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Mumbai's two worlds

Worli's Koliwada neighbourhood remains an island of history and folklore amid Mumbai's urban sprawl


Geetanjali Krishna 

Kids play in Worli's Koliwada area, with the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in the background
Kids play in Worli's Koliwada area, with the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in the background

The setting sun paints scurrying clouds in myriad colours on Worli Seaface. Its rays warm the black rocks exposed by the ebbing tide, and birds feast upon the spoils of the sea that have washed ashore. Nike-clad corporate types weave past the multitudes who have come here to enjoy the sea views. Across the road, facing the sea is bustling Mumbai, the city that, like New York, never sleeps — or so it appears to a diehard Dilliwala like me. A stranger to the city, I walk on, unaware that the sanitised boulevard that urban Mumbaikars call home is getting left behind. A fisherwoman calls out from a colourful lane, and I decide to change my course. It is as if the moment I turn in, the trappings of the city start falling off, one by one.

Temple bells ring out clamourously. Adding to the chaos are the greengrocers and fisherwomen sitting on either side of the road with baskets of produce to sell. The feel is more of a village market than a lane off some of Mumbai’s hottest real estate. Then, it gets even better. I come to a bridge over a stinky nullah that leads to the sea. Beneath me bob colourful fishing boats. I look back and cannot see the ubiquitous skyscrapers of Mumbai anymore. “Where on earth am I?” I wonder aloud. The fisherwomen giggle: “This is the Koliwada, home of the Kolis, the original inhabitants of Mumbai. In fact, the name Mumbai is derived from goddess Mumba, our patron deity.”

I learn that as far back, some say, as 1100, when Mumbai was called Heptanesia, it was a collection of seven sleepy islands. Worli, inhabited by Kolis, traditional Marathi fisherfolk, was one of them. With urbanisation and economic growth, the islands were connected by reclaimed land. Yet the Worli Koliwada remains an island of history and folklore amidst Mumbai’s urban sprawl.

The fisherwomen ask: “Have you come to see our fort? People come looking for it when they spot it from the Sea Link.” So off I go through the maze of blue, green and white-painted houses in search of the fort. Perfect for ambling, the lanes of the Koliwada provide intimate glimpses into the lives of the Koli people. The maze-like village is surprisingly easy to navigate as the sea and the Sea Link are never quite out of sight. Scores of silvery fish drying on a tiny beach, surrounded by low-roofed houses, afford splendid yet slightly schizophrenic views of the Sea Link. I pause a while, wondering how this village has managed to preserve its character amidst all this glitzy urbanisation.

Fisherfolk at Worlis' Koliwada area

Fisherfolk at Worlis' Koliwada area

Finally, I reach a rubbish dump, the first real sign of dirt in the Koliwada. Beyond it, the Sea Link glimmers in the dusky twilight. Between the dump and the sea is the curious little fort, built by the British in 1675. I climb a couple of steps to its tunnel-like entrance and step into a courtyard. Almost half of it has been encroached upon, and it functions, oddly enough, as a gym. On the ramparts, I realise this fort isn’t as much a majestic battlement as it is a lookout point with fabulous views of Mahim Creek and Worli Seaface. The fishermen’s boats have come in from the sea, and the landlubber in me is strangely comforted by watching them all being safely anchored ashore.

The sun sets and the city comes alive with lights. Cars rush purposefully to their destinations on the Sea Link, while, just across the bay, time seems to have stood still in the Koliwada.

The unmistakable aromas of dinners cooking in multiple kitchens waft up to the ramparts. Teenagers play outside a pretty, blue-painted house facing the fort and I wonder how anyone could think of calling this historic, lively place a slum. But that’s exactly what happened last year.

The Maharashtra government’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority tried to declare a part of the Worli Koliwada a slum in October 2015. This move could unlock prime real estate with a development potential of more than Rs 2,000 crore. Amid widespread protests, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority scrapped the plan months later. The threat to the Koliwada’s existence has been averted, but it hasn’t gone away.

Greengrocers with baskets of long, snake-like drumsticks call out cheerfully as I make my way out, happy to have strayed into a village in the heart of Mumbai. As I emerge out of the Koliwada, the “urban” buildings in front of me seem drab and colourless. A rubbish dump festers on the broken road. Indeed, I muse, if every dense cluster of low-rise homes in Mumbai were to be called slums in the same way that the Slum Rehabilitation Authority had attempted to do with the Koliwada, most of urban India, and not just the Maximum City, would qualify.

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First Published: Sat, March 19 2016. 00:00 IST