We arrived in Mumbai just before the weekend. After the requisite day of lazing, and a mandatory visit to my favourite part of the city, we had our first Sunday there. Since everyone was free, my cousin arranged that we spend the morning at the Mahim Nature Park. She, her husband, and their friends are all photography buffs, and had visited the place before, but I had never even heard of it. Another cousin had just bought a new camera that he wanted to take through its paces, and since Vishal and I are old camera-junkies, we all heartily agreed to the early sojurn on Sunday morning. We were to meet directly at the place, and we were told the nature park was right opposite the Dharavi bus depot.
For a Bombayite, or Mumbaikar if you prefer, especially the more protected ones, Dharavi only means one thing, slums. Most of us grow up hearing stories of the fabled squalor of Dharavi, a large chunk of slum-land smack dab in the middle of the city. Accusations and almost boasts of the fact that it is the largest slum in Asia, possibly even the World, are carefully fed to you as you grow up (it is neither), and most residents of the city don’t know precisely where it is and have probably never passed by it.
Thanks to my adventurous parents I’ve driven by it on many occasions, because there are enough bus routes that serve the area. They must, as more than half a million people live there. There certainly is a slum there, and a big one, so my curiosity was piqued when we were asked to get off opposite the Dharavi bus depot at 8:30 on Sunday morning.
Avoiding my Grandmother’s elaborate breakfast plans, we headed off into the quiet weekend dawn. A BEST bus to Sion and a taxi from there brought us quickly to our destination. Sure enough, a large walled compound sat opposite the bus depot just as we were told, and through the large metal gates an untamed thicket of trees was visible continuing into the distance. Probably because we had the least distance to travel, and owing to our enthusiasm to avoid a heavy breakfast, we were there first. An old guard informed us of the Rs. 5 entrance fee, and we waited around inside for the rest of the group to arrive.
Already, a few meters inside the brick wall that separated a moderately busy road from the park, the noises of the outside were muffled, the bird song was loud, and a chorus of insects provided a soothing music. Almost immediately, three cameras, a compact (my G9), a superzoom (my cousin’s new Lumix FZ28), and a DSLR (Vishal’s K200) were out and stretching their legs in the immediate surroundings of the gate. Another visitor arrived and waited outside. After a while he came over and introduced himself as one of my cousin’s friends who would be joining us today. It would seem three guys with large cameras taking pictures of leaves and rocks accompanied by one gentleman with salt and pepper hair had been enough to identify who we were.
Eventually everyone showed up and the formalities at the gate were completed. The guard signed us in, because this is not just a public park but an officially protected nature reserve, for which I’m glad. The park has a building a short distance from the gate that houses a conference hall, and other facilities that are used for educational presentations and such. Surrounding this circular structure are formal gardens, with tall grass growing right up to the roof of the structure, along slopes landscaped into the side of the building. That’s were we first went, walking around the hedges and flower beds, our eyes always drawn to the much greener and wilder trees clearly visible behind the manicured areas.
The flower beds were teeming with butterflies of various colours, and I spent a good amount of time playing hide-and-seek with the restless insects, waiting for them to stay still on a leaf or a flower for just long enough to get a good shot. Butterflies make excellent photographic subjects, and the detail you can see of the creatures in your photographs are stunning. But, beyond the camera and the lens, really admiring butterflies in the flesh is a calming pastime everyone should try on occasion. I never like taking pictures to the point where I think I’m bothering my subject too much, even insects. How would you like if some genuinely interested people started following you around, shoving giant cameras in your face and never letting you eat in peace? You wouldn’t be thrilled, I’m sure. So I moved on.
We were a company of nine with an arsenal of eight cameras, so we quickly spread out to take in the wild beauty of the place and molest unsuspecting vines and insects at a safe distance with our lenses. To compensate, my Dad picked up a stick he found along the way and then proceeded to climb various trees. He’s a wild child, that one.
Bricks used for construction in India are often made of red clay, baked in large smoking stacks visible off the sides of roads when you go off into the country side, away from the urban sprawl. Mahim Nature Park has red brick paths that twist their way through the foliage, hugging every bump and incline like a natural part of the landscape (Vishal’s post has some great views of the paths amongst other things). We followed one of these paths leading away from the gardens, and found ourselves in an open space with a central flower bed of shocking red canna, where the large sprawling canopy of a single tree blocked out the sky. Yes, it was climbed.
