We’re about to pave a paradise to put in a railway parking lot. Journey with me in imagination to the last local home of the leopard and the langur and let me show you how much we stand to lose.
Over the past week, the Mumbai Metro Rail corporation has, with the Indian government’s permission, chopped down at least 2,141 trees in Aarey Forest to make room for a car shed to serve the city’s new metro system. At this time of writing, the Bombay High Court has refused to grant the traditionally protected area official status as an eco-sensitive zone, though the Indian Supreme Court has placed a temporary stay on further destruction of Aarey. We must fight to make this stay permanent.
Bombay’s inhabitants need a metro to counterbalance the fierce, acrid snarl of road traffic. But the shed must be located elsewhere. I could cite statistics about the air quality of that smoky, smoggy, sweltering city so dear to my heart and calculate how much oxygen the green lungs of this city supply. But, instead, let me take you on a walk through the adjoining Sanjay Gandhi national park, to give you a sense of the extraordinary, irreplaceable beauty of this unique semi-tropical forest.
A Green Thought in a Green Shade
Underfoot, the soil is a reddish ocre, dotted with the glistening, silver, filigree creations of funnelweb spiders, so shiny that a couple of times I almost kneel to pick one up, mistaking it for a discarded chocolate wrapper. Inside, the tiny black spiders twitch nervously as I pass. The guide gestures downwards. Hard to spot, dark grey against the leaf litter, wolf spiders are waiting to stalk their prey. A Brahminy skink, teddy-bear brown with jaunty white stripes, slithers across our path, quick as a whiplash. A buff-coloured centipede darts away into the undergrowth.
The path is lined with delicate, scalloped maidenhair ferns, edges outlined in black as if in a line drawing, leaves arranged in neat French plait rows.
To either side are stands of pincushion flowers. Tiny purple florescences peek out from fuzzy round heads of ashy-pale lilac. Ankle-high stalks bear rows of lavender coloured tulsi flowers. The pale lemon bells of wild ladyfinger open up towards the sky or hang, petals delicately twirled around each other in crinkled layers. In one, a shiny black blister beetle with a startlingly red head is carelessly scattering dark nectar. Pink-and-white coxcombs offer up their woolly neural whorls.
The flowers are alive with butterflies. Baronets in their saffron-and-coal finery; the grey-and-white tracery of common sailors; tiger-striped and leopard-spotted butterflies and tiny, fluttery chocolate, baby blue and highlighter yellow butterflies. A bundle of red-and-black striped caterpillars are tucked into a leaf, half chewed to its skeletal structure, stitched back together with threads of sticky saliva.
The guide lifts a rotten tree trunk to reveal a swarming mass of black harvester ants. In the grass, there are extraordinary sculptures of earth, spiraling inwards like a squashed Danish pastry, snakily uneven like a Salvador Dalí path, shaped like the wall in Park Guëll in Barcelona: their nest.
The trees are many and layered, leaves of spearmint, olive, emerald, bottle green, pinnate and palmate. True Ashoka trees and Coromandel ebonies, with their beedi-paper leaves, spread their wide canopies above us. Trees, fruitless now in the dry season, with names that promise delicacies: almond date, black jamun, fig and mango. Screw trees bear their spiral fruit and the occasional bedraggled crimson-and-yellow flower. The soccer ball tree offers its doll-sized hexagonal footballs. The Ceylon oaks have a speckled foliage, with young crimson leaves amid the green; acacia trees droop their delicate mimosa fronds. Apta leaves, which in Hindu mythology a god turned to gold to give a pupil revenge against a spiteful teacher, are all bifurcated roundness, like a child’s drawing of a pair of buttocks.
We pass a tiny waterfall, subdued in the dry weather, dancing with pale blue dragonflies. We pick our way over the slick mossy stepping stones and sit on a round boulder above the grey water to snack. The clay-filled water is bristling with tiny, grey freshwater crabs who scuttle across the stream bed in fits and starts, as if pulled by an epileptic puppet master. On the rocks, a fishing spider waits patiently, a female with a translucent round egg sack bubbling out from her abdomen. A piece of wood is propped up against a trunk, like an mantelpiece ornament, displaying concentric-ringed, chocolate-and-coffee-coloured, plate-shaped bracket fungus.
