Saturday, December 1, 2012

Blind Date with the Fliers

My friend - the white-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)

I thought birds were early-risers, but looks like Goa’s socegado style has touched the Mandovi Hill birds too.  A hush is all that greets me on my early morning birding trail. It’s well past eight in the morning and I can see fluff balls of green pigeons huddled up on top of a tree. It is full fifteen minutes later that the woods erupt in an aria pulsating and singing with life. The magpie robin with its cheery chirrupy call seems to lead an invisible band of songbirds, their music resonating space.
Two juvenile peacocks shielded in low dun grass are at a game. Both of them are running in compact circles as though chasing each other. Then they change tack, run at each other from opposite ends in their charmed circle. Even as I am silently applauding the performance, they gently trampoline in unison, facing each other.  Cheered on, more likely booed, by the pesky crows on the side-lines, the secret ritual leaves me dazed.  Could it have been a courtship dance… except that these were two males! It makes me wonder how little we know about birds and animals and their world. How alienated we are from an alternate reality which is next door! 
By 11 a.m. the birds seem to be lording the periphery with gay abandon. I catch flitting glimpses of the rare greyheaded bulbul and orange-breasted green pigeons and not so rare, but not very common either, black-headed cuckoo-shrike.On earlier occasions, I have had a serendipitous date with Tickell's blue flycatcher and a Paradise flycatcher in its breeding plumage. These have been surcharged moments, more so because I was without my camera then!
I usually come upon a white-breasted kingfisher – regal like a king - surveying its territory perched on a high post. Move in with a camera holding my breath and it zips away with alacrity averse to any intrusion. But today, the king obliged. It held its ground, rather its tree long enough – posing and pouting, peering and preening – for me to indulge myself. He has accepted me!
I come upon my favourite turning with its twin trees of silk cotton. To me, there is something bewitching about the bare-branched spike-trunked tree even when it is leafless and has long shed its flame red flowers. The birds seem to think so too, because this is where I am certain to find parties of green pigeons, orioles and other species.  As I stand admiring the tracery of twigs against the azure sky this sunny morning, a flock of rosy starlings suddenly take off the canopy. They perform a synchronised ballet in air. They come back to settle on the tree, ever so briefly, before they flit and float in a Mexican wave, once again. I stand mesmerised under the tree. Every day, I see new episodes of Planet Earth explode in front of me.  But where is the rest of the audience, I wonder!

Magpie robin's morning raga

Peacocks in a secret ritual

Purple sunbird - male


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Out of Africa in Mandovi

Mandovi Hill resembling the savannah as the monsoon retreats
Since the last shower a fortnight ago, the weather has turned. And so has the season. The land is already looking parched and the days are shortening.  The lush plateau vegetation of Mandovi Hill has started resembling the African savannah. The tall wild grass is no red oat grass - the savannah mainstay - certainly. It is not the superfood that sustains wildebeests. But the overall aura that the lateritic landscape exudes is such. I round a bend on the deserted periphery path and enter the honey-gold landscape of Mara. The same expectation springs in my heart as when I was on an African safari. Maybe, a wildebeest herd – along with zebras – may appear on the horizon. Or perhaps, a lion has stolen himself into the grass-folds, the self-same shade of his skin. In the savannah, often it is the expectation or the wild imagination that is more permanent than the real presence. I admit, my mind is going wild here. Visual is only on the surface, reality is nature-deep.

The barren landscape, now, means more visibility. It means lesser hiding places for the birds. The bee-eaters, rollers and drongos – the Indian species - sally and somersault and pirouette in the full glare of gazers (read me). The dragonflies keep them on their wings. They are out in the open playing to the gallery just like their African counterpart. Like the lilac-breasted roller or the blue-cheeked bee-eater might do in Tsavo Park or in Nairobi National Park. Or in the capital city of Nairobi, for that matter.  The flock of mynahs (grey-headed), swallows (red-rumped) and munias (black-headed) are perched on the telegraph pole. They are fraternizing noisily with their respective flocks. And I hear echoes of starlings and mannikins of my Africa yesteryears. The exotic bauhinia with its purple flowers and spathodia with its vermilion canopy carry the whiff of Out of Africa and The Flame trees of Thika of the Kenyan lore.

