Madagascar in Marol
Baobab devotee Zico Fernandes charts a trail in Andheri East, which begins outside a qabrastan and ends inside a church
Geologist think that more than a 100 million years ago, India and Madagascar were joined at the hip. But, when the Gondwana continent split, it created two brothers from the same mother. Today, they share other roots as well. The baobab tree, son of the soil of Madagascar, was brought to our shores by Portuguese traders.
It's remarkable not just for its towering height (up to 98 ft), but girth (up to 36 ft) and age (give or take a millennium) as well. According to senior botanist Anil Rajbhar, who conducted a tree census for the BMC last year, there are more than 200 baobabs strewn across Mumbai, from Navy Nagar to Vasai Fort. In Andheri East alone, in the unkempt corner of Marol, there are 13 visible baobabs within a 2km radius. Zico Fernandes, 35, a tour guide with Cox & Kings, who started the Instagram account, Baobabs of Bombay, in 2017, took us on a baobab-spotting tour on his Aviator.
Outside the Dawoodi Bohra Community Qabrastan, on the path that leads to Aarey, is our first stop. Fernandes has named a few baobabs, especially if they had an interesting backstory, which The Wounded Soldier (1) does. In 2014, in these very pages, mid-day correspondent Ranjeet Jadhav had written about miscreants trying to saw the baobab. The story caught the attention not only of the ward officials, but Fernandes as well. "After the mid-day article, I read up a lot about this tree and looked up its history. When I stopped working in a corporate [environment], I decided to start something dedicated to it."
Since the last two years, Fernandes has been informally visiting the baobabs of Mumbai, letting small groups tag along. "There were three or four people, who wrote to me on my Instagram page. I tell them that all I'm trying to do is spot these trees at the moment. I have not started any walks. I want to find out where they are first, and try and make a map of it." Of the 23 baobabs he's visited, The Wounded Solider is special because, "Everyone thought it was gonna die, [but] I have seen that tree healing."
The baobab flower, picked from the floor at Vasai Fort
Our next stop is the compound of Ganesh Wadi Co-operative Society, in a lane opposite Ackruti Centre Point. There's an unnatural crowd milling about, and a bystander, in Mumbai parlance, says, "Koi off ho gaya." The tree would have gone down the same route when the building opted for redevelopment, but the MD of Hubtown Ltd, Vimal Shah, decided to protect it. "Ped ke wajah se plan change kiya," says a resident. Nicknamed The Secretary (2) by Fernandes, because "it's like the secretary of the society," the tree is surrounded by the building on three sides, and enjoys the cult status of a banyan. Another resident says they take care of it, as "iska koi mai-baap nahi hai."
On MIDC Road No. 20, opposite Medley House, is The Warrior (3), which enjoys no such deference. "I'm very concerned about this one because they have tarred around it," says Fernandes. "I call it The Warrior because he's fighting development." Six poster ads, hawking everything from Om Sai Sandwich to PG rental for bachelors, have been stapled on its trunk. Giants could play hide-and-seek around its base, and yet, "People don't even look at it. My friends ask me, 'What is that tree thing you do?' I have to spell it out for them."
A baobab that's been stapled with six poster ads. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Our last stop is the boundary wall of SEEPZ, an area closed to trespassers. Within its secretive walls are 10 baobabs you can see from the main road. "I think there could be more inside. At least, they are protected because they are inside SEEPZ." Seven of these, the Seven Sisters (4), ring St Johns Baptist Church. Since 1970, the dilapidated church opens its doors only once a year, on the second Sunday of May, for the feast of its patron saint, John The Baptist. That's the only day when tree worshippers, alongside disciples, can walk in to admire the baobabs. "I've been visiting this church for the past seven years for its service. The first two years, I can honestly tell you, I did not see the trees. I was more in awe of the church than the surroundings. But now, I look at the trees more."
As our tour ends, we ask Fernandes why anyone would spend so much time and energy in rooting for the baobabs. He says, "There's a saying that if a baobab speaks, man will not understand. It's too deep."
Where: St Johns Baptist Church, Seepz Rd D, SEEPZ, Andheri East
When: The church is open only on May 12; 8 AM to 2 PM
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A walk through Mohammed Ali Road's Khau Galli