The Browning of Harit Mumbai: by Winin Pereira

Bombay, till a few decades ago, had trees and shrubs growing around homes, with cultivated fields further away and the pasture lands and forests still further. The forests of Bandra were lush up to about 75 years ago; several uncommon plant species are mentioned as growing in them by Nairne in his “The Flowering Plants of Western India”, published in 1894, and by Talbot in the “Forest Flora of the Bombay Presidency and Sind” (1909). The forests were appropriated by the British and clear-felled and the cultivated fields were also acquired by the British. The cleared lands were levelled and squared off into plots and then sold back to us for housing, with heavy “development” charges added on – which should have been called “environmental destruction charges”.

The home of my childhood in Bandra was surrounded by a garden about five to six metres wide on three sides and more on the fourth. About ten coconut trees provided us with fresh neera every morning and ripe and tender fruit. Their leaves, husks and shells were used as fuel. There was a jambul, a fig, a jackfruit, a pomegranate, a ramphal, a tamarind, a badam, a breadfruit, a lime, a bor, a kavath, several neem, sitaphal, drumstick, papaya and chiku, four rose-apple, three mango, two guava, and even one pear tree – but no partridge.

Mangoes provided us with fresh fruit and pickles the year round. Guavas, bor, and raw mangoes were eaten with salt and chilli powder. The pear tree produced about five flowers and one single pear in its thirty years of existence. Many varieties of banana plants grew and multiplied.

Other plants, introduced later, were saru, jacaranda, mimosifolia and grapes. The saru did not allow other plants to grow underneath; it gave my sister hay-fever and had to be cut down and the jacaranda flowered only once in the last forty years.

The British had been so diligent in clearing the forest that even some indigenous species had to be planted initially, though some seeded themselves. Annual vegetables that seeded themselves year after year were bhendi, suran, palak, kantemath, chaulai, kurdu, lal ambadi, pumpkin, gourd and probably many others that I have forgotten. Kadipatta leaves flavoured our food, yams, tondli and poi grew on the mendhi hedges. Lal ambadi provided jams and was ornamental too.

These plants provided us with fruits and vegetables all the year round. Some coconuts, rose-apples and chikus were even sold – afterneighbours, relatives and strangers had collected their fill. The rose-apples were – and still are – a source of joy for generations of boys in a nearby school, much to the annoyance of my mother. People came from kilometres away to pluck the fruit and even those dropped by the birds – who also enjoyed them – were not wasted. The leaves of the jambul and some grass were annually taken for fodder by nomadic goat-herders and our milkman. What food we did not grow was supplied by hawkers who brought fruits, vegetables and fish to our door.

Jaswandi, roses, chitrak, terdas, pendgul, kuhili, several species of ipomoea and many other plants provided flowers throughout the year. Mogras scented the air during the day while parijatak perfumed it at night. The flowering plants attracted many species of butterflies. Caterpillars made silk cocoons on the bor and rose-apple trees.

* * *

All the indigenous plants have multiple uses. Neem twigs were used for brushing teeth and protecting stored grain and books. Korphad, whichgrew around the building, was supposed to repel termites; it was used for treating burns and has now been found to be a most effective substance for treating radiation burns. The seeds and leaves of the sitaphal can be used as a potent pesticide. Experiments have confirmed the traditional use of tondli leaves for diabetes and jaundice. The pulp of the ripe fruit of kavath is used for treating coughs. Mendhi, which gives the hair-dye, henna, is used against fungal infections. Terda flowers have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties; a dye from the flowers is used for painting finger-nails. Seeds of the kuhili contain L-dopa and are used for treating Parkinson’s disease. Chitrak has plumbagin which has potential for male and female contraceptives.

Durva, a common grass, is used for treating fractures and is excellent for controlling soil erosion. Motha was used traditionally for purifying water and has now been found to be antibacterial; crude extracts of the tubers have been proved to be a safe and potent anti-arthritis drug and essential oil obtained from them is used for cosmetics. Bor leaves are used for poultices for swollen glands. These medicinal plants were plucked freely by friends as well as strangers.

Bamboo plants gave all the poles we needed and supplied many neighbours, too. Other trees gave us gums which we used as glues. Poi, also ornamental, gives a dye from the berries that can be safely used for colouring foods and cosmetics; extracts of its leaves are effective against the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and the Potato Virus Y; I found that the juice of poi berries was a fairly good alternative to litmus paper in my extra-curricular chemistry experiments.