On the evening trail, I come upon the vista of Coco Beach. Swaying coconut palms reach out to the Arabian Sea. The sea, itself, reaches out to the River Mandovi. I see a modest stretch of sandy shores. It is the front yard of the fisher folks of Nerul.  They are the rightful denizens of the coast. As the sun sets, local boys are seen playing football on the wet sand as the waves gush in and out. The pastiche blurs the boundaries of memory. I recall a scene from Stonetown, Zanzibar. In the glow of the setting sun, even as the fiery ball dips into the ocean, youngsters are thrashing a ball around. I recall a similar scene back in Kenya’s Mombasa. This time, rival groups of Old Town, Mombasa, are competing with each other. The venue is the ramparts of the historic Fort Jesus built by the Portuguese.

Next door to Coco Beach stands Reis Magos. This is a Portuguese era battlement predating Fort Jesus. It is a symbol, in a sense, that establishes the historic link between Goa – the headquarters of erstwhile Estado da India, and the East African coast. That thread of Portuguese history is inextricably linked to my own personal journey – from Kenya to Goa. But that is another story, for another day.

Sundowner soccer by Old Towners at Fort Jesus, Mombasa

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Biodiversity falls by the Wayside

Wild grass sways in the mist in my (Mandovi) backyard

A drive down the countryside from Panaji via Old Goa to Ponda and beyond throws up a flurry of floral wealth by the roadside. The scarlet crowns of ratha pushpa (described in local lingo after chariot dome that the bouquet resembles - botanical name: clerodendrum paniculata), and white bracts of mussaenda, to name just two species, cry out through the sylvan throng.

Unlike some other Indian states, Goa may not boast of sanctuaries or parks, but it has the rare distinction of having 33% of its land under forests! Of note is the large belt of the Western Ghats with its rich tropical flora and fauna. Lesser-known, but not any less productive is the midland lateritic plateau region of Central Goa. Barren and arid as it may seem through the year, come monsoon, viable roots and seeds stir inside earth’s womb procreating a carpet of wildflowers.  To witness this stunning transformation we went to Chorla Hivre in Sattari taluka on Goa-Karnataka border.

Sonki - senecio grahamii
Host of golden grahamii at Chorla

As we trekked through bushes to reach the plateau we came upon lichen hugging and hanging from trees and boulders sprouting moss and ferns, exuding a tropical feel. After the luxuriant vegetation the open expanse seemed starkly divergent with tiny wildflowers brushing the terra firma. The landscape was simmering with flowers on wings - butterflies - soundlessly knitting in and out of the real thing. One particular one, the size of a small bird, was teasing us by flying into our faces but not being still enough to be photographed! Black with blue bands, this was the breath-taking beauty - the Malabar banded peacock. Yellow flowers of sonki (Graham’s groundsel or senecio grahamii) greeted the eye and like Wordsworth’s daffodils gladdened my heart. There were pepper-size white puff-balls, flower-heads in mauve and many other species of wildflowers, but I would be lying if I said we encountered an array of bewildering hues. Wildflowers as tiny as peas and pepper pods need to grow in utter profusion to be seen as a lush tapestry. Perhaps, we were a tad late in the season to capture that phenomenon. But let me also say this: to observe wildflowers in their amazing diversity one should glean the plateau minutely.

This plateau in the Chorla Ghats is a special showcase of Goa’s back-wood biodiversity. We were on the edge of the hill (on the Karnataka side) smack by Goa’s Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary overlooking the Sahyadri range in Maharashtra. Incidentally, we were told that this was pit-viper, tiger, sloth bear and gaur territory! And even as we were digesting the information, the mist stole from all sides engulfing us, leaving us alone with our wild imagination.

But when in Goa, you don’t have to necessarily go to exclusive locales to experience biodiversity. Urban pockets in and around Panaji, too, are hospitable terrain for endemic flora signifying richer backyard biodiversity.  Our Mandovi hill is a case in point. I have seen white heads of “tutari” (Rhampicarpa fistulosa) here that botanists are moaning the loss of, elsewhere. Rosmarinifolia impatiens or rosemary-leaved balsam is in abundance and the rare gloriosa lilies, few and far between. And, of late, four months after the onset of monsoon, the green vines of ipomea hederifolia that had swamped trees and shrubs earlier, are sprouting ‘scarlet glory’.

