Having lived all my life in large metros — Madras (as it was when I lived there), Bombay (ditto!) and now Delhi, I’ve occasionally wondered why and how I developed an attraction to wild places rather than an aversion. Forays into real forests didn’t really happen — but yes, in Madras, where I spent my early childhood, there was a huge rambling garden and the rustling copse of shadowy casuarinas that beckoned irresistibly. It was riddled with the lairs of cobras (though none ever reared up in front of me, crying, ‘halt, password! Who goes there?’), the perfect place to — illegally — safari-ride your bike. Usually you returned home skinned, bruised and scratched, but beaming with exhilaration. The garden was wild and adventurous enough to make one curl up with horror when we shifted to Bombay in the mid-’60s and were trundled around Hanging Gardens and Kamala Nehru Park, what with their tame flower beds and goofy topiary animals.
But Bombay, too, had its wild side — a city forest that we soon discovered. Back then, you could drive into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (as it is now known) at Borivali, anytime you wanted and we were often at the gates before sunrise, urging the chowkidar to open up. Most city kids bunked college to go to the movies, we bunked college to ramble in Borivali. The monsoons were magical times there, you could squelch your way around the brooding silver lakes as the great gunmetal thunderheads hove to, you could watch, enthralled, an emerald chameleon cross the road with all the majesty of an emperor on his way to his coronation (even as a car bore down on it relentlessly), or breathlessly watch a herd of cheetal, all gold and icing sugar spots, timorously step onto the roadside. A racket-tailed drongo once nearly made me drive off the road, and the first time I saw those antediluvian-looking grey-hornbills flying high across the forest, squealing, I thought I had been transported back in time a million years. All this: an hour’s drive away from home.
Hemmed in by Bombay, this was very much a city forest — and often we were reminded of it. But if you picked your time sensibly, you could wander about for hours, splashing through streams, dodging the enormous webs of the wood spiders, and imagine that you were a solitary explorer in the jungle. It really could give you quite a jungle high!
At that time I knew nothing about environment, animal biology, ecology, wildlife, birds, insects and everything that went with it. I never went on a single guided nature walk or attended a lecture on nature and all things natural. I was not a member of the BNHS or any organisation. All I knew was that the outdoors was better than the indoors and that I’d rather spend time wandering about in Borivali than attending a lecture on development economics (which could be very depressing). I’m sure it would be so nice and so good for both development and the economy if most people felt this way!
The move to Delhi at the start of the ’80s came with a culture shock of epic proportions. The only saving grace seemed to be the vast green areas in the city, especially the (notorious) Ridge, dark and mysterious abutting Sardar Patel Marg and Mother Teresa Crescent. Ah, old residents warned, “Don’t ever go there — you’ll get your throat slit!” A lot has been written of the wildlife that could be seen in Delhi’s wild areas in the past — of jackals and blackbuck, of leopards and porcupines, of how scary it was to cross the northern Ridge after dusk, and of how the British planted all the trees on the Ridge after being royally broiled there during the 1857 uprising.
Soon after shifting to north Delhi, I started “rambling” on the northern Ridge myself (and was duly mugged). It’s a large woodland park, with mainly ornamental plants (and the nefarious Prosopis juliflora, rampant), but there are sections which are wild and thorny — where I did once entangle myself inextricably for 20 minutes in a thorn-bush, genuine “jungle” style! It’s also where I’ve seen the paradise flycatcher flaunt its plumes, the orange-headed thrush, a gorgeous buzzard (model unknown), the crested serpent eagle (at close quarters), a bullfrog rock concert a la Woodstock, nesting weaver birds, little green herons, a squirrel flee from a snake, a shikra in heraldic-angel attack mode, and monkeys wage war and savage each other, apart from other things.
Unfortunately, the Ridge, like other city forests has to suffer city folk. Their first reaction to anything tangled and thorny and remotely “wild” usually is “jungle hain, kato (It’s a jungle, cut it!)” Most city slickers, alas, prefer manicured-pedicured lawns and neat flower beds, to a rambunctious jungle doing its own thing and singing its own song. That’s like preferring to drink disinfectant than wine!
Happily, change may be in the air, at least for my neck of the woods: The centre for the environmental management of degraded ecosystems (the guys who created the Yamuna Biodiversity Park) have got a toehold on the Ridge and are trying to bring back forest types that existed here before everything was turned ornamental.
Apart from cooling and cleansing the air, genuine city forests are the only places where city folk can conveniently encounter “wild nature” on an everyday basis and observe how it works. And as it’s usually city folk who are deciding the fate of our “real” big-daddy forests, once they learn to appreciate this, hopefully they’ll want to protect those.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher