August 18, 2008

The Magic Lake of Mahalaxmi and Other Fishing Tales

By Namita Devidayal

If you don't believe in magic, you must take a little walk to the Mahalaxmi racecourse after a heavy bout of rain.

For residents of Mumbai, whose lives are mired in traffic and concrete, it is sheer serendipity. The central field transforms into a magnificent blue lake, and in place of prize horses and walkers, you may actually see a few people fishing. White egrets circle above and frogs croak gently. The feel is that of some place else.

Within a day or two, quite as suddenly , the power of the rain fairy's wand wears off and the landscape goes back to normal. The fishermen disappear and horses get right of way.

It's as if, given the slightest chance, nature is making a point. The area that was once under sea is reclaiming its natural biodiversity. The explanations for this wonder come from conservationists and nature experts who closely follow the existence of another worlda world that is largely invisible in a city of human predators.

Marine biologist B F Chhapgar explains that, like much of Mumbai, the racecourse was actually part of the sea and consisted of swampy flat land about 200 years ago. The area was called Hornby Vellard before the British built what is now known as Dr Annie Besant Road. It's the same with Marine Drive, he says, pointing out that there was a time, during high tide, when waves washed up almost as far as the railway tracks along Charni Road-on the maidans that are now a series of gymkhanas.

Chhapgar, who retired from the fisheries department, says, "I have read about the raining of fish. In certain countries, small tornado-like winds pick up little fish from freshwater lakes or rivers and they are then dropped in other areas. But this is not the case here. They might have come from some of the streams that open into the sewage area."

During the rainy season, there exists a network of tiny nullahs and streams that the human eye is probably not even aware of. "Even if they exist for a day or two, as long as there is water, the fish can travel," says the former director of the Taraporevala Aquarium. "Nature is very strong."

Head of the Bombay Natural History Society's conservation centre, V Shubhalaxmi , says, "Water accumulates in two ways-through rain and through streams and nullahs. Even a small roadside nullah is good enough for fish to travel in from the sea. There are many such waterways." She explains that along with the fish come insect and tadpoles. The egrets then show up to feed on the fish, and the entire biodiversity may transform temporarily.

One of the hopefuls who was found fishing at the racecourse on a recent cloudy evening, a labourer from the neighbouring Saat Raasta, said he had been fishing there with a friend for the last 8-10 years.

The man said he had caught fish that were up to 4 kg heavy and insisted that his catch was freshwater fish.

But the best response to Mahalaxmi's magic lake came from two children, who were fascinated by the sudden appearance of shells along the racecourse track. As they filled their pockets with shells, dead snails and baby conches, with a view to opening a "shell shop' ' in their living room, they said, sotto voce, "This is heaven!"

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