Colaba

By Shabnam Minwalla

Click here to buy Colaba If we were to divide neighbourhoods into the haves and the have-nots, Colaba would sit squarely in the second group.
This narrow strip of land—an arthritic index finger crooked in a grey sea—is neither known for its pulchritude nor its places of historical significance. Here are no forts with medieval pasts, tales of tragic queens or echoes of bloody battles. No tallest buildings or longest bridges. Not even a liberal sprinkling of Bollywood stars or shimmering socialites.
Stare out of the tinted window from one of those Bombay Safari buses, and you will see monsoon-battered buildings, flapping cotton skirts, sparkly-shoe stalls, Blue Heaven Beauty Parlour, Lucky Collection, Ohmazing Fast Food, fruit carts, Teenage, Hampton Court, Sunita, Connaught Mansion, Doggy Articles—which makes it even more difficult to crack the mystery of Colaba’s quirky charm and cosy-but-cool reputation.
What Colaba doesn’t have is easy to list. What Colaba does have is not. Its qualities are concealed by the voluminous skirts and peeling paint. As is the precise alchemy that transforms this muddle of crumbling buildings and double-parked cars into a land of extraordinary characters and ideas; that allows this paltry protrusion of rocks and cement to occupy such a wide expanse of the imagination.
Of course, Colaba has something that the rest of Bombay lacks—a clutch of must-see landmarks and Tripadvisor-worthy attractions. So, no matter whether they land at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport or hop off a train at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, visitors to the city are likely to make their way southwards. After all, they can hardly come to Mumbai and ignore the Gateway of India. And if they’re braving the traffic anyway, they might as well wander beneath the opalescent dome of the museum, (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) and stroll past its jewel-bright miniatures and stuffed flamingoes, frozen in the middle of ballet routines. After which they usually follow the advice of the guidebooks and drop in at Leopold Café for a plate of salt-and-pepper prawns and a gawp at the bullet-riddled façade of this venerable eatery.
These postcard personalities are, however, only a small part of Colaba’s appeal. Much greater is the role played by a cast of intangibles. There are the warm, fuzzy feelings that are tough to name. And the abstract nouns that are tricky to spell (words like cosmopolitanism, tolerance and multiculturalism that we meet all the time but that suddenly acquire heft and meaning in this corner of the city). And the slow realization that this old-fashioned neighbourhood—a babel of tongues, a potpourri of aromas and stinks—is central to the soul of Mumbai.
This was something we grasped on that acrid, blood-splattered night of November 2008, when flames licked the indigo sky and bullets zigzagged Colaba Causeway (some of which are still lodged in the walls of Leopold Café). Newspapers around the world declared that terrorists had struck at the ‘heart of Mumbai’. For once, they didn’t exaggerate.
Subsequent reports made it clear that the killers wanted to destroy more than lives and landmarks, they wanted to shatter the spirit of the city. That they had sought the symbolic heart of Mumbai with surgical precision—and homed in on Colaba.
It’s ironic, then, that Colaba has moved further and further away from the geographical centre of Mumbai. As the city leaps across creeks and bridges, gobbling mangroves, saltpans and fishing villages and throwing up clusters of towers and malls, it sometimes feels as if Colaba has come a full circle. That it has returned to what it was for so many centuries—an inconvenient outpost. The only difference is that the malodorous creek has been replaced by traffic-choked streets. And the snakes and jackals by predators of a different kind.
Even if the Colaba pin codes have lost their cachet, the whimsy and magic linger. A couple of years ago, I found myself sharing a taxi in Srinagar with an actor-turned-economist who described his not-entirely-happy years in Mumbai. ‘What would you know, anyway,’ he snorted. ‘You live in the best corner of India. Colaba is…Colaba.’
I’m not sure if Colaba is the best corner of India. I’m not sure it even matters. What is incontrovertible is that Colaba is Colaba—a distinct dot on the map of India, with a distinct story that must be told.

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