‘There was a time when Greater Bombay had 276 fishing villages, but because of industrialization, the creeks got spoilt and the hamlets were lost. From original inhabitants, the Kolis of Mumbai have become invisible inhabitants. The Kolis always had their eyes on the sea. They never looked behind them, which is why they never owned property and have been pushed to the edges. ‘The Kolis of Colaba originally came from Alibag and the surrounding villages. There was always movement between the mainland and the islands, because the Kolis traditionally fished in the waters that lie in between. The Kolis of the mainland have always believed that Colaba is an extension of their world.’
—Ganesh Nakhawa is a seventh-generation fisherman. He is from Karanja, just across the water from Colaba. His family fished in the creek and their boats regularly crossed it—often bearing pregnant women on their way to a south Mumbai nursing home to deliver their babies. Nakhawa is an activist and has been working towards ‘getting respect back for the Kolis’.
What do we know about the history of Colaba?
Almost nothing before the 1600s. And even then, what is available is fragmentary and random. Newspaper reports about jackals sighted and churches built. Travellers’ accounts with as much substance as a stray blog post on the Net. The histories of colonialists by colonialists—arbitrary spotlights that fall on the European tea parties and tailorbirds in Colaba, but leave its Indian denizens in impenetrable darkness.
In his 1932 book, Bombay, Samuel Sheppard mentioned a writer who introduced his work with the warning that the early history of Bombay is ‘sunk deep in the Night of Time’. ‘When historians make a beginning like that,’ Sheppard quipped, ‘one may be sure that there is indeed not much to be said.’
It’s inevitable, then, that the writer attempting a history of Colaba will have to blunder about in the dark, hoping to stumble upon a skimpy fact, a lucky guess—even more than the writer seeking knowledge about the other, better- documented parts of Mumbai. Still, there are a few things we do know.
We do know that this ‘thin prolongation called Colaba’ is made up of fine-grained diorite, composed of feldspar and hornblende. That over time, mangroves and palm trees must have appeared on this rocky strip. That gauzy- winged dragonflies must have dropped in during their multi-generational migration from India to Africa. And that Kolis from the mainland, sufi saints from Baghdad, and sailors on their way to more important ports, somehow washed up here.
Historians believe that it is from the Kolis that Colaba got its name. ‘Successive waves of Koli settlers seem to have invaded and occupied the different islands of these archipelagos, and in spite of subsequent occupation by many other settlers in later days, the Kolis have survived in these islands till today,’ stated Edwardes in the Gazetteer. ‘In what localities they precisely built their scattered groups of huts is difficult to say. That they undoubtedly existed in two of the southernmost islands is apparent from the fact they acquired the name of Kolabhat or Kolaba, the Koli estates. Immigrants of a later period gave the smaller of the two islands the name, the island of Al Omanis or deep sea fishermen.’
Although the explanation for Colaba is widely accepted, the more picturesque and awful name of Old Woman’s Island threw up a colourful multiple choice. ‘A rudely carved red-smeared goddess, a venerable Portuguese dame, a wrinkled fate-reading fisherwoman, an antique mother of harlots, have all been invented to explain the name Old Woman’s Island,’ said Sheppard in Bombay Place Names and Street Names. Sadly, these have been discarded in favour of the more humdrum etymology: Old Woman’s Island seems to be a typical British misinterpretation of Al Omanis, the Persian phrase used to describe those who fished in deep waters and ventured further in the direction of Oman.
While the denizens of Colaba and Old Woman’s Islands were casting their nets, empires were rising and falling around them. The Mauryas, the Shilharas, the Sultan of Gujarat, all ruled over the northern stretch of the Konkan— and by default, over this cluster of insignificant islands. It is unlikely, however, that the panjandrums spent much time pondering over this sleepy outpost. The action was clearly elsewhere.
Colaba and its sister islands sat alongside a buzzing waterway. Perhaps they looked on forlornly while ships from distant lands sailed between the more happening ports—from Babylon to Sopara; from Mesopotamia to Chaul. In The Port of Bombay, W.R.S. Sharpe wrote that the islands of Bombay, ‘populated only by a handful of primitive fisherfolk and husbandsmen, slumbered undisturbed on the bosom of the Indian Ocean while the fame of neighbouring ports—Broach, Sopara, Chaul, Janjira, Kalyan, Thana—spread throughout the East and attracted merchant-adventurers from near and far’.
The tables, though, were soon to be turned. Today, Nalasopara is a drab residential suburb on the western line. Chaul is a two-teashop town along the verdant stretch between Alibag and Kamshet. And those neglected, slumbering islands are Megapolis Mumbai.
Excerpted with permission from Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai, Speaking Tiger Books. You can buy it here.
Cover Image: Colaba Causeway construction, view from Colaba island, 1826
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books