Balsam - Rosmarinifolia impatiens 
Scarlet glory - Ipomea hederifolia

Yellow bells of wild hibiscus (azanza lampas) belong to the jungli bhendi, I discover. I also learn that the common mallow considered an invasive weed in Africa, Australia or the US, has been recognized for its medicinal merit in India. In this context, I recall, how my househelp in Kenya was stumped when I cultivated aubergine in my kitchen garden. She told me that in Nyanza province of Western Kenya where she came from, the brinjal was considered ‘waste’ and inedible! By the periphery walk, I have seen the wild ancestor of snake gourd or padwal (trichosanthes cucumerina) from the cucumber family flourish.  The importance of wild flowers dawned upon me when I encountered an encyclopaedia in the form of much-revered botanist Nandkumar Kamat. Not only are many wildflowers of medicinal value, but they also constitute a gene pool for crops or cultivated plants. India is an inexhaustible repository of traditional knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants such that it can put Western research and documentation to shame.

Gloriosa lily - rare plant
Flowers of Jungli bhendi

For long we have been relegating wild flowers and grasses to infamy as weeds and wasteland. We have been hacking away at them and clearing spaces for planting exotic species under the virtue of ‘gardening’ and ‘greening ‘. This time, I am not going to plant seasonals in precise flower beds or plant alien trees in my modest garden. I am glad that I have inherited a patch which does not sport manicured lawns but is speckled with wild grass. I have planted some indigenous shrubs such as caesalpinia pulcherrima and scarlet ixora at the edges to attract butterflies. I'll watch the wayside grass grow wild and sway in evening's gentle breeze and I'll watch the green bee-eaters and black drongos feast on dragonflies. Like my inspiration, naturalist-author M.Krishnan suggests somewhere in his book, “Of Birds and Birdsongs”, I’ll not indulge in gardening but just sit back and watch bugs, butterflies and birds.  For once, I’ll let backyard bio-diverse wealth flourish.

Spider web at Mandovi
Wildflower amid dewdrops

Crotalaria retusa

Ixora shrub sustains life - in my Mandovi Garden

All Photographs in this blog and website are the Author's Original work/Copyright. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Cloaked in copperpod crown
a shaubeegi
sings the first strains
of a pre-dawn chorus
lifting gently the sheath of sleep.

Koels pick up the cue
in a relay…
and coo… and coo
till the criers’ crescendo
sounds a clarion call.

Under the cashew cover
prinias court daylight
in a happy dance
flapping wings, twitching tails
to a ceaseless warbling duet.

At siesta hour...
a wandering water-hen
wades into the bower
tip-toes the tangled growth
steals into my consciousness.

Twilight brings
a magpie robin, the bully
to a game of tag
chasing cheeky Indian robins
piping the close of a Day.

From its banyan post
a moon-eyed owlet lets out
a chuckle…
and keeps up the prattle
late into the dark night.

NOTE: Shaubeegi is an onomatopoeic name (in Hindi) for the Common Iora - a lovely, lovely, lovely little yellow bird - with music to match.  

Sunday, August 26, 2012

How Green is my Mandovi?

The dun scrub of May yields to emerald fields in July. Flowers become passé, foliage rules. Shade green elbows out other colours. Green balls of tropical myrobalan lie scattered at the feet of its parent. Swords of Gulmohar pods, split asunder by lashing winds, ridged inside, litter the ground their seeds dispersing far and near. Teak tree-tops send forth blossoms and tiny pista-coloured lanterns dangle in chandeliers.

Vines of thunbergia grandiflora with its mauve tubular flowers and other climbers with heart-shaped leaves cover every tree in sight hugging it assuming the contours of its canopy. Natural pergolas and trellises form arches at the junction of some trees like an open invitation. Damp walls on the periphery wear a patina of mossy down. Ferns creep out of crevices of crumbling walls, walls wet as chalk. Wood sorrel swamps the topsoil completely. Amidst amorphous clover varieties and other wild plants, silk cotton and rain tree saplings sprout stark from viable roots. The wild arum (Colocasia esculenta), at places, sits up pert and breaks the monotony of fuzzy carpet close to terra firma.  Ground crawlers invade asphalt, their leaves like giant “cabbage” butterflies squatting by roadsides. The ravages and romance of rains – of the legendary Goan monsoons, leave countless trails everywhere you care to see.

