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Campus diaries: On a nature trail at IIT-Bombay

Last updated on: November 19, 2013 14:16 IST

Campus diaries: On a nature trail at IIT-Bombay

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Paloma Sharma

Behind the high profile cement buildings where future engineers are nurtured and trained, is a less explored trail where nature manifests itself, writes Paloma Sharma about her recent visit to the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai.

We walked on, along The Trail That Ends Nowhere -- a narrow cemented path that twists and turns around marshes and groves -- when my aunt suddenly stopped and pointed to a patch of bushes threatening to spill over, onto the cement.

"That's where it was," she told me, referring to the mongoose she saw the day before.

We were speaking about it earlier in the day. The thing with mongooses is that despite their mythical status as protectors of humans against a certain variety of fanged reptilians, every time I see one I become acutely aware of the fact that there might be a snake around and become cautious.

Then again, I reminded myself, the snakes are always around. 

We had just seen a five foot long dhaman (Indian rat snake) slithering across the parking lot before we drove down to the lake.

It is one thing to be near a snake in an urban jungle and quite another to enter the creature's own territory.

As an aftermath of the rain, the reeds on the circumference of the lake had grown up to more than four feet, some of them going as far as my shoulder.

We walked on, turning another sharp curve on the trail.

Green had conquered the ground. Tadpoles formed tiny bubbles on the surface of the water that had collected where the grass parted.

The marshland, though still in abundance, was clearly drying up. This could mean only one thing -- prey was getting scarce.

 

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Image: The Trail That Ends Nowhere
Photographs: Paloma Sharma

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Campus diaries: On a nature trail at IIT-Bombay

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Up above us, in the branches of the ancient trees that intertwine, partially hiding the sky, a long, shrill call erupted.

Crows flew off their perches immediately, dashing off for better cover. 

A pair of bulbuls fluttered their little brown wings, seeking refuge in the hollow of a nearby tree as a shadow soared overhead.

The Black Kites were on the prowl, as they had been that afternoon.

We had been out in the balcony, on the fourteenth floor, overlooking the hills and Powai Lake when the kites had begun to circle the mountaintop right in front of us.

As they neared the lake, lesser birds had fluttered away as fast as they could have, towards our building; and, needless to say, the kites had come along.

We had stopped to watch the kites, both from the balcony, and near the lake, for a while before we were reminded by the fast-reddening sun that the dark was near. 


Image: A black kite flies past the hills
Photographs: Paloma Sharma

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Campus diaries: On a nature trail at IIT-Bombay

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Following the Trail That Ends Nowhere eventually us to a vast wall of tall reeds.

I wondered what it was that it was that we had come to see out there and as I waited, my aunt walked on, undeterred, into the reeds.

I watched in amazement as she emerged on the other side.

I followed suit and soon enough, we were standing under a tin roof, separated from the lake by only reeds, reeds and more reeds.


Image: The tin roof along the trail
Photographs: Paloma Sharma
Tags: IIT

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Campus diaries: On a nature trail at IIT-Bombay

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The sun had shrunk and descended further.

The sky was ablaze near the horizon but cooled down into a soft blue higher up.

The lake's waters reflect the same colours.

I watched, noticing the changes from my last visit, the absence of the chhui-mui (mimosa plant) and that of the little crocodile islands (places where crocodiles lay their eggs) scattered here and there in the water.

It was no wonder that the large reptiles were being pushed towards the shores.

I had encountered one of them that morning. 

The rickshaw I was travelling in had stopped suddenly on the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road.

The driver had pulled it aside to check the oil tank when I had wandered off to the edge of the road, towards the lake.

I had tried to get as close to the water as I could (and thankfully, I couldn't get too close).

It had been lying on the surface, eyes above the water, almost as if it were a large, misshapen log of dark, decaying wood.

However, it was only when it had raised its long snout slightly for a breath of fresh air that I truly realised what it was.

