Thursday, September 29, 2005

MEMORIES OF TEKDI...

Gaurav’s nice post about Tekdi (The Hill) brings back many nostalgic memories of my own…

The tekdi is one of the more significant emblematic symbols in my memory. As long as I can remember, I have had some kind of relationship with it. Since my parents taught in Fergusson College, and since we lived so close to it, I always ventured on the tekdi with my parents and their colleagues in the evening, whenever I could. That was ‘Hanuman Tekdi’, the Fergusson College Hill, and an indispensable part of my earliest memories in life. From the top of this hill, we could see ‘Vetal Tekdi’, the Law College hill, on the horizon. Actually the two tekdis had been part of a continuous formation, but because of the road passing through the middle, have been cast as two. ‘Vetal’ is the phantom. Needless to say, Vetal tekdi always held a morbid allure for me, and I could never dare to venture there by myself as a child.

Hanuman tekdi is a curious hill. It is accessible from many sides. You can access it through Fergusson College of course; this part has been rendered more respectable since, by planting trees around it and putting a fence. You can also climb the tekdi through the Gokhale Institute which is right next door. That way, you are led to two huge water tanks. I remember that we used to play hide and seek around these, and one memorable Diwali dawn, without the knowledge of our parents, launched ‘rockets’ from the tanks because it was too dangerous to do so elsewhere. Another way is from the side of BMCC College. Yet another one is through the hutments near Fergusson, a part through which you would not like to venture. Of course, you can reach either of these locations from any other one by climbing over. About halfway through over the hill, there is a memorial erected to honour the freedom fighter and social reformist Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The famed ‘Servants of India Society’ founded by him used to have its meetings at this place. After a long dip following this point, we climb up another sector, and reach the Hanuman temple, the inveterate meeting place of pensioners. Another dip finally leads to the ‘Pagoda’, which is the end of the tekdi.

My first, most definite ‘independent’ memories of the tekdi are of my excursions on it with my friend from school (He is doing a PhD. in physics at Harvard now). This must have been in 5th or 6th standard I think. At the time, his mother and father taught in Gokhale Institute, and we met through the intermediary of the rickshaw which used to take us to school and drop us home everyday. I used to frequent his house for lunch and conversation. We used to play scientific games and amble over to the tekdi, lost in conversation (Our favourite game used to be the one where you guess the name of a scientist by asking questions about him/her that can be answered only using ‘yes’ or ‘no’). At one particular point, there begins a large segment of tiny hillocks and valleys. The segment was largely abandoned then, and one could use the big crevices at the side of the hillocks as a favourite secret place for meeting. And that’s exactly what we did. We used to run there occasionally and take refuge….from the maidservants at my friend’s place who were instructed with the task of making him change/making us eat/making us study! We took great pride in our considerable number of successes, when we used to lead the two women on to the brink of the tekdi…and then suddenly disappear for good in our secret crevice. The crevice was really secret. I don’t recall almost ever seeing a human being around. It harboured a volume that was large enough for us to read our favourite books, or play our scientific games. It was much later that we heard that some parts of the tekdi were not very safe, and episodes of looting, even murder proliferated in later decades. The tragic tales of more than one college student who committed suicide there also made the tekdi a bit infamous. Luckily, at the time we had never heard of these macabre incidents, and treated it as our backyard. We used to play ‘chor police’ all over the place, the danger of falling and getting badly hurt notwithstanding, the innocently intrepid kids that we were. Once, we spotted a snake; I don’t remember what kind. I have a distinct memory of me wanting to catch it, and my friend constantly issuing a warning that he would tell my parents that ‘Ashutosh was fooling around with a snake’ (I remember those exact words). Times on the tekdi with my friend form a fuzzy and enduring early memory in my mind.

Then my friend moved to Delhi, and I was left alone on my ventures. I don’t remember any particular friends with whom I visited Hanuman tekdi regularly after that, although I always kept going there occasionally right until I came to the US, under the perceived illusion of losing weight. However, now, when I think of the word ‘tekdi’, what comes to my mind first and foremost, is Vetal tekdi. Fear of the ‘Vetal’ haunted me when I was a kid, and so I don’t really recall going there as a very small child. It was only when we started going for ‘PT’ exercises to the Law College ground, that I became aware that Vetal tekdi is as friendly a place as its Hanuman counterpart, and it too is the destination of hundreds of normal human beings every evening.

