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12.01.2017

Aarey Milk Colony’s steady tradition of encroachment includes roads, houses, commando headquarters and a host of dubiously legal concrete structures. Its 16 square kilometres, first meant for native inhabitants, then for thousands of buffaloes dutifully producing raw material for Maharashtra’s milk bottling enterprise, are under constant pressure from the city and authorities. 

Most recently, political and legal sanction is close to (literally) paving the way for a Mumbai Metro yard on 28 hectares of Aarey land, endangering over two thousand trees and seriously jeopardising the surrounding ecosystem. 

We ramble through parts of the forest with tree-walker Renee Vyas and Aarey activist Amrita Bhattacharjee to say goodbye to a world that will forever be changed if the yard comes to pass. Prepare your wood-byes to all this:

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The Rain Tree Loved By An Orchid: As if the mealybug menace wasn’t bad enough, the land earmarked for the yard is bordered by a long line of rain trees, probably the legacy of British administrators (who were the first to plant species non-native to the Western Ghats in the Aarey area). In the summer, the thickly growing vines along the most majestic of these old trees will burst into pink-white curtains of shy foxtail orchids - if they’re still around. 

The Dewdrop Drinker: Aarey’s forested ground is blanketed by the eranthemum roseum, a wildflower of the Western Ghats that comes up at the end of every rainy season. It shrinks away from rainfall, and “lives on the dew of the night,” Renee tells us. Alas, as human activity increases and temperatures rise, the “wild” in wildflower will go the way of all fresh.

Aarey’s forested ground is blanketed by the eranthemum roseum, a wildflower of the Western Ghats that comes up at the end of every rainy season. It shrinks away from rainfall, and “lives on the dew of the night.”

The Cattle Egret: Morning walkers around the colony are usually motivated to keep pace with the dignified, baggy body of the cattle egret (bubulcus ibis), which we spot darting in and out of the windswept buffalo stables that dot the premises. The cattle egret takes its nutrition from the ticks on the skin of large mammals, and has “buff plumes” and a red flush around its legs in breeding season, just like many humans. 

Mangoes From “Aajoba,” Aged 100: Tucked away on a tree trail that will soon be largely inaccessible thanks to the allocation of Aarey land to Mumbai Police’s elite commando unit, is a mango tree whose produce isn’t sold in any market. Renee's “aajoba,” at least a century old, grows tall and dark, and produces small, hard fruit that’s more stone than flesh. Renee says this is the natural, “deshi” mango, completely different from the cultivated varieties we know better: rare, but hardy, “not like the farmed varieties that need so much fertiliser, water and attention, and grow frail so quickly.”

Eight Leopard Residents: A leopard census of Aarey Milk Colony pegs its cat count at eight (a ninth has sadly died in between the census and this writing). Over the years, they (or their near relatives) have been trapped, moved out to the national park next door, and even killed human beings, thanks to increasing man-animal conflict in the city’s formerly wild zones. Don’t squeal if you cross evidence of leopard activity on your walk (you’ll know it by the bits of undigested skin and hair): left to their own devices, they just want to chill and take selfies.

Paddy Fields (Yes, Really): There are 27 adivasi settlements within Aarey Milk Colony, and more than one lies quite close to the proposed yard. While Aarey’s best-known landscapes are usually deciduous and wooded, just across the road from the contested land lie paddy fields from which locals harvest rice. 

When we visit, their new neighbours include over a dozen young trees transplanted into a clearing as part of the authorities’ drive to replace the vegetation lost when the yard is constructed. Renee and Amrita aren’t sure they’ll be able to hack it in this hood, however - “they’ve been planted so close to each other, they’ll need constant looking after, and have no space to spread out and grow.”

The Chilbil That Turns Your Water Blue: By the side of the main Aarey Milk Colony road stands an exceptional “chilbil” tree, aged at least 80. An old ingredient in treating diabetes, water poured into a glass made of the chilbil’s wood turns blue. “It’s wood is as good as teak wood,” says Renee. Since the colony’s internal roads were re-opened to private vehicles last month, the chilbil is also sadly covered in dust from busy traffic passing by, although it's doing its best to protect the eranthemum growing at its feet.

The Underground Tree Hugger: “It seems like a vine, but look - it’s actually wood,” Renee says, disappearing off the road to pop up in a grove dominated by a gnarly, twisted old vine. This old liana or woody climber is Renee’s “star attraction” on her tree walks. It creeps along the boughs of other trees and holds all its surroundings together, at least until the road is widened, which will lop off a chunk of the climber’s body. “The roots underground are so old, and have been undisturbed so long, that they’re entwined with the roots of other trees, holding each other close, giving comfort.”

“The roots underground are so old, and have been undisturbed so long, that they’re entwined with the roots of other trees, holding each other close, giving comfort.”

A Big Catchment Area Of The Mithi River: Oh, and there’s this: the metro yard is scheduled to come up on open flat land that functions as an important catchment area of the Mithi, say Amrita and Renee. “The runoff of the monsoon is collected here and prevents the area from flooding. What is going to happen to this neighbourhood in the monsoons if we lose this?” Amrita points out. 

Bonus - The Ghost Who Chases Your Car (Maybe): No, it’s not Madhumati, even though portions of the movie were shot here to retain continuity with its scenes in Nainital (!). Our daytime visit sadly did not allow us to make her acquaintance, but many visitors have enjoyed spreading rumours of a distraught spirit who haunts Aarey after sundown. Rumour has it that this eldritch horror will chase your car at night, begging for a ride, and leave you with a slap should you roll down your window to offer a lift. Enjoy cutting your next signal.

Getting there: Aarey Milk Colony, enter from the Western Express Highway, Jogeshwari-Goregaon. Join the Tree Appreciation Walks Mumbai Facebook group for updates on Renee’s tree walks through Aarey and other Bombay gardens. See the Aarey Conservation Group’s Facebook page here

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