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Capturing changing Mumbai landscape through dying hill

Monday June 04, 2012 12:41:05 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

The denuding Gilbert Hill in Andheri in Mumbai is the subject of a new book about the changing urban environment.

(Photo: IANS)

New Delhi: The hill stands like a dark stump of basalt covered in a motley sheet of grime, algae and construction in the teeming heart of Andheri in Mumbai, but for writer duo Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, Gilbert Hill is the muse of their new book, "Once Upon a Hill" (Harper-Collins India), to be unveiled later this month.

The duo, who write under the name Kalpish Ratna, digs up the natural heritage of their turf through the disappearing geological landmark.

Like their first novel, "The Quarantine Papers" which exhumed the history of communal hate in Mumbai from a scientific discovery about the plague epidemic of 1897, "Once Upon a Hill" is a trek back 60 million years in time and to unearth the geological origin of Gilbert Hill, a coastal rock formation that has succumbed to stone mining and real estate sharks.

For the writers, the story of Gilbert Hill is an appeal to Mumbai to preserve its natural heritage.

The hill in a way is symbolic to the geological evolution of the city and a symbol of of its changing landscape, Kalpana Swaminathan said.

"The megapolis has many hills like Antop Hill, Pali Hill and the Malabar Hill. The area where Gilbert Hill stands was once a volcanic area between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea," Swaminathan told IANS.

The duo extensively photographed the hill and is also working on an accompanying photographic project, "The Persistence of Memory", about the "erasures of Mumbai".

The exhibition - a visual extension of the book - features 62 photographs of "places where things have happened in the past but do not exist any more", Ishrat Syed said.

"The disregard for the city's natural heritage is shocking," Swaminathan added.

Geological records says Gilbert Hill - a 197-foot monolithic basalt column with a steep sheer face - was believed to have been formed in the Mesozoic era more than 60 million years ago. Evidence suggests that sustained volcanic eruptions that covered the present day states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh spreading across nearly 50,000 sq km squeezed quaint landforms from the bowels of the earth.

Records say Gilbert Hill, one such rare volcanic formation, was part of a cluster of ridges and vertical columns that spilled into the nearby Jogeswari locality.

The Jogeswari outcrops were mined to extinction more than two decades ago for their high-quality stones.

Gilbert Hill, a survivor, was declared a National Park in 1952 under the Forest Act and a grade II heritage structure in 2007 by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, putting a temporary end to quarrying.

But over the years, parts of the hill have been denuded from exposure to natural elements. A Hindu temple "drilled atop the hill" wreaks more damage than good to the rock surface, the writers say.

The book introduces an element of mythic quality to the hill through the characters of a "curious cartographer, a frog, a toad and a village where an epidemic had raged more than a century ago".

"It's a spin-off from the post-'Quarantine Papers' on the Mumbai plague," Swaminathan said.

The writers said the book was an examination of Mumbai's past in a new way.

"We wanted to explore what was happenig to the present through the remnants of the past. Every epidemic has been consequent to an assault on environment. What is likely to happen now? Of all the things that stared in our face during our quest was the rock, a part of the environment which has changed our lives. We wanted to document the amount of change that has taken place in our lives using the hill as a metaphor," Swaminathan said.

The writers relied on extensive archival research, scientific investigation and interactions with local residents and geologists for the book.

"We got the maps of the area around Gilbert Hill from BMC clerks. The maps had not been taken out for the last 20 years. They have no relevance. Most of the Mumbai hills have gone and people say the rest will have to go," Swaminathan said.

The duo, who are working on their new book, "Twice Upon A River" about the Mithi river in Mumbai and the Mississippi, predict an uncertain environmental future for Mumbai.

"In 10 years, we will not be able to recognise Mumbai at all," Swaminathan said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be reached at







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