Even today, with all the loss of plant life and species diversity, a garden allowed to run wild in Bombay can grow into a miniature forest in a few years. Our tropical climate and abundant rainfall makes plant growth easy. Our present garden has over a hundred species of trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, climbers and epiphytes. This is possible, not because the garden is large, but because not a single square metre is paved.
Some of the plants were introduced but most of these are species which grew in the area earlier. New species appear every year, brought in by birds and bats, by the wind and people’s shoes. Badam seeds are too large to be brought in by birds other than crows. Tailor birds prefer the large leaves of badam for stitching their nests, but they nest only on seedlings since they build at low level only. Other trees sometimes disappear as they grow too old or are killed by more vigorous neighbours. Exotic weeds, like Ageratum conyzoides, take over for a year or two but are soon replaced by the normal flora, probably controlled by indigenous insects and/or the allelopathic effects of local plants.
In the garden at Carter Road, we still have adulsa, used for coughs and other respiratory diseases, becoming increasingly necessary as pollution makes these illnesses common. The ayurvedic drug punarnava is prepared from kavthali and its diuretic, anti-inflammatory and other medicinal effects have been confirmed; and it could be cultivated as a new food crop because it flourishes in the dry season. Jaswandi is used for fertility control, gunj for coughs and sore throats.
Many more species come up as monsoon annuals, such as the beautiful shindi with purple-yellow spathes, used for fevers and eye ailments. The perfumed sontaka is a diuretic and is cytotoxic. Bhui awali, traditionally used for jaundice, has been found to be effective against the hepatitis virus. Brahmi is used for skin ulcers, including those of leprosy, and for the allopathic drug asiaticoside. Probably the only indigenous plant growing here that is not used for medicine is khajoti, because it is extremely itchy and causes dermatitis; it is used medicinally in the Philippines, however.
Trees make the place cool in the hottest weather, though the increasing vehicular traffic keeps on adding to the heat. They also reduce the traffic noise and filter out the dust. Friends and strangers drop in to collect medicinal and flowering plants. Passers-by pick off the flowers of the bhendi tree for their daily pujas. Before we allowed the place to run wild, we were harassed by hordes of flies throughout the year, mainly breeding in the uncleared garbage near by. Now that it has grown thick enough, we are regularly visited by fantail and paradise flycatchers, which control the flies and also fascinate us with their remarkable aerial acrobatics. During the last year I have seen about ten flies in all, for a few minutes at most.
We are entertained by the songs of golden orioles, red-vented and green bulbuls, fantail flycatchers, warblers, tailorbirds, and others, from early morning to late at night when the night herons quark their way to the shore. Other birds that visit the garden are shrikes, magpie robins, wagtails, whitebreasted kingfishers, purple sunbirds, hoopoes, pied as well as common mynas, parrots, herons, egrets, cormorants, nightjars, owls, and of course sparrows, pigeons, crows, koels and kites. Those that have nested here are sunbirds, tailorbirds, bulbuls, coppersmiths, kites, sparrows and crows. Fruit bats and pipistrelles also nest here, the latter controlling mosquitoes.
Crows are normally considered a nuisance, but they are one of the most fascinating and intelligent species of birds. They come to the aid of another crow if it is injured, and protest and mourn if one is killed. Within three years of a subabul being introduced here, they learned – evidently by experimentation – to open up half-dried pods and eat the seeds.
They pecked at the aluminium covers of milk bottles left out by the milkman and got at the milk. When the bottles were covered with cloth, they pulled the cloth away and when they were hidden by a light plastic basin, a number of them got together, lifted it and threw it off. Plastic bags of milk were left out but the crows pecked at them until they tore. Whenever they got at the milk, they invited their friends and relatives for the feast. They seem to have a wide vocabulary of sounds for different occasions: in addition to warning and angry cries when one is injured or killed they have early morning wakeup calls and conversations, then they quieten down while they presumably have their breakfast. Hundreds go down to the sea for a bath every evening and they love to play. They chase egrets and herons as they fly to their roosting sites in the evenings. They have learned to hover when the wind is just right – neither too strong or too weak – launching themselves off tall coconut or tad trees and hovering for a few seconds. A few years ago, there were just one or two that did this, and they seemed to be competing, each one trying to stay aloft longer than the other. Now, when the wind is just right, there are tens of them all hovering at the same time – and egrets and kites join them too!
Vultures used to be common in Bandra but with the chopping down of tad trees on which they roosted and the absence of dead animals to feed on, they are rarely seen. Vultures are considered even worse than crows, disparaged as scavengers. We rescued an injured vulture from the middle of a road nearby, nourished it and in a few days it had fully recovered except for one blind eye. We left it on the terrace to fly off to freedom, but it returned after a few minutes, either because it could only fly in circles or because it liked to stay here. We named it “Culture”, naturally. It would often stand on our roadside garden gate with its wings spread out to its nearly two metre span. It was a magnificent sight and a guaranteed traffic jammer, but early one morning it hopped on to the road and was killed by a speeding car coming up on its blind. The term “scavenger” should be used with respect, not only for birds and beasts but also for the rag pickers who collect the garbage that the economically affluent produce. Future generations will thank them for salvaging the scarce resources that we so callously throw away, being too lazy even to keep different types of garbage separate to help recycling.
There are lots of butterflies and other insects with garden lizards, skinks and a rare chameleon to keep them under control. Spiders build webs over a metre in diameter and the trapdoor spider builds its home in the ground. Another sign that this small ecosystem is getting healthier is that we now hear the croaking of monsoon frogs after many years of silence. Still another is the increasing number of species of birds, but this could be due either to our own garden growing thicker or the destruction of trees elsewhere, or both factors.
A beehive gave us several kilos of honey a year, but the bees were killed by synthetic pesticide spraying. We do not use synthetic pesticides, even inside our house. Instead we encourage natural predators to do the job. House lizards and spiders are efficient while an occasional tree frog comes in to help. The mud nests which wasps build in the corners of cabinets are not destroyed, because wasps too keep down insects. We have a few cockroaches and mosquitoes around but that is the “rent” we have to pay for living in a poison-free environment and for having the pleasure of watching lizards chasing each other and spiders building their webs. However, when the municipality does its regular neighbourhood spraying for mosquito control, the garden and house insects die, while the mosquitoes, having developed resistance to the DDT used, continue to bite happily. The birds go elsewhere for food, but the house spiders and lizards die off and are greatly reduced in numbers. Then the cockroaches are free to multiply with little predation and become a real pest, until the predators, with their longer reproduction cycles, catch up again. Mosquitoes are a big problem this year, but we will wait and see how Nature handles them.
Due to labelling malfunction, the pictures are listed here, for readers from afar
1. Tailor bird’s nest
5. Magpie robin
8. Wasps’ nest indoors