There were several species of palms. Recently, we saw a person from Kerala climbing one and we asked him what he wanted. He said that he was collecting the red fruit, which he would grind down and put on his vegetables to control pests. We have not found in any book any mention of this particular palm – or any other palm for that matter – being used for such a purpose.

* * *

With the exception of passageways, every environmental niche was filled with plants, since the garden was allowed to run wild. Shrubs grew under trees, and herbs and grasses under the shrubs. Climbers covered all of them, in season, and orchids grew on the mango trees. It was a micro ecosystem, but a very healthy one.

One year our coconut trees were all attacked by a caterpillar that ate up the undersides of the leaflets, and soon killed the leaves. Thankfullysynthetic pesticides were not yet invented at that time, so we allowed Nature to take its course. Soon, a group of sat bhai (seven sisters) babblers, visited our trees regularly and the caterpillar was soon under control. It did not disappear entirely, but it did little damage. Pests rarely did much harm since predators of all types abounded at this time, before municipal spraying of DDT and BHC killed many of them.

* * *

Chickens and ducks ran free in the garden, and at one time or another, peafowl, goose, deer, pigs, goats and rabbits. One monkey used to throw tiles off the roof at visitors but it was banished after it playfully bit me. Numerous species of birds provided pollination and pleasure with song and sight. There were honeycombs on the trees. A beehive, with glassed sides, provided hours of fascinating observations of egg-laying by queens, of growing larvae fed by workers – the whole life cycle of the bees. The bees contributed considerably to the high fruit yields obtained.

The wild fauna included squirrels and tortoises. Cobras and rat snakes kept the population of rats and bandicoots under control. I had many close encounters with cobras and once nearly stepped on a krait when returning from school, but was never bitten. A pig, however, was not so lucky. One night at about nine o’clock, we heard the pig screaming horribly. We rushedto see what had happened and found a cobra coiled up. It had evidently been trampled by the pig and had bitten it in self-defence. There was nothing we could do for the pig and we thought it would be dead in a few hours . The next morning, the pig was still alive with the left side of its face black. Gradually the whole of that side turned black. It refused to eat anything and lay in the sun with its bitten side exposed. But in a few days it was up and lively as ever.

There were many whip snakes in the trees, dark green above and bright green below which makes them beautiful but exceedingly difficult todetect. The common belief that they bite on the top of people’s heads or on the palms of their hands is not true. They do have poison fangs but the fangs are inverted, so even if bitten, they are rarely harmful. The first one I caught was only about 50 cm long, later ones over two metres. The secret to avoid getting bitten by these is to catch them by the tail, since they are unable to raise their heads up to one’s hands. But thisshould not be tried with other species of snakes. Whip snakes can be tamed in a day or two. This first snake was small enough to get into my shirt pocket, where it would stay till I wished to surprise – and educate – my friends. Snakes are not slimy as it is often thought, and handling snakes is the easiest way to lose one’s fear of them.

I once brought home jackal cubs from Kandivali, which was heavily forested at that time. It was impossible to keep them from killing our chickens, so I persuaded them to go away. When they grew up, their eerie howling sent shivers down the spines of many people at night but also brought back a nostalgic touch of the wild to a sterile, degraded city.

* * *

In our school days, with metalled roads and open, uncemented drainage gutters, we had perhaps one or two floods a year which disrupted traffic and gave us an unscheduled school holiday.These floods were often aided by our own “watershed development” – bunding the open gutters with stones. We caught crabs in those gutters during the monsoon, using the midrib of a coconut leaflet, with a loop made at its thin end, as a line and bait. Several species of fish lived in the gutters and kept mosquitoes under control. We could observe the fish, tadpoles and frogs in the clear, flowing water. Though the forests had been cleared, enough trees were regenerating to keep erosion under control.

Waste water was used for some irrigation and a small well supplied the rest of our domestic and garden needs; only the exotic fruit trees required regular watering. But then the Municipality ruled that well water could not be used for residential purposes. Our sewage went into soak pits which helped fertilize the plants – until the Municipality forced us to connect to their sewage system which often got clogged. All these rules were supposed to help sanitation but they added to environmental degradation.

* * *

NOTES

Due to labelling malfunction, the pictures are listed here, for readers from afar

1. A similar Bandra bungalow

2. Mango tree

3. Mogra

4. Korphad

5. Motha

6. bamboo

7. Sat bhai – sometimes also called seven brothers

8.Peafowl

9. Cobra

10. Whip snake

11. Jackal

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