A month into the season of rains and the tapestry has gained in height. Grass, shrubs and wild plants are even more densely clenched together. Petite wild flowers rear their head through the sylvan mass. If you walk with an eye to the ground, a numbing variety of life greets you. There are the fluff-balls of dandelions and heads of butterwort (the Ravan-head of our childhood days, if you recall). There is the wild, untamed invasion of mimosa with its pink wispy (powder-puff) flowers (the touch-me-not, again of our childhood days) and the glorious gloriosa lilies (Gloriosa superba) – few and far between.  Can the butterflies then be far behind?

Scarlet Ixora
Lilies - Gloriosa superba 
Water willow

Mimosa strigillosa
Sesamum indicum

The koel falls silent and the peacocks that were easily spotted in the dry season are now heard more than seen. The plaintive cuckoo calls out poignantly, plaintively – like the name suggests – from its hideout in tree tops. Swallows swamp the telegraph poles and so do the munias and bee-eaters. Birdlife thrives and rides the monsoon air; breeding is rampant. With so much of wildlife buzzing around, it is an indication that the habitat health of 'Mandovi' is in fine fettle.

In fact, just the other day, an environmentalist-acquaintance, Dr. Nitin Sawant (erstwhile Director of Goa chapter of WWF-India, no less) told me that this particular neighbourhood, the Mandovi Hill, which is my home, currently, is unique and one of the richest bio-diverse hotspots in the world! He revealed that this habitat falls in the category of plateau (lateritic) biodiversity zone; that many species of wildflowers are endemic to this region. From the information I gather, the Western Ghats are nearly 45 million years old; the plateau ecosystem of Goa is even more ancient. While what Dr. Sawant said set my heart aflutter, I had already experienced the heady thrill of seeing the wildflower wealth firsthand on my daily walks.

Mandovi neighbourhood is naturally green, its ecological sere sound. The existence of snakes is a sign of a richer biodiversity. And yet, often we see misguided people slashing "overgrown" grass and clearing "messy weeds" to make way for artificial plantation. This is attributed as "greening" which gives man an elevated role in nurturing nature. Playing God by intervening, every time, is a superfluous way of greening. Grasses, shrubs and wild flowers that grow naturally should simply be allowed to flourish. That is what is needed for conserving or preserving niche habitats. In nurturing this ecosystem, therefore, we must be wary of not upsetting the delicate natural balance by artificial means or by planting alien species, certainly not the much-exploited bougainvillea.

Before the rains
After the rains

Spotted Owlet on a banyan tree

Friday, August 10, 2012


a long walk
on anonymous path
treading golden glow
carpet of copperpod
only the trees
recognize me.
desolate sweee of magpie
 echo of African thrush
a koel coos its curtsies
salve to the singed soul
brings me back
from baobab to banyan country.
On the periphery, waves
curl up to coconut palms
a Gondola gushes
Goan music…
in the ebbing daylight, reflections
of faraway lands – recede.
Somewhere, lost
herein, I reside. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012


