Nobody can buy a forest. So, Pramod Nargolkar did the next best thing: he created one. Over 20 years, he bought patch after another of barren hilly tracts, some 25 kms from Pune. He collected saplings from various parts of India, including Eastern Maharashtra, the South, the North-East, and even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He took special care to choose only those specimens that suited the unique climate and soil conditions of Pune. Today, in this 25-acre forest there are over 22,000 trees that cater to 500 species.
Man on a mission
For Pramod, this was only half his dream. He wanted to add another 25 acres to this painstakingly created forest. And then suddenly, inexplicably, he disappeared. This writer travelled from Mumbai to meet Nayana Nargolkar, Pramod’s wife who carries forward this unique green legacy. On reaching her home in Pune, one noticed that it was named Bahava, which is Laburnum in Marathi — the tree with flowers like molten sunlight. The signboard said Pramod Nargolkar. But there was no Laburnum in sight, and no Pramod.
Nayana recounted there were two places that were really close to Pramod’s heart: Melghat Tiger Reserve and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. And, his infatuation with Nicobar Islands turned out to be a star-crossed affair. Nayana recalled that fateful day in 2004 when he had gone to the Nicobar Islands with five of his friends. She reminisces, “Pramod had taken special permission to stay on Turtle Island. Though a rest house at a height of 80 feet on a rocky cliff was reserved for them, they decided to stay in a tent on the beach. In the dreaded tsunami that struck, they all disappeared, except the guard who was found after 12 days.”
From Nayana’s home in Pune, we drove to Sipna, where Pramod’s homegrown sanctuary is located, along the Pune-Panshet Road. We passed by the Khadakvasla dam on the right; and along the river, we spotted a flock of migratory birds. After negotiating our way through lovebirds from Pune who were perched, strategically, on the rocks along the Khadakvasla River, we reached a spot from where we could get some good pictures of the birds of the feathered kind.
Balu, the young caretaker at Sipna, opened the gate to the sanctuary. Near the gate was a brick-red house, which doubled up as Pramod’s home while in Sipna. He would tend to the trees through its formative years. Now, a thriving forest, it was home to numerous birds, butterflies and insects. In fact, there are over 70 species of birds here, over 200 species of insects, 28 species of butterflies and 6 species of snakes. The unwritten rule at Sipna is not to take anything away from here: be it flowers or fruits. They are all for the denizens of this sanctuary, who are growing in numbers by the day. Whatever remained unconsumed by the fauna would fall down and form the manure for the trees.
According to the caretaker, Balu, Nargolkar would instruct him to never harm any living being on the site. In fact, even snakes that were caught in the nearby villages were always released inside. Seated in the verandah, Nayana remembered that distant morning when she returned after a gap of one endless year after the tsunami. As soon as she stepped into the sanctuary, scores of birds collected near the house and created a ruckus. Almost as if they were asking her, “Haven’t they found him yet?”
Pramod was a well-known figure among the conservationists of Pune. He was designated as Pune’s Chief Wildlife Warden, and was conferred the prestigious Vanashree Award by the Government of Maharashtra. He invested crores of rupees that he had earned over the years from his engineering firm, but never borrowed a rupee from his friends or even NGOs. Today, in his absence, funds have run dry and Nayana finds it difficult to maintain this 25-acre forest.
Pointing to the makeshift tents near the waterholes, she said, “These were Pramod’s hideouts for indulging in his favourite passion — wildlife photography. He would hide here with his camera for hours and wait for the birds to come to the waterholes, without ever disturbing them.” Pramod had organised several exhibitions of his wildlife photographs across Pune’s art galleries.
Over seven years, many aerial sorties have been conducted by the Indian government to trace Pramod and his friends in the dense, hostile jungles of Nicobar. Nayana had accompanied search parties on a couple of occasions, but every time they drew a blank. She has not given up hope though. Pramod was washed away by a tidal wave into the vast Indian Ocean. She is still hopeful that one day, he would emerge from the river that flows behind Sipna sanctuary and walk towards their farmhouse. When she opens the door, he would be standing there, drenched but smiling.