During that time (from 7th-10th standard or so), my overriding interest in life was insects. I used to haunt the dank corners of the Fergusson library, hunting for arresting books about the creepy and crawly creatures which have been true veterans of evolution. My house used to be filled with big pickle jars stolen from my mom, which housed beetles, grasshoppers, praying mantises and the like. It was the only scientific pursuit that I have seriously pursued in my childhood. Insects were the reason I was alive. Every spare minute I had after school when I was waiting for the rickshaw, and every second of the PT session on the Law College ground, used to be spend in catching insects and coaxing them into small jars and bottles that had seen better times, filled with happy memories of pickles, jams, honey, and ‘gulkand’. I have to thank my PT coach. Early on, he fortunately realized that the words ‘physical training’ have never been programmed into my mind, and ‘exercise’ for me refers only to the ones that you solve in exams. Keeping in tune with this innate quality, I used to spend all my time during the purported PT sessions catching insects on the fringes of the ground. In 8th standard, I snared two friends and infused them with enough enthusiasm for them to be my assistants in this venture. During classroom lectures, we sometimes used to misbehave on purpose (although it did not take much for us to misbehave), so that we could be sent out of class and discuss our next insect excursion. Frequently, I used to pluck mantis filled jars out of my pocket with the same nonchalance that a smoker would pluck his cigarette lighter out of his. Anyway…the tekdi is a heaven for insect lovers, and sometime during that period I finally found a friend who was very much interested in nature (He is now a ‘professional nature lover’ and has led trips and treks of nature enthusiasts all over the country). With him by my side, the tekdi became a veritable kingdom of heaven for me.

Compared to Hanuman tekdi which is a sparse and largely barren hill, Vetal tekdi is a vast panorama of trees and deciduous flora. Such flora inevitably houses an enviable diversity of fauna, and we made the most of it. During our first few excursions, me and my friend discovered roads less traveled, paths not beaten, and secret tunnels enveloped by canopies of vines, that led from one part of the tekdi to the distant another. On the other side of the tekdi was a manufacturing facility built by Mafco. Wonder of wonders, there actually were peacocks there, freely roaming about. Of course, they were few in number, and you needed to have the steps of a ninja to quietly launch yourself into a vantage point so that you could see them. But see them we did, and I will never forget those moments. Once, in the middle of the rainy season, we marched into this verdant heaven, and went as far as our feet would take us, to a place that looked untouched by civilization. Suddenly, my friend alerted me to something moving in a big tree. We immediately took cover in a nearby bush and slowly made our way to the tree. As we took a look from behind our cover, our mouths fell open in astonishment. Even today, it’s a little hard to believe, but we actually saw nine peacocks nestled contently in the tree. An unforgettable spectacle. Males and females alike, basking in the glory of the rain, surrounded by a smattering of green. We sat there with rapt attention for a long time, then carefully made our way back so as not to disturb these magnificent birds. While coming back, the profusion of mud tainted our clothes chocolate. But we did not care. Some photos that I took at the time make me wistful like no other…

Because of our insect excursions, we got to know the tekdi literally like the back of our hand, and I still do. Following the great Edward Wilson’s golden rule of naturalist activity, we never took those paths that people took, instead heading straight into the bush, the thorns and allergens notwithstanding. We reveled in the lack of people and in the abundance of natural life around. We spied rabbits, both brown and white, snakes, and salamanders. Once we fooled around with a teeny scorpion. Emerald beetles walked around, their shells sparkling in the sun, and stick insects lurked around, so perfectly camouflaged, that only after many hours could we see and catch even a single one. But catch them we did. And then we brought them home, watched them munching their pet leaves, and studied their behaviour. One of the most memorable memories I have is when I ‘studied’ the reproductive cycle of the emerald beetle. I actually saw the female lay eggs once, and in the process, go from a sparkling green, to a blood red, all in a few moments. It was brilliant. The simple facts about nature that inspire awe and wonder, all thanks to the tekdi. I used to guard these treasures from the tekdi as if they were diamonds. One not so pleasant episode had me lug myself to my maths coaching class in the evening, fresh from the tekdi with insect filled jars in my pockets. In the first place, I was late. Then I sat at the back, and cheerfully took all the crawly jars out of my pocket and placed them on the table. Through all my four years in the class, the professor had never really liked me anyway…the next moment, I was out of the class, lock stock and mantis, and generously told not to come back for a few days. No wonder I used to hate maths at the time. I know for a fact that everybody who attended that class with me still remembers (and laughs at) my insect adventures.