We continue on our way till we enter a small clearing with a single, large ghost tree, peeling like a sunburned Englishman, in layers of palest dove grey, dirty white and peach. “The Britishers would hunt here. By moonlight they thought it looked like ghost,” the guide explains. In the distance we spot a herd of Sambar deer, grey-brown bodies among the distant trucks.
The path climbs upwards and onwards. Amid the grasses and flowers, signature spiders lurk, red-and-yellow legs splayed into an X, an illiterate’s sign-here mark. We dip our heads to avoid the webs of giant wood spiders, big as a man’s hand. Underfoot, an Indian toad hops among the fallen branches. We catch him and I touch the sandpapery dryness of his warty back. The metallic sound of vibrating cicada abdomens fills the air. Grasshoppers perch on leaves in their dull brown dry season mufti. A bark mantis hangs upside down from a leaf, elbows bent in a simulacrum of prayer, hypocritical eater of lovers.
We pass a stand of straight-stemmed teak trees and the guide crumbles a leaf in his fingers to show me the chalky scarlet it yields (“in my village, we use these for Holi,” he explains). And then the path opens out onto a wide plain. Delicate, cone-shaped, pink-and-white flowers peek out from the dry yellow grasses. Clay caves to one side are eaved with swallows. Candelabra-shaped cacti and aloe plants dot the plain. In the hazy distance, we can see the grey blocks of West Bombay’s skyscrapers, blurry against the grey-blue sky. I feel as though I were viewing them from another planet, looking down at them from some orbital habitat ring, where the last of earth’s greenery is preserved.
The path weaves further upwards. The mud is stamped at intervals with the pawings of wild boar, who dig up the wilted puce-and-khaki leaves of the hill turmeric. Spring-shaped leaf clusters of spiral ginger spot the ground and streamers of paper flower creeper leaves festoon our path. The guide delicately holds spiky Christ’s thorn branches aside to let me pass. A leopard has casually sharpened her nails on a trunk and disdainfully left us, instead of her presence, a pile of fresh, hairy scat.
The place is swarming with birds. Coal-black jungle crows circle overhead. We spot the chubby lemon tummy of the ashy prinya bird and the fluorescent yellow-and-marker-pen-black of the hooded bulbul and catch a glimpse of the long, forked, jet-black tail of a paradise flycatcher. And we hear the descending whine of the Malabar whistling thrush, the nagging cheep cheep of the lime-and-turquoise green bee eater, the piercing arpeggio whistle of the pale-billed flowerpicker, the guttural squawk of the drongo and the castanet sound of the red-whiskered bulbul. And everywhere, all the time, the tailorbird’s persistent cheep.
The path is lined with a stand of Karvi flowers, mostly spectre-white barren stalks, with the occasional late-blooming crinkled purple flower. We pass the crenelated towers of termite mounds, Disney castles of the forest. Up amid the trees, the guide points out an odd formation that looks like a series of lopsided black hats, squashed carelessly one atop the other, like those anti-Semitic Victorian illustrations of mercury-crazed haberdasher Jews, wearing all their hats at once: the ant pagoda nest of the rufous woodpecker.
The path suddenly ends at a birdwatching tower. We climb three flights of steps to the eyrie to be greeted with a view of Bombay I thought I’d never see: a sea of rolling green hills and, on the horizon, a sparkling kidney-shaped lake. We are in another world here. Down below, at the treeline, there is a sudden commotion, a whooping and howling and crashing of branches. “Leopard is here,” says the guide. We are too high to see if this is true. But we watch the Hanuman langurs leap from branch to branch in a panic, sleek and long-furred, like Afghan hounds, long tails streaking out behind them like pennants on jousting knights.
Afterwards, as we serpentine down the paths to spare our knees (“downhill, we walk like snake,” the guide remarks); as we cram, hip to sweaty hip, with twelve others, into a rickety joint taxi designed for four; as I emerge into the stream of people by the main gate and out into the deafening car horns and smoggy air of Borivali; I feel dazed. How could such a short distance, such a brief thirty minutes of time, separate two such different worlds?
This piece originally appeared in my India blog, “Fire and Vultures.”