Shantivan: Mumbai’s secluded forest garden

Shantivan: Mumbai’s secluded forest garden

Mrinalini Harchandrai unlocks this patch of municipal green peace right behind the famous Hanging Gardens at Malabar Hill

You can’t tell from the road. But, if you follow the turmeric trail of fallen laburnum petals through the nursery behind the Hanging Gardens, the clues are there: the scenery changes, huts with Mangalore tiles in a hideaway village replace ogreish high-rises, a breeze catches and the summer heat melts away. At the top of a stairway, the vista before me makes me well up inside with gratitude, like a pirate in a gem-filled cave. I have arrived at the Jungle of Peace.

Foliage, glittering in evening sunshine, cascades all around and fills the operatic horizon. I can almost hear Andrea Bocelli switching to the high register as I glide down the stairs. The steps turn into a winding lane and tendrils of papery peach bougainvillea reach out to me. It's like they remember that I've been here before. I reach the gate of Shantivan, festooned with fragrant red madhumalti and white raat-ki-raani flowers, and I wait.

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How to discover an enchanted forest

A while ago I was going through my everything-is-fine-so-why's-the-world-not-looking-shiny phase. A wise woman, my mother, gave me a quick diagnosis -- "You need to give yourself." I told a close girlfriend this revelation and she knew a place I could go to volunteer to teach slum kids. And like the Room of Requirement in a Harry Potter novel that magically appears when you need it most, I was brought to the gates of Shantivan.

That's how I met Shital ben, art teacher and life artist to the children of the Simla House slum nearby. Being with the kids -- their tumbling energy and cartwheeling chatter -- every session was like a battery recharge. But it was this garden, a cul de sac, both playground and sanctuary, that kept me returning to 'give myself,' wordlessly convincing me that I was on the receiving end. And that’s how I met Rima, the keeper of this magical garden, who I’m waiting for now.

Outside, creepers hang thickly over the entrance plaque, so you could miss the name. When you step through the gate, it’s like going back in time. Perhaps, a Malabar Hill in all its tropical grandeur before the settlers of various centuries arrived. Vines chase up bark, roots come out to breathe, leaves glow in every shape and size, plants crisscross lovingly over each other. The palette includes everything an impressionist painter can find in a salad bowl. A peacock calls from across the wall shared here by the Parsi Towers of Silence. Shanti, or peace. Van (rhymes with 'one') or jungle. Here is a garden that is as far as you can get from the twee-ness of manicured lawns and trimmed hedges. It is an experiment in letting nature be that unfettered hippie she likes to be. And in that raw, snaking, skulking beauty there is a sense of wholesomeness. Something to discover at every level of life here. Exquisite calm. Universal oneness. Sigh. And again. 

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Interpreting shoots and leaves

As soon as Rima arrives, Sonu the resident doggie near the gatekeeper's shack starts a conversation with her by howling. In a cool linen kurta and with bright elfin eyes, Rima holds down two conversations at once. One with Sonu, and one with Vidhya, the caretaker. "Sonu, want a biscuit? Vidhya, the plants look a bit dry to you?" Rima takes off her shoes, so I do the same. "You know there are 10 to 15 textures in this garden. We do a lot of nature trails with schoolkids so it's a good way to get in touch with the earth," she explains.

Barefoot, we take a small tiled set of stairs up through an herb garden. "Can you believe it? This was once a hooch joint. When we were kids it wasn't even safe to pass through this area." Rima's father, an herbalist, got the no-do-gooders to leave and was entrusted with the space from the municipality to create an Ayurvedic patch. Now Rima, a wife and mom, an MA in social work, teacher and yogaphile, has inherited the charge of the charitable trust and manages the space. She has good company too, "A lot of the stuff you see here is also thanks to a lady called Amlaji. She simply 'listened' to the garden to put various aspects of it together," Rima says.