We marched on. Often the brick path disappeared all together under the thick undergrowth, and only a general sense of direction kept us going. Eventually we came to a fence at the back periphery of the park. Paths continued in two directions, hugging the foliage next to the fence, and beyond the fence lay the wet bed of the Mithi river. The Mithi isn’t really a river in the traditional sense, although it has become one over the centuries. It started as the sea-water channel between the island of Mahim to the south and the larger island of Salsette to the north. Back then Bombay was a series of small and medium sized islands on a broad tidal plain. Over the centuries, the gaps were filled forming an almost monolithic landmass, but some signs of the old divisions like the Mithi remain, now serving to drain the land during the torrential monsoons that hit this area every year.
This was the middle of the monsoon season, and while this monsoon had been well below the expected strength, the signs of renewal brought on by the rains were everywhere to be seen. The path to the right, which we went down, had none of the pretensions of order which we had witnessed so far. Other than the fence along the perimeter, and another one keeping people on the path and out of the denser areas of this little eden, the sight was that of an untamed forest. Adventurous vines snaked over every surface, their delicate tendrils grasping at new conquests. The undergrowth was a deep and lush green, made up of a cacophony of grasses, weeds, and many medicinal plants like castor and balsam, which run rampant in this part of the land given a little soil and a hint of water. From above, the canopy of many trees bowed down to touch the Earth, and the hanging roots of some had sprouted fresh tips, fine pink and yellow fingers reaching into the fertile monsoon air.
When we could see it we followed the path. The rest of the time, the wall of green on either side and the occasional length of fence served as adequate marker for where we were not to go. After a lot of tiptoeing through the green to avoid disturbing butterflies, and healthy doses of hunching over to make full use of the macro feature of our cameras, we moved on. Straight ahead, the foliage changed. There were lots of tall grasses but hardly any trees, leaving the sky open, and the path turned back inland to the right. When the shimmering waves of grass subsided, off to the left I spotted electrical pylons not far from where I stood, a sudden reminder of where this wonderland was situated. Some leafless trees grew in the distance, below the pylons, and on them a few herons were perched. There were more of them hidden in the grass, their long white necks appeared and disappear out of the foliage. The little grassy cove appeared to be a nesting ground, and part of the area protected by the nature park. Thankfully it was well away from the public paths and safe from overenthusiastic sight-seers.
Further along the way, stacks of red-clay bricks stood beside the path. Raw material for repair or construction of new paths, I imagine, and behind it was a fenced off pond. Sensing our presence, a few ducks took to the air and flew off into the trees with a noisy flapping of wings. The path continued and the trees grew sparse. Ahead, a few residential buildings loomed behind some tall trees, sentinels of the world outside. We were skirting the edge of the park land. Just before we reached the trees, the path became rough, curved right again, and the plants began to be more organised and planned. A row of tall evergreens lay before us, and when we broke through them we were overlooking a stepped lawn and garden on the opposite side of the circular building we had started from. I was more than delighted by the place already. We stopped to admire more varieties of flowers and more wanton insects, and soon we were off again because there was more to be explored.
A new path hugged the back of the building, and then dived into the canopy of trees behind it. We spotted a mulberry tree, more creepy-crawlies, and soon everyone was paying attention to some obliging insect that refused to move no matter how close you ventured with your lens. While the path by the river had been lush and bright, this one was covered and protected from the sky, its greens deeper and more peaceful. It was probably the calm of this place that reminded us we’d been here for a couple of hours already. Yes, time flies, when you’re having fun, so we shared some biscuits we had got along for sustenance. A breakfast of champions, especially in that setting. Spiders, dragonflies, moss and mushrooms, all kept us looking in wonder and clicking with glee. We were soon separated along the way as some stayed back to explore a particular subject more. The path became bumpy and went into a close grove of trees. Some places held evidence of people trying to build fires and litter, an unfortunate human affliction, but all in all, nature ruled. Suddenly the bright overcast sky broke in over our heads and we were back on one of the paths near the river.
This time we set off in the opposite direction to explore new areas and were not disappointed. The path snaked along, dipping in and out of the woods, and we finally came to a fork where those who had forged ahead were waiting. All of us were now spread out over most of the length of the park so they had thought it best to wait and re-group. We stood around chatting, taking more photographs, and sitting on a fallen tree that partly blocked the way. In time everyone found their way there and we set off again down the path that turned inland under a high canopy.
