A Creek Too Far

A Creek Too Far
The reportedly haunted Schoen House in Colaba Photo Credit: Dinesh Parab

A riveting glimpse into Colaba’s eerie but always interesting past

Shabnam Minwalla
February 17 , 2021
12 Min Read

I decided that my first stop therefore, should be a British cemetery marked on a map in my recent guidebook. I took a taxi down to Moscow Lane, at the very tip of Colaba Causeway and began walking past cannons and Connaught Barracks, past an “officer’s mess” and “Single Officers Accommodation” bungalows—all the way down to an abandoned lighthouse. Not seeing any sign of English tombstones, I turned into the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism and asked a passing geomagnetist where they might be. He asked a passing non-geomagnetist, found out that the cemetery was now a high school, and said rather gallantly, “Good bye my dear” as I trooped off. Behind us, in the back of the old army school, a man was standing solemnly in khaki shorts, in the middle of a huge patch of empty grass, practicing “Reveille” on his trumpet.’ 

—Pico Iyer in his essay, ‘Bombay: Hobson-Jobson on the Streets’ 


Vintage building façades in Colaba

It was in the early 19th century that the antelopes and jackals of Colaba were seriously disturbed for the first time. The Colaba Cemetery was built in 1816 and served as a final resting place for soldiers and victims of shipwrecks. Then the Colaba Observatory and Lunatic Asylum were built in 1826—close to where the US Club stands today.

The Colaba Lunatic Asylum was a doleful place where patients were beaten, compelled to sleep on sacks of straw and forced to have cold showers. ‘The tiny island of Colaba, with its ideal view of the Bombay harbour and the surrounding countryside was an island of paradoxes,’ wrote Sarah Ann Pinto in Lunatic Asylums in Colonial Bombay: Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds. ‘A noisy village covered a part of the island, while two burial grounds (English and Muslim) covered the other. On its western shore lay the Colaba Lunatic Asylum...The pleasant views from the Colaba Lunatic Asylum, however, contrasted with the sounds emanating from it. John Murray, in his account of Bombay city, observed that the English cemetery, “though tolerably well kept, was rendered dismal by having a lunatic asylum adjoining it...and walking about to examine the tombs the cries of the unhappy inmates are constantly heard”.’ 

The Church of St John the Evangelist, better known as the Afghan Church

Those tombs of shipwreck victims and that lunatic asylum now exist only in brittle, yellowing books. But whenever I visit US Club, I stand at lands’ end and look towards Prong’s Lighthouse, listening for the cries of the terrified souls on board The Castlereagh on that stormy, ill-fated night. And of the equally unfortunate souls incarcerated in that unhappy asylum. On certain wind-whipped days, I’m almost convinced that I hear them. And all the jesting golfers and swinging children, sunshine and sea-light cannot obliterate the sudden darkness. 

Even amidst death and madness, however, the light of religion was determined to shine upon Colaba. Christianity had begun to assert itself in Bombay, and as Archdeacon Nix-Seaman remarked, Colaba was ‘stirred by the same awakening’. First came the little Catholic chapel near Colaba Post Office that was later used by the Portuguese Government to house officials on their way to Goa. Then came the RC Military Church, best known because it is the southernmost bus terminus in the city. 

Not to be outdone, the Church of England began to fuss about the spiritual well-being of its flock in remote Colaba. The beleaguered authorities agreed to contribute Rs 28,151—not a paisa more, not a paisa less!—towards a Protestant chapel, but this was considered inadequate. 

The spectacular Colaba sea face

After much haggling, a temporary church with a thatched roof and without chairs was cobbled together—scandalising the Bishop of Calcutta who, in 1835, refused to ‘consecrate so rickety a building’. Eventually it was replaced by the serene Afghan Church in 1858. 

Despite the spurt of activity, the Lunatic Asylum and Bring-Your-Own- Chairs church were not exactly a draw for house hunters. Especially after Colaba’s reputation as the healthiest spot in Bombay was overturned by a deadly malaria epidemic that had the authorities grousing that it was the ‘most unhealthy station for European troops’. 

The 1826 census found that the population of Colaba was a measly 2,578—less than 2 per cent of the 1.3 lakh inhabitants of Bombay. To make matters worse, Colaba was depicted as a veritable den of menacing criminals, dangerous animals and single-bite-and-it’s-all-over snakes. Jackals slunk around the Colaba Observatory and boldly wandered into bedrooms. Snakes were regular worshippers at the Afghan Church, coiling around its pillars and hiding in the organ. While Mr Forjett—possibly the same gentleman who gave his name to Forjett Street—even shot a tiger near Backbay. 

In 1828, a huge shark was spotted near some bathers. Two decades later, a finback whale was driven to shore. The Gentlemen’s Gazette reported that, ‘All along the road from the Fort to Colaba was a perfect fair. The stench was felt from the town side of the causeway from where it lay at the back of Colaba church. Jawbones taken away.’ 

The historic Sassoon Dock, now a large fish market

More troublesome than the snakes and smelly sharks even, were the ‘Mahratta gallivants’. In Glimpses of Bombay and Western India, James Douglas—who was once the sheriff of Bombay—recounted that ‘On October 14, 1798, a stranger happening to be in the Colaba Light House, observed that a peaceable dinghy was being attacked off the harbor by five Mahratta gallivants, throwing in shots, burning her to the water’s edge, when she blew up leaving her crew the choice of the flames or a watery grave.’ 