Gradually, I became busy with other things, and lost touch with my friend. I still used to go and catch insects, but then unfortunately, I grew up. My love for insects translated into a love for endeavors closer to the so-called ‘real world’. I do hope I go back to that ethos sometime…
In the last ten years, I kept on going to Vetal tekdi under the pretext of getting exercise, which I never did. The main reason still was that it probably connected me to my childhood and my entrancement with nature. However, I wonder if the peacocks, beetles, and stick insects are still there. Civilization predictably has encroached upon many of their habitats and livelihoods. Deforestation does much more than destroy the environment and cause global warming. It deprives many of us of experiences that can shape our curiosity and appreciation of the simple wonders of life, and which connect us to our inner roots in the most basic manner. After all the forests are gone, I am afraid that it would be this that we could weep the most for…

Gaurav has quite articulately talked about how one can catch glimpses of the entire coterie of slices of Puneri culture and stages of life on the tekdi. Except in recent times, I never caught any glimpse of that or participated in it, because as a school kid, I was too caught up with observing slices of natural life in general to get diverted towards observing human life. I purposely used to look for paths that avoided the presence of human beings (although I was one myself…) Admittedly, I owe the tekdi a lot for piquing my interest in the natural world. As we go on living our daily lives, it alerted me to the fact that there are a billion times many more creatures around us that are living their own. But yes, the tekdi, in one way or other, fuels the roots of everyone who tread its mud and paths everyday. It provides a reassurance to us that it’s the simplest things that can provide a showcase of life in all its variety, from human to insect. I miss it.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Siddharth Rege said...

Ashutosh,
great article. Brought old memories of Pune flooding back. As for me, I actually lived on a tekdi. Salunke Vihar, that retired army colony, was actually built of the side of a fairly steep hill. It was probably too big to be considered a hillock, but close enough.
As a kid, cricket occupied my mind to the extent insects did yours. So we played cricket on the tekdi. Since everything in Salunke Vihar is generally on some sort of slope, (except for the Basketball court, but only big kids played cricket on that ;-))we younger kids made do with sloped pitches. The tekdi we played on sloped from 'in' to the batsman making most deliveries in-cutters. To this day, you will find yourself hardpressed to bowl me out on an inswinger!
Pune was a fantastic place to grow up. I guess everyone thinks of their hometown in a similar fashion. Anyway blog on pune as often as you can

3:00 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

That must have been interesting indeed!

8:16 AM  
Blogger Saket said...

Hey Fancy seeing a post about dear old Hanuman and Vetal Tekdis. My house was well-positioned so that both tekdis were accessible by walk. I think I went to Hanuman Tekdi virtually every day during my four years at COEP. I didnt quite develop the great physique I was hoping for from those excursions, but it was a nice regimen I developed for myself nevertheless. I think I met you a few times there too. Even when I do go back home, I keep going to the tekdi with my parents.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Yes, I remember meeting you a couple of times and talking about Feynman's book once. :)

6:11 AM  
Anonymous Rewatee said...

Excellent piece! The tekdi really is the most amazing place. I've been going there since as long back as I can remember and as far as possible, I intend to keep going. Besides, it made me look closely at all that grows there and gave me a love and appreciation for the beauty of Nature. What more can it do ?

11:23 AM  
Blogger Nikhil K said...

The Hanuman tekdi is a place very dear to me. I have spent hours and hours sitting atop its ledges, staring out over the hazy city and introspecting. In fact, I am what I am today in a large measure due to the decisions reached out there on the tekdi.
In contrast to you, the tekdi was for me a solitary affair, a place to come to terms with my frustrations and cry away my fears, so I would have considered it sacrilegious to invite someone else to come with me. An inviolable part of me still lies buried in its crags.
The vetal tekdi, as you say, lies just on the other side, but still far far away. It was supposed to be 'better' and greener, but I think the Hanuman tekdi was 'friendlier'.
Now, thinking about it, I will go there this week.

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Parth said...

Great piece there Ashutosh,

Are you registered at www.tekdi.com ? or had a look at www.tekdi.org . Tekdi's homes on the net?
Do take a look. We'd like to have great writers to write cool articiles for the portal too!

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Nikky said...

Hey . The tekdi's are as dear to us now as they obviously were to you then . Past few years we were into this Tekdi Conservation thing . And we were planning on doin a seminar At Fergussen College during their Geo and Environmental Science fest . I was just researchin some stuff and found you blog . It gives a really nice non-scientific personal touch to what we are tryin to say . Thank you so much for the idea ......

6:18 PM  

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