By this time I had already exhausted my camera battery that had been fully charged a few hours ago. The excessive use of the LCD screen and trying to get hyperactive insects in perfect focus had taken its toll. So I chose to admire everything instead. We passed a few old and gnarled trees, then one of us heard some bird calls and everyone stopped to investigate. This part of the park seemed to have more birds, and the park is said to have a rich variety. Not having a working camera, and not having a zoom lens that could possibly spot little birds on trees, I strolled around and took in the atmosphere.
The snaking path passed by many interesting plants and trees. Fallen logs were teeming with tiny single-leaved saplings, and elsewhere tall shrubs with leaves a foot-wide shot upwards from between the trees. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am quite the fan of flora. Part of it is the fact that I was exposed to a lot of this as a child, and a substantial part of it I owe to my Mother, the botany major in college, and my Father, who helped her draw all those plant diagrams when she wasn’t interested in doing it back then. We passed a small bamboo grove, the path meandered, the trees got taller and the undergrowth once again began to look more organised. Passing by hedges and flowering shrubs planted in neat, and sometimes not so neat, rows, I could now see the wall that marked the boundary between this world and the one with the honking cars and the striving people out there.
Our exit was delayed by a plant nursery that nuzzled between the trees. The park served as nature reserve and also a nursery for various useful plants. In India, the use of plants and leaves for both cooking and medicine takes on a level of familiarity that a lot of the urban world has lost. In India, at least up to my generation (I can’t be sure of the next), we were brought up being told casually how this leaf is useful for this disease or that seed is great to add to that curry. Even if you’re not interested in it, you do absorb some of it. Some, like me, absorb more than others, but compared to vast treasure of knowledge that exists about these matters, I still feel ignorant.
We were walking through beds of aloe, hibiscus, tulsi and a lot more. All very familiar plants and all having a wide range of uses for those who know. Tulsi is a great example. This plant is so useful that it’s considered holy by Hindus, a great excuse to keep a plant in every household, which you will find quite commonly, not just in India, but wherever in the world Indians have spread. Colds, fevers, flus, infections can all be helped by the proper use of the leaves, stems, or even the roots of this plant. The entire plant can be used in some way, but most settle for just chewing a few leaves everyday. Tulsi is unique to this part of the world, and there are quite of few varieties of it too. In the rest of the world the closest relative is basil. Both are different species within the same family of plants.
After resting in the fragrant air of the nursery, we moved to a small clearing where the park people had installed a circle of old tree stumps to serve as a seating area. We sat down gladly. It was nearly four hours since we arrived here, and during that time most of us had never gotten off our feet. Again, discomfort never rears its head when you’re having fun. We finished our biscuits, drank some water, and then it was time to leave.
We stepped out of the old iron gate, a different one from where we entered. By now the Sun was shining through the clouds and it was getting hot next to the concrete road. It was nearing lunch time so we decided to head off and get something to eat. We walked toward the nearby bus stop and waited. There were a handful of others there, and we stood behind the shelter where it was casting a welcome shadow in the now scorching midday Sun. One of us noticed some graffiti on the back of the bus stop, light feathery stuff scribbled in ball pen, and we were all soon laughing at one particularly cryptic statement. None of us could decide what it meant, but before we could consider it further, a bus arrived and our large throng of tired photographers poured in before the driver sped away. The rushing air through the open windows of the bus was a welcome relief, but I couldn’t help thinking back to the magic wonderland we had just left behind.
In the least, any delusions that I had about Dharavi were corrected, and Mahim Nature park will always be on my list of favourite spots in Mumbai city. You know what’s more astonishing? The spot where the park now stands is not very old. Twenty years ago, the Bombay Municipality started this park as a way to make use of a land-fill which had probably reached its capacity. That’s right, everything I just described is built on a garbage dump. The fact that the horror of urban garbage can be converted into this in a short two decades makes me even happier, maybe there is hope for the world after all. Forget urban renewal, I vote for nature renewal instead.
That’s all there is to my tale, but there is one thing I left out which some of you clever people might have picked up. I will leave you with that cryptic thought scribbled by a wise man or woman on the back of a bus top somewhere in Dharavi. I’m not sure whether it was meant to be a fill-in-the-blank statement because the writer was too shy to put in a word, or whether it was a statement of moderate violence, but I say it from the bottom of my heart.
I dash you