconvenient outpost transformed into a place of buzzing industry, and the malodorous creek with mosquito-riddled mangroves and criminal-infested bays was eventually replaced by traffic-choked streets lined with art galleries, cakeshops, and more. Who doesn’t love Colaba for its street shopping – those cool, billowing cottons, coolly-replicated designerware? Amidst the thronging crowds, familiar faces pop up and cheery “Hieee!”s ring out in Shabnam’s vale of serendipity, the place of which one well-known resident (read the book to know who) is reported as having instructed, “When you go shopping down Colaba, Ma, don’t forget to give everybody my love.”

Besides the extraordinary energy of the haphazard streets of the southernmost tip of a city rapidly sprinting northwards, this book also documents nooks and structures: Colaba Lunatic Asylum, Royal Alfred Sailor’s Home, the garden of a Mrs Hough and its magical mango tree which fruited twice a year; the reincarnation of Buckley Court from a haunted Indo-Saracenic mansion to a guesthouse packed with fascinating residents to a ‘luxury skyscraper’; dragonflies fluttering by enroute to East Africa. And the fascinating stone which clarifies the boundaries between Colaba and Old Woman’s Island of yore – inside a residence encroaching into, of all places, the trendy and laidback Colaba Police Station.

When I called Shabnam Minwalla to tell her how much I had enjoyed her book, we naturally compared notes and, though we’ve never met, and even claim different territories of Colaba, found much to celebrate.

Colaba is still somewhat in the nature of ‘native place’ to me, the venue of childhood winter vacations escaped to from bone-chilling frost, sultry evenings strolling on the Cuffe Parade promenade, playing in the piles of rubble waiting to take their place in swanky buildings, snacking on peanuts and sometimes even illicit bhel (because typhoid). “Which building?” Shabnam asked and when I replied, she knew exactly which one, and together we moaned the decaying grandeur and eventual demise of the townhouse with its authentic stained-glass windows, Minton tiles, sagging wooden staircase and unpolished banisters, residence of former presidency magistrate KJ Bijlani for nearly fifty years.

Every chapter of this book ends with a pithy ‘Colaba lesson for life’, and the one I’ve picked to pass on here, one that sears me with regret, instructs: “Quick! Talk to your grandparents before it’s too late.” 

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