mid-day 38th anniversary: Two sides of the SoBo coin

Jun 23, 2017, 13:16 IST | Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

While Malabar Hill and Napean Sea Road have suffered suffocating changes, Colaba hasn't because it attracts the full range of humanity

mid-day 38th anniversary

Garden Road at Apollo Bunder. Pics/Bipin Kokate
Garden Road at Apollo Bunder. Pics/Bipin Kokate

The distance taken to travel between south Bombay and SoBo is about two decades. When I first moved to Napean Sea Road, in 1989, identifying yourself as living in south Bombay definitely had much less snoot value than it has today.

There is certain big-time pomposity invested in uttering that now, accompanied by a small sniff/curl of your nose, by the inheritors of south Bombay, whose tendency towards being obnoxiously haughty/self important has increased in double direct proportion to the district's real estate prices.

Never mind that having a few square feet of property in south Bombay was never their personal achievement, but of some hard-working, thrifty grandpa of theirs who invested in these neighbourhoods.

The bustling streets of Colaba have changed less partially due to the fact that they attract the entire range of humanity
The bustling streets of Colaba have changed less partially due to the fact that they attract the entire range of humanity

Thus SoBo is a much more apt construction to describe the city's hoity-toity, who inhabit Bombay from the tip of Colaba to Haji Ali (excuse me uppity, micks-on-the-make Worli folks, you ain't SoBo).

They like the sound of it — makes them feel closer to New York or London, where they summer and bring in the new year, the cheapies might go to Goa — and they totally fail to see its pretentiousness.

If quite a bit of class and pedigree has seeped away from the south Bombayite (who likes to capitalise the S), it has also stealthily slipped away from these once quietly gracious neighbourhoods.

Certainly in my 23 years, this area has lost, I would estimate, at least 10,000 trees to the monsoon or 'development' and were not replaced, reducing its beautiful statuesque tree cover.

Umpteen little bungalows or cute buildings, along Napean Sea road, Malabar Hill, Gowalia Tank, are now history. Armies of ostentatious skyscrapers have instead muscled their way in.

The term a 'building going in for redevelopment' in south Mumbai has an ominous sound, the death knell for a little bit more of the real Mumbai.

Thousands of once only-residential buildings have turned partially commercial and sport a clutter of signs of shops, beauty parlours and eateries. Formerly elegant avenues, like DN Road or PM Road, as conservationist Abha Narain Lambah once pointed out at a heritage workshop, have the Gothic lines of their buildings hidden by aggressive signage, mildew, soot or disrepair.

We moved away from Napean Sea Road in the 1990s to Colaba. Colaba, unlike Malabar Hill and its environs, has altered much less in these unkind years.

By the early '90s, Napean Sea Road buildings, which once had cosmopolitan populations, people from all regions and communities, had been taken over entirely by the business class.

With their money power backing them, their lack of taste didn't matter. The lobbies of older, refined buildings were stripped and lined with marble or granite.

Each society became, bit by bit, more wannabe Manhattan or Kensington, though they missed the mark by several tacky miles.

The tipping point for our move was when our building society wanted to spend R1 crore - a very tidy sum those days and still — doing up the 10 metre by 10 metre society garden.
Breach Candy, Malabar Hill and Napean Sea Road has suffered other suffocating changes.


Everyone around there owns not less than three big cars. When one car is going to pick up Baba at nursery school with the maids in tow, another is headed with the maharaj (cook) to Dadar to get dirt-cheap vegetables and the third is taking Sahib's lunch to the office, how packed do you think the roads are going to be? It was often faster to walk.
Prices shot up sky high around here. Be they for help. Or a kilo of onions.

The area had steadily gotten more vegetarian and rather fascist to boot.

Global fast food eateries serving non-vegetarian fare, across the rest of the world, had their menus go green overnight.

Vendors selling fish were turned away from residential buildings. Pets were less welcome.

And then the worst bit, our city's brand of Nazism: Building societies started insisting their residents had to be vegetarian.

Colaba, by contrast, has changed much less.

Partially because it is a tourist district and always attracts the entire range of humanity.

Till probably the end of time, it will see white-robed Arabs arrive in the monsoons, with their families as large as small armies, and seedy European hippy backpackers, headed for Goa, show up in the winter.

Large-statured Africans, the women wearing colourful head-dresses, Indian Guyanese, Israelis, sailors and our desi variety of tourists, hailing anywhere from Muzaffarnagar to Ulhasnagar, are perennially drifting through Colaba to see the lovely Gateway or to buy a few cheap trinkets or over-sized balloons.

In these parts, sleaze has always co-existed with grace.

The contemptible with the admirable.

The crass with the elegant.

Drugs with isabgol.

Bada Miya kebabs with five-star French pate.

Smelly Sassoon Dock with the perfumed Taj.

Excuse me, Colaba's prostitutes, beggars, hawkers, charas sellers, conmen are as SoBo as the Cuffe Parade kitty party brigade or Bombay Gym's elite rugby team.

But Colaba is catching up with the times, mercifully very slowly.

Its once more cosmopolitan residents are now becoming uniformly rich and 'uppah claass'.

Conversations in living rooms now more and more dwell on the price of first class air tickets, the cost of repairing a Benz, never bhaji.

You can no longer shout down to the tailor and ask him to come over and turn your collar (turn the fabric inside out, so frayed edges are under and sew it back).

Those mattress fluffers or lepwala/dhuniya, who once roamed the gullies twanging the bows of their wooden implements like Eric Clapton, are rarely seen.

Colaba market sells more baby corn than tinda probably.

There seem to be less parrots squawking in the trees. I haven't seen a sparrow in an aeon.

The shops on Causeway, which were once a motley lot — Frankie sellers, kirana wallahs, pharmacies, familiar family-run corner stores — now all sell, or rather don't sell, since the shops are mostly empty, R6,000 Nikes or Royal Enfields or R20,000 Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses.

But time and more importantly tide stops for none. The biggest change that might just come to south Mumbai, including Colaba, could be happening in the Trump White House.

The failure of the Paris Climate Accord and other measures to curb global warming means the oceans are continuing to rise at a rate of 3 mm a year. What will that rate, which promises to accelerate, do for Mumbai in a few decades? Will it shed parts of south Bombay? So much for attitude if SoBos become an endangered tribe.

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