It is that time of the year when the stage is set for the Greatest Pageant on Earth. That time of the year when an ancient tradition is upheld and performed with centuries-practised ease, and yet, one that is fraught with hardships and adversities galore. Hordes of wildebeest are preparing for their passage from the spent savannahs of Serengeti to Maasai Mara to feast on manna, in what has been an indispensable rite of passage since time immemorial.  In East Africa, wildebeest herds and along with them multitudes of zebras and gazelles are now filling up the horizon of the endless plains and blurring the boundaries of Tanzania and Kenya as they embark on an annual pilgrimage.
Following the scent of the rains and red oat grass that springs from the bosom of the soil in Mara, these mammals embark on a cyclical migration that will ensure their survival and perpetuation of their progeny and species. The animals may not heed borders but they do have to surmount the boundaries of the Mara River that interrupts their migratory route. It is while crossing the Mara that an epic saga unfolds – of predator and prey, of triumph and decay, of leap of faith and fate, of life and death; but mainly of survival. Cats – lions and leopards - lie in ambush on land and crocodiles under water to indulge in an orgy of feast that spells the dance of death for the protagonists.
Year after year, when the long rains start in Kenya, the anticipation mounts even among the tourists, the frenzy equalling what is building in the ranks of the gnus (as wildebeests are called due to their onomatopoeic  grunting). While most may see wave upon waves of wildebeest simmering on the vast expanse, they may not necessarily witness the spectacle by the river that gives the event that edge. Getting to witness a river crossing is a matter of fortuity. By calendar, migration occurs anytime between July to September (old-timers, Kenyans, tell us how the onset used to be early June a decade back and has gone off-kilter since), but the river crossing itself is a mercurial moment. Within a span of a day, one set of tourist may witness surcharged drama at river Mara where the other may come upon a sterile scene.
For the three years that we were in Kenya we tried to time our visit to coincide with the event. I must admit to being deficient of intuition or super-sensory perception of the gnus and considering that bookings had to be done months in advance it was a chance in a million we were up against. In 2009, after a rain check, we visited end-July only to find everything quiet on the Mara front. The river itself was at ebb due to below average rainfall. Away from the river, at places, we came upon single files of gnus – nervous and uncertain - criss-crossing the plains in obvious confusion. These were early stragglers who had lost their way. In 2010, to be on the safe side, we made the Mara trip in September. This time round we were a tad late and while we did not see the river crossing we saw congregations of mega-herds dotting the horizon.  So last year, we hit Mara in August and hoped in hell.
And this is what we saw.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Far From The Mall-ing Crowd

A Professor of Philosophy and an acquaintance had called us for a rendezvous at his residence in Malleshwaram. A man of two parts (actually, many more), as he described himself, he was a writer by ‘vritti’ (practice) and a Hindustani classical vocalist by ‘pravritti’ (proclivity).  And yet it was his self-confessed academic interest in Kenya/Africa and Goa that served as the perfect bridge for us to meet. The fact that we had spent three-and-a-half years in Kenya and are currently stationed in Goa made this a coincidental, almost pre-destined meeting. Over a traditional Melkote meal prepared by the Professor himself we discussed Kenya and books on Africa. That is when he mentioned John Gunther’s ‘Inside Africa’ which set off a chain of meetings and events that made for a special Bengaluru day and experience, indeed.

During our stint in Kenya, we had avidly devoured - browsed, read, collected - all manner of literature on Africa, but to our surprise the aforementioned compendium, a 1955 vintage, had eluded us. That is when the Professor, in a gesture of magnanimity, called up his source – a friend and book-collector of rare books, to ask if he had or could procure another copy of Gunther’s Africa. A copy was available - just for us - we were told.  The Professor proposed the next date, at a central location from where he would take us to his oft-patronized rare and second-hand bookstop. He, thus, opened up yet another window of discovery.

We find ourselves in the heart of South Bangalore at a busy marketplace with its honking rickshaws and scurrying traffic. Away from the urban chaos, tucked in a quiet cul de sac is a modest dwelling housing an unlikely bookshop. The open terrace leads into an extension room which is brimming with books.  Used books and second-hand bookshops often wear a distinctly disdainful and devil-may-care look (the owner is the culprit, of course) almost as though proclaiming that they are worth their titles, not their appearance. But not this one; here most of the tomes are neatly laminated and certainly look well-tended. If mere volumes were a measure of a book-shop’s merit than this would be a roadside eatery. But soon we discover that this is getting to be a fine dining experience. A bespectacled man in his 70s in crisp white shirt and grey trousers is its humble proprietor.

