A WWF director instilled a cluster of nature’s rarities here, even as his unlikely protégés carry on the tradition, finds Rishi Majumder
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Avast grassy expanse, wide-ranging tropical and sub-tropical vegetation (flowers, fruits, et all), passionately swaying palms, sea waves which fling themselves brutally onto rocks to recede; walks through the green, walks under the green, walks over the green. If this isn’t enough to catapult the Bombay Port Trust Gardens, Colaba, into Eden category, the ultra rare flora it nurtures might just tilt Judgement Day balance.
Playing God in this drama is Dr Jagdish Punetha: “In 1993 the Bombay Port Trust couldn’t grow one blade of grass on this reclaimed land. They said it was impossible.” But this selfprofessed “paagal kind of person”, who is state director for the World Wide Fund for Nature, tested the land and brought uncommon tree samples collected from innumerable sources to convert “the large pile of rubble” into an award winning Botanical Garden in two years.
“The Ficus Krishna is only found in Vrindavan,” he starts in a systematic drawl. “I procured it from the outskirts of Delhi – mythology has it that Lord Krishna used to eat curd in its saucerlike leaves.” The Hyphnae indica, a coastal plant which is endangered nowadays due to widespread construction, was rescued and re-planted from an Alibaug tree-felling onslaught. “I procured seeds which are believed to be near impossible to grow,” he says. Then he placed them in baskets of sand and minerals, soaking them in running sea water to let the Raavan Ka Taars (named thus, after the ten branches of the species equated to Ravan’s heads) sprout. Among other rare species are the Scaveola, which grow on their own, “kept on shores for protection against the oceanic gusts”.
The resident Prometheus once stole his fire of the gods from a maharaja’s beach house: “Just as I was making away with the cuttings, a horde of guards descended on me with their dogs telling me the plant was brought for the Gujarati Maharaja exclusively from Maldives.” So Dr Punetha converted them too. Like in Eden, divine destiny worked: “An anonymous wellwisher left two extraordinary Agarwood tree samples at the gate – this North Eastern species is a smuggler’s delight for the price of its scent!” Like in Eden there’s the forbidden tree: “The Strchnos nuks vomika which ironically is used to beget a medicine known as the Crocin of Homeopathy has a deadly poisonous fruit, even to the touch. We placed a placard of warning next to this.” It was necessary, he thought, to educate people (trekkers especially) to stay away from this evil temptress. Other rarities include the Buddha Belly Bamboo – “Which resembles Siddhartha’s swollen belly during meditation” – and Adasemnia baobab, “which can store 100 litres of water in a hollow trunk space”. African tribes use the latter as a reservoir during drought!
But how, pray, could this epic be complete without man being cast in divine image. Ashok Mall, the current contractor for the garden, maintains the garden (now funded by the All India Association of Industries) after WWF handed reigns of management back to the Port Trust. “I trained under Dr Punetha for 12 years as a contractor for WWF. How else would a mamuli businessman know so much about environment?” But the daily resident of paradise is Siddharth Sardar, who came here at the age of 12 from a Vidarbha village to join his gardener father Murlidhar. Now ‘Siddhu’, 22, supervises the entire garden’s maintenance and mouths many a biological name confidently. The good doctor’s maxims are many: spot a rare plant by what stands out among common regional flora; always indulge in discussion with like-minded enthusiasts to know of what’s where; learn from a balanced mix of teachings and experimentation; keep separate soil, rocks and environs for separate species; don’t spoil your child – over-watering a pine tree base killed it once. But the true teaching echoes in the attitude: “Doctor saab taught me to watch the trees everyday. Because they can’t talk to us, na…” winds Siddhu.
There’s another extinct species! Goodness!
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/5hjx