For a moment I had seen it clearly, and then I couldn't.

The crocodile had conspicuously vanished into the murky depths of the man-made lake on the edge of which I had stood. It's a great day, I had thought to myself, and it had only been 7:34 am. 


Image: The sky was ablaze near the horizon
Photographs: Paloma Sharma

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Campus diaries: On a nature trail at IIT-Bombay

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Now, at dusk, I was glad that my prophecy had come true.

We were in a different time, where things moved at a leisurely pace; in a different place -- an alternative universe -- that remains hidden from both the smog and the noise of Mumbai, and the average Mumbaikar.

Often (wrongly) stereotyped as the natural habitat of bespectacled brainiacs, the campus of IIT Bombay has a lot more to offer than merely highly prestigious academic pursuits.

Snugly nestled on 550 acres of land between the Vihar and Powai lakes, it is an ecological hotspot that not only houses two natural freshwater ecosystems but also provides shelter to over 100 species of indigenous flora and 150 recorded varieties of fauna.

In order to make it inside the main gate of the IIT-B campus, past the polite yet imposing security guard you must be one of the four:

  • A student
  • A member of the staff
  • A relative of one of the members of the staff
  • A much-pampered niece of the HoD of Biosciences and Bioengineering

Image: The 500-acre IIT campus is home to a variety of flora and fauna
Photographs: Paloma Sharma

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Campus diaries: On a nature trail at IIT-Bombay

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Soon, we realised that hard courses and pretty scenery is not all that IIT-B can offer.

Once dusk began to settle in, we drove to the Student Activity Centre (with a small detour to Gulmohar Cafe for their famed masala chai) to attend a gig starring Bawraas.

The moment I stepped into the building, my eyes were afraid of blinking, lest I missed something.

I was greeted by a huge painting of the trio from Dil Chahta Hai -- Amir Khan, Akshaye Khanna and Saif Ali Khan -- that spanned across the wall. There were several more to come.

The graffiti on the walls might have been a pass-time or perhaps an issue of competition for the students who had created it but it could have easily been sold for thousands of rupees had it been framed and put up in a gallery.


Image: A wall painting of the trio from the Hindi film Dil Chahta Hai
Photographs: Paloma Sharma

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There was a giant portrait of Pran, with a cigarette gingerly dangling from his lips, as he glared at everyone who dared walk that route.

There was another of the Minions from Despicable Me who were dressed as characters from the Ramayan -- there were abstract designs, Warli paintings, scenes from everyday life painted all over the walls.

It was becoming easier to understand why only the best minds in the country made it to IIT and I would have loved to linger on but the cheers of the crowd were caught my attention.

There, on the stage of the open-air auditorium, was Vikram Sathaye.

Sathaye imitated several cricketers and commentators and, to a fan of the game, could have been a great comic until he said, while introducing Shantanu Moitra, an economics graduate, "Economics, I believe, is a fundamentally wrong subject because women with least principle get maximum interest."

Nevertheless, the musical half (or rather, two-thirds) managed to make the audience forget about Sathaye's awkward attempt at a joke by delivering an absolutely electrifying performance.

I had goose bumps throughout the show. But the one moment that really stood out was when Swanand Kirkire and Shantanu Moitra performed O Ri Chiraiya -- the whole crowd of over a thousand people -- young and old -- all of them broke down and cried.

Although my IIT Bombay darshan ended around 10 pm (any longer would be risking the leopard's wrath).

So silent was the night that I could still here the soft music from the auditorium when I lay my head on my pillow.

I will never, ever forget the October 26, 2013 -- not in a million years -- and if I can be sure of one thing it is that I would be willing to spend four years of my life with my nose in engineering textbooks studying subjects that I don't even like just to have a chance to go back to IIT Bombay's campus once again.


Image: A wall portrait of Hindi film actor Pran at the IIT Bombay campus
Photographs: Paloma Sharma

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