Malayalis have been an integral part of the ethnic and cultural melting pot of Mumbai for long. I personally have the rare distinction of being a third-generation Bombayite (I still can’t get around to using the term Mumbaikar, although I grudgingly and sparingly use the word Mumbai). My grandfather enlisted for the British Indian Army in Bombay, and my father was born in the city a few years before India became independent.
I have always wondered why Malabar Hill, home to the elite of India’s financial capital, had such a name despite being thousands of kilometres away from the Malabar Coast. It turns out that the hill indeed has a Malayali connection, but not the usual kind that we are so used to hearing about. Malabar Hill was not home to immigrants from northern Kerala, but was allegedly a den of ‘pirates’ from that part of the country! There are many legends behind these so-called pirates, who some historians claim were actually sent by the Zamorin of Calicut to fight the Portuguese. There were also erroneous Portuguese classifications of the entire west coast of India as the Malabar Coast! It’s quite possible though that the pirates of Malabar had Gujaratis and Maharashtrians in their ranks along with Malayalis and other south Indians.
A few years ago, a local politician even suggested that Malabar Hill be renamed Ram Nagri in honour of the Banganga Tank, which is a tranquil and beautiful pilgrimage spot on the hill and is associated with the Ramayana. Some legends claim that the ‘pirates’ of the Malabar, though largely Muslim, would come and pray at Banganga to Lord Ram! I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an element of truth in these stories, given Kerala’s traditional penchant for religious experimentation. As of now, it looks like the name Malabar Hill is here to stay.
While Malabar Hill is world famous, there are lesser-known areas in the metropolis that have a distinct Kerala connection predating the mass migration of Malayalis. The charming European-style business district of Ballard Estate can throw a couple of surprises. On a lazy monsoon morning, I happened to come across Calicut Street, and as I walked further I noticed that Ballard Estate had a Cochin Street as well!
It is believed that traders from these two great Kerala cities set up warehouses by the docks and also settled in these areas, hence the names! One can imagine a street full of traders from Calicut and their families living in colonial Bombay. There may have also been small shops selling banana chips and other delicacies from the Malabar Coast.
According to historian Deepak Rao, the city had many jetties even before the British set up docks. “Small shipping vessels from the western coast of India docked there carrying goods like spices and coconuts for trade. Each jetty was meant for a particular port city, like Cochin (Kochi) or Calicut (Kozhikode),” Rao told the Mumbai Mid Day. "Thus, the street that led to it was named after the place from where the vessels originated."
Members of this early diaspora relied on social support from their compatriots. Such was the supportive nature of the Malayali diaspora in Bombay that till date, one of the biggest stereotypes that others hold of Keralites in the city is that they support each other through thick and thin. Many non-Malayalis often lament the fact that in their communities, caste and religious identities trump the linguistic connection, unlike Keralites, who according to them, are always in some sort of solidarity.
Ballard Estate was a magnet for Malayali immigrants.
Along with the traders came dock employees, who looked to take advantage of the opportunities in the city. Surendra Shetty, who owns a garage in Ballard Estate, told a daily that the area had a large number of restaurants catering to dock workers. “The Kerala hotels served Travancore and Malabari food and were especially popular among the non-vegetarians. The Mangalorean hotels serving vegetarian food and Tamilian hotels serving tiffin were frequented by vegetarians,” Shetty told The Hindustan Times.
These traders and workers were among the first Malayalis to immigrate to Bombay. They then slowly spread to different parts of the city and as the greater metropolitan area grew, several new Malayali localities came up, some complete with an Ayyappa or Guruvayurappan temple. Malayali Muslims have also managed to enrich the cuisine of the city. Lovers of Malabari cuisine swear by the modest Madina hotel in Mahim, which serves all sorts of delicacies from Kerala.
I personally have the greatest respect for the ‘pioneers’ who left their comfort zones in Calicut and Cochin for a new life in what must have felt like a foreign country at that time. In most cases their sense of adventure and enterprising nature helped them yield rich dividends and at the same time, they blazed the trail for lakhs of others who made Bombay home.