So pesky was the Bandar Gang that prowled around the Backbay, that a floating police force was established to tackle it. Meanwhile, the terrestrial police force had its own set of villains and woes. In 1827, for example, one Mrs Sparrow was returning from church in her carriage when she was attacked by a mounted Armenian who shot away her coachman’s ear. ‘About that time, a gentleman was deterred from buying the “Wilderness” because it was so remote, and exposed to the attack of robbers,’ remarked Douglas. Armenian who shot away her coachman’s ear. ‘About that time, a gentleman was deterred from buying the “Wilderness” because it was so remote, and exposed to the attack of robbers,’ remarked Douglas. 

The gothic revival-style Cathedral of the Holy Name

Clearly, Colaba—with its mosquito-riddled mangroves and criminal-infested bays—was an undesirable spot in the early 1800s. So, it’s startling to read Henry Moses’ enthusiastic description in 1848, just twenty-one years after Mrs Sparrow’s poor coachman lost his ear. 

‘It is considered a healthy place of residence, being freely exposed to the sea breeze; and its beauty is greatly enhanced by the charming view which it commands on all sides,’ wrote Moses in Sketches of India: With Notes on the Seasons, Scenery and Society of Bombay. ‘In consequence of these advantages it is crowded with English, Parsee and Portuguese bungalows; which are all detached residences, surrounded by luxuriant gardens, redolent of sweet flowers...The boundary hedges are enriched by a charming creeping plant which bears a scarlet and sometimes a rich mazarine- blue pea flower. When in full bloom the plants add greatly to the beauty of the gardens.’ 

What happened in two short decades that so completely transformed Colaba? The answer is simple: Colaba Causeway. 

The dictionary defines a ‘causeway’ as ‘a raised road or track across low or wet ground’. Colaba Causeway was exactly that. The elevated road had been proposed for decades, but it was only in 1838 that Old Woman’s Island and Colaba Island were connected to Bombay by a simple strip of stone, mud and timber. The impact was immediate and the price of land in Colaba shot up by 500 per cent in a single decade.
Till 1838, travelling from Bombay to Colaba had involved crossing a smelly creek. At low tide this could be traversed ‘dry shod’. But at high tide the journey could only be made by boat. This was why Mrs Postans, that most observant of travel writers, dismissed the southernmost island as a pretty but dull spot, favoured only by those who preferred ‘quiet to the gaieties of the sister land’. 

A beautiful colonial arch in Colaba

‘Many have been the luckless wights who, returning from a festive meeting, heedless of Neptune’s certain visit, have found the curling waves beating over their homeward path, compelling them again to seek the banquet hall deserted and beg a shakedown at the quarters of their host,’ she wrote. 

‘The more impetuous have sought to swim their horses across the dangerous pass and lives have been lost in the attempt. This inconvenience so severely felt led at length to the erection of a solid and handsome vallade with a footpath protecting the elevated and level road.’ 

Reading Mrs Postan’s words, a piece of a historic puzzle falls into place. 

Whenever you are next near Regal Cinema, take a good look at the Office of the Director General of Police which, when it was first built, was the Royal Alfred Sailor’s Home. The pediment of this chunky building features Neptune brandishing a trident and frolicking with sea horses. Suddenly his presence at this busy, traffic- clogged intersection makes sense. Not so long ago, all this was a creek. The God of the Sea is merely keeping tabs on his former territory. 

Just as Regal Cinema is merely continuing the tradition of drama that this spot witnessed. Take, for example, the tale that Henry Moses relates in the purplest prose: 

“A melancholy and romantic story is still told of Colabah...A young girl of the Mohammedan faith was on her road to pay a visit to some natives who resided in Colabah; and having arrived in her bullock gharry just when the tide was rising in this place, she thought, that as the water was not deep, she might cross without danger, and ordered her syce or driver to order the timid bullocks across the stream. He did so; but before they had proceeded many yards, the animals became restive and obstinate and refused to go one way or another; the wheels became entangled among the rough stones; the gharry was upset and the poor girl being thrown into the rapidly increasing current, was swept out into Back Bay. This scene was witnessed most fortunately from the Colabah side, by an Englishman, who had upto this moment been a passive spectator. In an instant his coat was off and he was breasting the foaming tide after the drowning girl; whom, at the risk of his own life he succeeded in bringing safely to the shore. He accompanied her home to Bombay where he received the thanks and benedictions of her parents. Strange to say, though not more strange than true, an attachment sprang up between the young Englishman and the Hindoo lady whom he had rescued from a watery grave; and many were said to be the private meetings that took place between the two lovers—unknown, of course, to the unsuspecting parents. At length the Englishman, though he knew that his religion would be an impenetrable objection, determined to solicit from her father, the Mohammedan girl’s hand in marriage. He did so, and the haughty man of high caste at once indignantly spurned his proposals. He acknowledged that he loved the fair Englishman but never could be one of his people; so he bade him depart in peace. The sequel was very sad. The Hindoo maiden disappeared. Rumours were current, in Bombay, that she had been privately murdered by her enraged and relatives...” 

The Convent of Jesus & Mary

The Englishman died of a broken heart. The family left the island. 

What happened to the bullocks and the syce—stuck in the foaming, rising waters— is not known. Nor is it known whether the unfortunate maiden was ‘Mohammedan’ or ‘Hindoo’. But this story is an apt precursor to the Bollywood blockbusters that would one day be screened at that very spot—on the big screen of Regal Cinema. (Colaba Lesson for Life—Through much of the 19th century, there were strict restrictions on the use of iron and electricity in Colaba. This was to ensure that the magnetic readings of the Colaba Observatory were not vitiated. In fact, electric trams were given permission to run only after a replacement observatory was built in Alibag and tested in 1907. Alibag was deprived of electricity all the way till 1954. It’s unnerving to think of what Colaba might have been today if the Observatory had not been moved.) 

Extracted from COLABA: THE DIAMOND AT THE TIP OF MUMBAI (Speaking Tiger, Rs 499) 

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