Memories of an Unnamed Hill

In the heart of the city lay the yearning for a peak in a young nation dreaming of a radiant future of technological leaps. So the nation endeavored to gather together some of its best minds into a verdant enclosed scientific research community within the already hyper-urban confines of Bombay of the early 1960s, offering them a gift of aesthetics and nature. I will wander about what is said to be the largest planned township in the world for a scientific community, where Himalayan peaks, rivers and monuments were invoked by the polymath founder of the community to name residential quarters. The founder was a physicist, among the most prolific scientists India has produced; with interests ranging across music, art, botany, architecture, policy, diplomacy and a firm belief in the nation’s scientific research potential. Lurking in the background of this ramble is also a story of blasts and tests, a story with far-reaching repercussions for the geopolitics of the region to this day, manipulated by each successive regime’s own self-image and ambitions of power.

It is a privilege to be part of a generation that grew up in an establishment that provided an environment of stability afforded by a welfare-state bent of government that formed communities based on purported ideals of progressive and egalitarian values. The layout of the place was explicit in its unabashed class divisions ironically enough; but then that’s how the city of Bombay or indeed any urban agglomeration around the world evolve in their topographies of power-structure driven self-ordering. There were enviable features, however — free medical facilities, access to arts and culture, and schools that offer to all students a highly subsidized, quality education. What was certainly available to all were unencumbered greenery and rolling hills. Access to that ultimate luxury in the city of Bombay — space.

Imagine living in one of the densest, most populous megalopolises in the world but having access to substantial wilderness, even one’s own personal hill across from the residential high-rise, in parallel with compositions of curated flora, tended to with attention. One of my earliest memories is of my father bringing me carefully in an office envelope a yellow aster that a friendly gardener had shared with him. The founder’s passion for the aesthetics of landscaping is legendary; his studies included French, Mughal, Persian, Japanese gardens. Yet, his sensitivity to conservation in the face of development was renowned — road alignment was changed to save a 100-year-old mango tree on the campus for example, and he set the precedent in the country for transplanting mature trees. His approach to place-making seems to be about cities emerging with a deference to nature and thriving alongside it, not nature being dominated or being an afterthought patched onto urban primacy.

Approaching the city and the hill on a Harbour Line local train over the Vashi bridge

Narratives of Bombay’s history often begin with the colonial acquisition of its islands in the 15th century. Recent discoveries have confirmed the presence of thriving kingdoms and sea trade earlier, in medieval times. As recently as 2016, archaeology students discovered within the campus a stone inscription dated to 1368, that mentions the very village from which land was acquired to construct the scientific community. The campus is built on terrain elevated up to about 300m with native deciduous or perennial trees and shrubs, monsoon annuals, and such. Where the land ends into the bay, we find mangroves and other coastal salt-water flora. Seasons reveal themselves as the honey yellows of peltophorum, flaming reds of royal poinciana and coral trees. Fluorescent monsoon greens laced with pointillist daubs of wild impatiens magenta along seasonal water flows, melancholy lilacs of gliricidia and tabebuia. Wild grasses, ruby red ipomoea, brilliant blue commelina at liminal edges, so mother and i could go on rambles on empty afternoons so she could tell me their names, show me how the sun slanted over them and how the wind ruffled velvet patterns on grass blades.

The campus nurtured many loiterers via its approach to the design of space, pavements and seating. All manner of folk sitting about, walking around, “just doing timepass” as their behaviour was technically referred to. Elders on their early morning walks for health on paths of fresh air dewy grass, their post-dinner ambles, and youngsters hanging about in groups coming up with games, on evening passeggiata scoping out crushes. The foundation for my own life-long obsession with walking and resorting to it for solace was laid here. Empty time and space are imperative for exploration, and i wouldn’t find it surprising if these were among the design principles the visionary had in his mind for scientists here.

The unnamed hill across from the mountain high-rise was as inspiring during the time of living in its lap, as it remains today to one passing by it at a distance through the beloved city, retracing desire paths in a city bus or in a Harbour line train. Up close, this hill was an acute reminder of being in the now; a raised undulating canvas with an eternity for the sensorium. It trained to watch, absorb, lose oneself while being present. The hill was a muse to warm light, to time, clouds, birdsong. It allowed monsoons to carve it with waterfalls, it framed sheets of running winds made visible by rain. It was a presence the mind could nestle against, to let its touch be embedded deep, an embodiment that would be missed and dreamt of in far away alexithymic lands of privilege. Imagine this being the literal rock anchor of your formative years but with an inevitable expiration date that arrives with parents’ retirement.

