In 1903, a Mr Jacob moved to Waterloo Mansion in Colaba, the southern tip of Bombay. Residents had little information about him and observing his eccentricities, stories abounded. He could have been Indian, Turkish, Armenian, Russian, or some other nationality. Many spoke of how he could walk on water, others detailed his magical powers, and several said he ran a network of spies which extended up to the Hindu Kush. Though a mystery, he was compelling enough to serve as Rudyard Kipling’s muse for Lugan Sahib’s School for Spies in the novel Kim.

In Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai, author Shabnam Minwalla quotes John Zubrzycki from The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy who details how Mr Jacob was actually the owner of a curiosity shop in Shimla. He’d heard of a magnificent diamond called the Imperial being mined in South Africa, valued at Rs 21 lakhs. He soon devised a plan to sell it to Mahboob Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad. After taking Rs 23 lakh from the Nizam, so the diamond could be imported, it was presented to the Nizam on a silver tray covered with red velvet. He, however, took one look at it and declared ‘na pasand’ [I don’t like it], and the entire deal collapsed. Mr Jacob was embroiled in a messy court case that destroyed him. He then reached Colaba and continued to sell curiosities to tourists. “I think he’s just the perfect Colabaite, I love him,” says Minwalla.

One among the many Colaba characters who have intriguing stories around them, Mr Jacob stands in league with the Mad Walker who everyone always saw walking and some believed was a ghost but turned out to be a normal family man, the ladies who kept feeding cats all the time, the residents who walked around with blonde hair so people assumed they were tourists, literal starving artists, and many more. “It’s a very quirky area because a lot of eccentrics somehow washed up here,” she says.

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L: A newspaper cutting of the Grand Bazaar on Colaba Causeway. R: An old postcard featuring Majestic Hotel and the Waterloo Mansion

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An archival photo of Cusrow Baug

These stories signal the easy acceptance of people whose behaviour was out of the ordinary, and are the result of a larger multiculturalism embedded in the very fabric of the area, making it a uniquely diverse, accepting, and non-judgmental part of the city. Colaba’s diversity is evident in its population, ranging from its original inhabitants, the Kolis and the fishing community, to enthusiasts frequenting art galleries and libraries, and from shoppers at Colaba Causeway to the Indian Navy at Navy Nagar, and more.

The foundation for this diversity is not just an acceptance of different types of people, but the easy mingling of different communities. There’s the Parsis in Cusrow Baug, the Catholic community signalled by the Wodehouse Church, the Muslims dominating the old villages at the tip, and more. As a specific example, Minwalla recalls the building she grew up in. There was a Catholic family on the ground floor, a Maharashtrian family on the first, a Kerala Christian family on the second, the third floor was occupied by Sindhis, on the fourth was her family which is half-Bori half-Parsi.

In Colaba, there’s no one type of person or correct way of being, as one would find in areas dominated by one community. “For me that tolerance and acceptance is the single most important trait, and this area teaches you that it’s natural.” Minwalla finds the roots of this diversity partly in the fact that it’s a fairly new neighbourhood, with the story really starting only about 200 years ago. People began settling around the 1850s “when the big reclamation happened” and buildings started sprouting that offered middle-class housing. Anyone who wanted fairly nice accommodation and didn’t mind moving away from a community-centric place found themselves in Colaba, becoming the type of people that finally dominate the area. “There was a very accepting vibe. You don’t want to be stuck in a particularly structured community space.” Everyone brought their own culture, beliefs, and temples. “It was just something that was. Nobody questioned it.”

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A vintage postcard depicting the Colaba reclamation

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L: John Fryer's map of Bombay, 1672. R: An 1843 map of Bombay and Colaba.

While the idea of researching the history of such a lively area seems exciting, Minwalla was disappointed to find only a few helpful sources. “It [Colaba] was always a footnote, till a certain point. It was there, but there wasn’t a huge amount of information.” Several sources presented a rather white-centric history of Colaba. “You will hear more about the tailorbirds who are building nests or the purple flowers blooming in some garden than you will about the people who live there.” Fictional leads weren’t much better since “the viewpoint is very prejudiced, very colonialist.” An exciting treasure she stumbled upon were penny romances set in British Bombay that offered her a vivid idea of what the place once looked like, but those were also “irritating because they [peddle the] stereotypes of the swarthy Indian and the cunning merchant.” Along with the limited information she could find, Minwalla spoke to her family and a lot of Colaba residents as part of her primary research, piecing together the history in fragments until she had a clear picture.

It’s while working on this history that Minwalla realised the range of experiences Colaba’s trees are witness to. The banyan tree outside her house must have been part of an English garden and later a witness to the Colaba Station being built. “To me, it was a huge revelation that my entire world was once a cotton green where huge fires raged and where a large chunk of the wealth of the nation entered,” she says about where she lived. And the banyan, “an important part of my world,” stands witness to all of it. Trees are an important part of the area, adding beauty and stability, enhancing the character of each lane and nook in Colaba. And like with its human residents, Colaba also has stories about its eccentric trees, like the mango tree that sprouts twice a year, in May and at Christmastime. When Minwalla went hunting for the tree, every time she asked about it, people would point at a random tree and claim that that was it. “So if it still stands nobody notices it anymore.”

Besides seeing the locale in a different light and through multiple perspectives, learning her area’s history has fundamentally strengthened her relationship with Colaba. “When I walk now, I literally feel ghosts of the past chattering in my ears.”

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Old Colaba Station, 1896-1930

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An archival photo of Cotton Green, Bombay

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Colaba Causeway construction using timber, viewed from Colaba island, 1826. Lithograph by Jose M Gonsalves (1826-1842)

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Departure of the last British troops from the gateway, in 1948

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Sassoon Dock

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The cotton market, at Bombay, an engraving from 'India and it's Native Princes' by Louis Rousselet, 1878

Colaba: The Diamond at the Tip of Mumbai by Shabnam Minwalla is published by Speaking Tiger Books

— Banner image: Schoen House, which features on the list of haunted houses in Mumbai. All photos courtesy Shabnam Minwalla