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XVI. Governor and Koli: A Fishermen's Legend

A friend has supplied me with the following quaint history of a well-known Marathi ballad, which is widely chanted by the lower classes in and around Bombay. Composed originally as a song of seed-time, it has now lost its primary significance and is sung by men at their work or by mothers hushing their children in the dark alleys of the city. The verse runs thus:--

"Nakhwa Koli jat bholi,
Ghara madhye dravya mahamar,
Topiwalyane hukum kela,
Batliwalyachya barabar."

which may be rudely interpreted as follows:--

"Seaman Koli of simple mould
Hath in his house great store of gold
Lo! at the order of Topiwala
Koli is peer of Batliwala"!

Now the word "Topiwala" means an Englishman; and "Batliwala" is a reference to the first Parsi Baronet, Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy: albeit the word is often used as a synonym for "millionaire" in much the same way as "Shankershet" has crept into Marathi parlance as the equivalent of "rich and prosperous."

The story, which the Kolis relate with pride, refers to the great wealth of Zuran Patel, the ancestor of Mahadev Dharma Patel who at this moment is the headman and leader of the Christian Kolis of Bombay.

That Zuran Patel was a rich man can be proved from the ancient documents relating to the properties recently acquired by the Improvement Trust in and around Mandvi. For his name appears as chief owner in many of them; and it seems clear that the spoils which he gathered from the sea formed the basis of a goodly heritage upon dry land. He was an intimate friend of a certain Parsi millionaire, whom the composer of the ballad has supposed to be Sir Jamserji Jeejeebhoy, but who was more probably a member of the great family of Wadia,--the original ship-builders and dock-masters of the East India Company.

It chanced one day that the Governor of Bombay (perhaps Lord Falkland or Lord Elphinstone) wandered into Mandvi Koliwada and came suddenly upon the Parsi and the Koli Patel sitting in converse with one another. Up rose the Parsi millionaire and made obeisance; but the Koli quite indifferent and not recognising the solitary "Topiwala," remained in his seat. His Excellency's curiosity was aroused; and asking the Parsi the name of his scantily-clad comrade, he was informed that the man was a rich fisherman, who from time to time was accustomed to spread out his piles of gold and silver in the street to dry. "And" added the Parsi, "so simple and guileless is he that the people walk over the glittering heap with wax on their feet, thus robbing him in open daylight; and yet he does nought, believing that the pile of wealth must shrink even as his piles of fish shrink, when placed in the sun to dry." Interested in the man's personality, the Governor asked the Parsi to introduce the Patel to him, and enquired whether he would grant some portion of his wealth to Government. "Yes, as much as the Government may desire" was the ready answer. "But" quoth his Excellency, "what will you ask of Government in return?" "Only this," answered the Koli, "that Government will grant me the exclusive privilege of roofing my house with silver tiles." After some little discussion, a compromise was effected, and Zuran Patel received permission, as a special mark of favour, to place a few copper tiles above his house.

The house in Dongri Street, where Mahadev Dharma Patel now resides, is reputed to be the identical house upon which the copper tiles were once fixed. But many alterations have taken place, and the tiles have disappeared. For many years, so runs the tale, they were preserved as a sort of family escutcheon, being taken off the roof and fixed in a conspicuous position in the wall. Perhaps they were stolen, perhaps they were worn away by constant polishing, who can say? They have passed beyond the realm of fact to that of legend. Suffice it to say that the Kolis firmly believe the whole story, and add that Zuran Patel's house was the only real strong-house in Bombay at that epoch, the walls being built upon a framework of iron girders and the cellar, containing the piles of silver, being stouter than a modern safe. It seems not improbable that the old cellars of Mandvi Kolivada were originally the colouring-ponds of the fishermen, which, as building progressed and crowding set in, were enclosed with tiles and brick and mortar and utilised as store-rooms.

Such is the history of the quaint ballad of the English Governor, the Parsi millionaire, and the Koli Patel. It seems to us to crystallise the honourable connection and friendship which has existed from the earliest days of British rule in Bombay between the aboriginal-fishermen, the Parsi pioneers of commerce and the English Government in the person of its highest representative. It recalls to us the days of siege and warfare when the Governor of the struggling settlement sought the help of the sturdy fishermen and when Rustom Dorabji put himself at their head, formed them into a rudely-drilled corps, and drove the Sidi off the island. It recalls the action of the Honourable Thomas Hodges in their behalf a century and a half ago, and the subsequent confirmation of their ancient rights by Sir James Fergusson and Sir Bartle Frere. And lastly it represents a belief, which has attained almost the sanctity of religion in the heart of Kolidom, that between themselves and the King's representative in Bombay there exists a bond of good-feeling and respect which dating as it does from 1675 has been welded firm by time and shall never be broken.