Like a jeweller unravelling his collection of rare gems, this gentleman (who shall remain unnamed on his request) pulls out diamonds. He thumbs the six-volume first edition of Winston Churchill’s rendering of World War II which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Entire works, such as Radhakrishnan’s treatise on Hindu Philosophy and translation of Rig Vedas by a Western scholar, grace the shelves. Other eclectic titles vie with each other for eyeballs - Edmund Hillary’s ‘High Adventure’ and Charles Darwin’s ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ (Books that have changed Man's thinking), among them. I spot the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers’ which awakens a distant memory. Having seen the book in Wellington’s Staff College library, I had looked for it high and low, made widespread enquiries, to no avail. Finally, I got my second-hand copy through a friend based in London who put up a request on UK Command and Staff College library intranet. The copy here is in a better condition and being offered at third the price at which I got mine a decade ago! And that brings me back to the “Shanbag” of this nameless bookshop.

Like any true-blue book-lover, Mr. M collected books to an untenable degree, but unlike most book-lovers he took his passion a notch higher and brought it to an altruistic conclusion. By ‘recycling’ his amassed wealth he is, in a way, spreading his love of books.  But his method of doing this is very subtle. You’ll not find any board outside his house (“because I do not want to disturb my neighbours”) nor any advertisements or promotions to announce his presence. For nearly 15 years, he has sustained his business through word-of-mouth publicity or as he puts it, “through good wishes of friends and acquaintances like the Professor”. At once he pleads that we buy books from him in future, and in the same breath insists that we do not spread the word indiscriminately as he doesn’t wish to handle regular customer traffic. Our surmise is that it is a ploy to sieve in genuine book lovers.  Mr. M admits that it has been an avenue for income post-retirement, but it is evident that he is not in it for profit. His old-world values disallow him from making financial gains from what is a labour of love. He covers the books with dust-proof jackets, meticulously, all by himself. “This space itself was a gift from Swami Raghvendra (saint-philosopher, much revered in Karnataka and Andhra). When I had no money to buy a house, a Good Samaritan offered me this at an affordable rate. Recently, I was offered 2 crores of rupees for this house. But I will never part with it. This house is 130 years old,” he gets voluble.

I come away with my “Inside Africa”, a gift from the Professor, and a compendium on Indian Climbers and Shrubs, a 1954 BNHS edition, for a meagre sum, among others.  I part ways with Mr. M assured in the thought that some of my books now have a refuge too if and when I seek to declutter my home library.  And that they will fall into deserving hands.

We take leave of Mr. M and as we are sauntering around in the neighbourhood, another old house, patina of peeling wall-paint and all, catches my attention.  Bimba Art Hut has a magnetic pull on me and I am drawn into its courtyard and modest rooms as though in a temple sanctum sanctorum. The frayed façade is embellished by terracotta murals on the walls and the window bears a trellis shaped to a peacock with its train. The stone floor and solid wood doors lend an antiquarian and rustic charm to the boutique which showcases assorted works of art. The hut, itself, is one big exhibit. Terracotta lanterns and even jewellery, textiles, votive, coffee tables, lacquer-ware accessories, and bric-a-brac are artfully window dressed throughout. I learn that this “art ashram” is the inspiration of founder-artist Deepa Dorai. She is not at home but the evening’s experience has been so satiating that we seek to further satiate ourselves – our hunger cravings, this time - in a salutary gesture.

The Professor leads us to the legendary Vidyarthi Bhavan, a roadside eatery, nondescript like the bookshop, but with a humungous reputation. Established pre-independence – in 1943 – it is a wonder that this place, famous for its masala dosa, even exists today in the face of fashion food fads. Even at 7 in the evening the ‘tiffin room” is packed and our wait only helps in whetting our appetite. When the 6-inch dosa finally arrives it is piping hot and utterly buttery divine. The filter coffee helps round up the mini meal. In the company of great Kannada litterateurs and artistes peering over us out of amateur sketches on the wall, we skim the Kannada cultural scene and dissect Bangalore city – then and now, with the Professor. For less than Rs. 500, we have had a priceless experience untouched by the mall culture.

As we finally step out of the portals of past and present, we land smack into the flower market. A whiff of mallige (jasmine) assails our senses. The intoxicating scent mingles gently with that of incense. Somewhere, a temple bell rings, or maybe I am imagining it. 


Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Topsy Turvy Tree

African Baobab - Adansonia digitata

I find trees to be veterans of great character. The dignity with which they stand rooted watching over us, silently, in selfless dedication marks them a species apart. I have been particularly fascinated by giants like banyans and baobabs whose gnarled existence of generations bespeak of passage of time. If banyan is akin to my mother, someone who I have grown under (metaphorically speaking) in India, then the baobab is my Godmother that has adopted me into its fold, into its African identity.

The baobab, first leaped at me, out of a children’s book, “Tree of Life” scripted and illustrated by calligrapher-artist Barbara Bash of San Francisco’s Sierra (nature) Club. The picture-book - a forever keepsake - explores the circle of life through cycle of seasons of a baobab from sapling to seedling. Brought for my toddler, a decade ago, it held me riveted as I explored the foliage world with him page after page. Imagine my surprise when the strange bulbous tree in my neighbourhood of South Mumbai suddenly assumed a name and identity. This century old animate monument was a testimony to colonial history and passage of people, continents apart, through the Indian Ocean. In an interesting development, when the hollowed out mature tree buckled as a result of death of a segment, it was salvaged and rejuvenated by Friends of Trees. Today, it stands a living heritage in its foster land, albeit forlorn and out of place.

India boasts a few baobabs on its coastal belt, but for all that, the baobabs are fixtures of African savannas that evoke mystique and romance of that land. Years later, destiny took us to Kenya, the home range of the mighty baobabs, where I saw the tree of life, more intimately, bark and blossoms.

The first time I saw the baobab on its native soil, it was in profound profusion. Rows and rows upon baobabs in multitudinous forms stretched out kilometer long like a file of military men. The ‘baobab boulevard’ came upon us serendipitously en route from Nairobi to Mombasa as the hill terrain gave way to coastal plains. Leafless, the bare boles and boughs looked as though a sweep of lightning strike had shorn them of their fuzz. Sinewy twigs flailing skywards seemed like many roots on top of an upturned uprooted tree. This fall phase of the deciduous tree lasts three seasons earning it the epithet of an “upside down” tree.  

Bullet-riven baobab bole at Taita
Baobabs do not flourish in Nairobi’s cooler climes as they are essentially natives of the coast. The one specimen that I saw in Nairobi at the eponymous Arboretum was a puny parody of the real thing to the point of being unrecognizable. In fact, the tree does become unrecognizable when it adorns a foliar crown. From a grotesque disfigured giant, it suddenly transforms into an Amazon of a bride.  And then come the blooms - pristine white and sweet scented. The only time I saw a baobab in bloom was this summer, smack on the historic railway station, Voi, of the erstwhile Uganda Railway. This tree was obviously the same age as the railway station (which was built towards the end of 19th century) and if trees could talk it would have tales to tell of the tyranny of colonialism and camaraderie of indentured labourers and locals. If the Voi baobab was mute witness to the dynamics of infrastructural development in the context of colonialism, the one in Taita will go down in history as a sniper post that actually was a minor battlefield in the EastAfrican theatre of war of WWI.  Legend has it that a German lady wished to avenge the death of her husband who was killed in the Battle of Tanga, and therefore, hid herself in the tree to ambush soldiers of Allied troops. The pockmarked bullet-riven bark bears out the lore.

Flowers give way to pendulous gourd-like fruits, the seeds of which taste like tart tamarind. With great fondness, I recall how Joseph (my son’s local friend) loved to barter mbuyu for a stick of gum.  Mbuyu (baobab seeds, candied and coloured) lollies found on the shelves of stores everywhere in Kenya are a favourite kiddy snack.

Like our indigenous coconut palm, the baobab is called the “tree of life” as all its body parts from leaves to shoots to seeds can be used productively by humans. Besides it is an entire ecosystem in itself supporting bio-diverse critters and creatures from snakes and bats to monkeys and bushbabies. Baobabs live for hundreds of years, some species even for a thousand, seeming almost invincible. A baobab reaches great height but is not tallest among trees; the bole though is unparalleled in its girth bloated as it is with hoarded water. For that reason, during drought it is the elephant’s last resort. Elephants strip the bark to get to the water spelling its doom. It is that knock of death from one giant to another (if the tree does not die of old age) that completes the cycle of baobab’s journey bringing it down dust to dust. Only for the Phoenix to rise again…