When you live on a mountain you get to see the sky. The full moon presents itself to you, there is no scramble to search for vantage points. Rain clouds descend to meet you, automobile smoke disperses before it reaches you. You get to gaze into the city distance, trains, rooftops, raging fires when violence boils over, glittering reflections from distant windows, whether mother is on her way home walking from the bus-stop a kilometre away. Sunsets are panoramic. Sounds from farther away are carried unobstructed, muezzin calls, Telecom factory siren, train horns…

At night there’d be on occasion a flickering orange glow behind the hill, other times the stench of ammonia permeating the humid air. In warm secluded darkness, breezes would become the texture of moments etched forever on the skin. They’d be redolent with plants chemically signalling to each other and would echo the calls of wistful lapwings and solitary owls.

I have memories from the 80s of standing at an open hill-facing window late at night, listening to the howls of jackals; not terribly surprising that jackals would be found here (they are native to these coastal mangrove forests, although they are endangered now in city limits), even tigers once roamed here. There’s a report from 1907 of a tiger having been shot somewhere behind this very hill. As if shooting tigers here isn’t curious enough, this particular tiger was encountered near a bungalow owned by a Parsi man who’d made his fabulous riches with the Bombay Port Trust, and who’d miraculously been healed of an ailment by the legendary strongman Eugen Sandow. The Parsi built the bungalow on 18 acres of land and named it Sandow Castle after the visiting German “father of modern bodybuilding”, who has since slipped out of conscious memory yet continues to remain a metaphor for strength in Indian languages. Does this bungalow still stand? Who knows.

Bombay Islands, 1893 (Wikipedia)

Google satellite view shows nothing. In any case, the place is as much of an inaccessible fortress as our gated campus — chemical factories, refineries, heavy industries, sewage treatment plants on land that was once home to generations of fisherfolk. Just behind my unnamed hill is an area of critical levels of pollution endangering indigenous inhabitants, and where communities uprooted due to urban infrastructure projects are being relocated, into uninhabitable, toxic situations.

Some months ago, an extremely rare sighting of a leopard was reported by security personnel near the unnamed hill. Astoundingly, to this day, leopards call home another unique green space at the northern edge of greater Bombay, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), one of the largest urban national parks in the world located within metropolitan limits. However, it’s really very hard to believe that a leopard might make its way all that distance from SGNP to our gated campus, given the logistics it would have to battle to get here. Besides, the rumour had the wild-eyed tone of familiar chilling stories auto-rickshaw drivers tell of white-clad female apparitions with feet turned backwards drifting about in the agony of longing, that are said to frequent the more desolate roads of the campus. It feels highly unlikely a leopard might have enough cover while finding its way from the north suburbs to the east in these times.

The hills and forests around greater Bombay have for a very long time been untouched by formal development, but in recent decades the ecosystems and indigenous human settlements the wilderness has supported for centuries are facing accelerated threats of being wiped out by government pet projects and private real estate interests. There is outrageous reclaiming of wilderness, wetlands and mangrove forests to serve infrastructure projects despite annual reminders from ever exacerbating flooding and aggravated weather patterns; there are plans afoot to install a zoo over natural habitats in SGNP. Biodiversity is compromised, rivers clogged, and so the remaining native wild spaces are seeing urgency in citizen engagement against unilateral decisions by powers-that-be. There have been drastic changes to the campus as well in the recent years. Much concretising has happened, the lovingly tended flower beds in schools are lost perhaps for lack of will for tending and care, plus a will for expansion of built spaces; the free flowing streams in which children played with tadpoles, whose banks were grasses and wildflowers are now completely paved over, i have palpably witnessed the disappearing of native plants. There seems to be a rush to cut off from wilderness, from purposeless space.

Time gathers the ground into parched cracks, casts ideas into rusting cages and straight lines, the magic of serendipity transformed into glass-tower business plans of gleaming smart national aspirations. The unabashedly neoliberal ruling, corporate and consumer classes of India have demanded shifts in engagement with ideas of productivity, entertainment, success. In parallel, fear is a shaping force. In an era of the normalisation of authoritarian tendencies of ordering spaces all the better for surveillance and control, how do we talk of rights to cities driven to the right.

I have been fortunate for my exposure to a chapter when the campus as well as the times allowed for a degree of wandering within their finity. There developed an instinct for the unstructured and undefined in an unconnected, un-networked era, an intuition for the unfinished that one hopes is never going to be fully lost. And… how long does memory last, what is the meaning of place? — an impression that is forever part of one, as one drifts, floating over new places, anchored to a sunk stone. Memory lasts as long as the stone lies in the ocean, as long as the mountain stands, and so it will last a lifetime.

published on 25 May 2020 at giallo

“the truth which conceals that there is none”