We wander first through the tiered herb area where Rima points out the feathery shatavari ("good for new mothers") and the pathar tod ("excellent for kidney stones") among others. A black and white cat lounging among the curry patta ("meant to be eaten to help anaemia") starts mewling. "She wants attention," says Rima. So I promptly oblige the kitty by bending to pet her while Rima points to a pile of leaves and sticks, "We have three compost pits, so we don’t even throw any waste out. No fertilizers are used here, everything is organic. We like to sensitize the visiting schoolkids about their actions in the environment. Like a single plastic plate can take a thousand years to disintegrate, while if you eat off a banana leaf, it's compost in eight days."

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Rima and the tree talkers

We pass a palm growing out of a gnarly peepal trunk, a pair of bulbuls with tufted heads flutter flirtatiously around each other on an overhead branch, a tiger-striped butterfly lifts off a minty leaf near my ankle, a blood-red bug with a tribal-mask design on its back budges an inch on the earth floor. And I feel an easy exhalation amid the free-spirited, un-pruned growth. We go through an open-air roofed structure, used for meditation sessions, then exit on the other side onto another winding path, caressed on our shoulders by a couple of velvety leaves of a guava sapling. The cat follows us, still mewling and arching. Rima bends down to offer the feline bundle a piece of her Granola bar and between air-smooching sounds says affectionately to her, "So this is what you want baby."

Then standing between two bare and very broad tree trunks, Rima looks around, "There’s a tree here somewhere, its leaves are used in gripe water. You know, our ancient sages lived in nature and would identify with the plants. So the plants would tell them what they can be used for." Does the vegetation speak to her, I ask? "No. But I identify with them." However she says sometimes the visiting children are budding tree-whisperers. "A four-year-old once told me he could hear the leaves talking!" Does she talk to the foliage? "I do, I say my prayer around them. One of our teachers, Kiran, actually tells the plants 'You’re a rasgulla, you’re my gulab jamun!'"

Rima turns to a trunk near her and proceeds to wrap her arms around it. "This is a way to get in tune with the plant. We usually tell the children to hug a tree. Go ahead, close your eyes, listen," she coaxes. So I hug the towering fishtail palm, named for the shape of its leaf-endings. I close my eyes and try not to think, especially of an ant that wanders over my forearm. Did I hear anything? Nope. I must be tone-deaf to trees. And although the tree didn't hug back, there’s something awesome about getting pretty darn close to a harmless being that hurtles a few stories into the sky.

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A luminous sunset

The trail we take widens dramatically into an open-air amphitheater, with an ancient-looking tiered rock-cut seating. Wild orange blooms dot the grass. I take a seat on a rock and soak in the patchwork of green as the sunlight shrinks away. It's easy to sit and stare, as though mesmerized by a candle flame. I can't help thinking that the stage here belongs to nature. Rima points out a couple of interesting pathways. A water trail meanders around the rock amphitheater. It has shells embedded in it and when a pump is turned on, the stream hopscotches through this and even passes under a glass bridge."The nerve endings in your feet reach all the way to the brain. So the water keeps you cool when you walk here."

We take the 'acupressure path', a variegated walkway of smoothness between white and rust embedded stones, back towards the gate. My usually soled feet seek out the flatter bits after a minute over the pebbly nuggets. Then confidentially Rima leans in, as the tendril of scent from the madhumalti wafts its way giddly over to me, "Today's kids don't have nature to listen to. Here they have it. I want artists to visit this place and be inspired. This garden has come about from a level of giving."

I understand perfectly now. A magical garden like this unlocks easily -- to offer its secrets being whispered in the barks of trees, the swish in leaves and the cat's meow. You just have to be ready to give a little something in exchange -- yourself.

Shantivan Garden, near Simla House and Godrej Baug, Napeansea Road, Malabar Hill.

Mrinalini Harchandrai keeps trying to escape Mumbai to spacious green pastures but a mysteriously unscientific yo-yo effect, similar but different to a black hole effect, tows her back.
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