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The inner veranda had different sights on offer. It was dominated by the huge neem tree that must have been 40-odd years old even then. It had a massive trunk and branches that spread out on all sides providing shade in the open area that was surrounded by four flats. Periodically, its branches would be chopped up to keep its spread within limits. On occasions its branches would extend so much as to almost touch our veranda from where young leaves could be plucked for our Bengali bitter delicacy of neem with egg plants that was supposedly also a prophylactic for ailments associated with the onset of summer.
The tree had its own ecosystem. It hosted colonies of ants – both black and small red ones – and I would watch them being busy in going up and down the branches on errands that only they knew. Then it attracted a large number of parrots who would come in flocks for the yellow fruit of the neem. Parrots were aplenty then and were a prominent bird species in Gwalior. Surprisingly, I don’t see many of them where I live. The neem tree would also attract pigeons and gray doves which, again, are a rarity today. Then, of course, there would be squirrels climbing up and down the branches always in the lookout for something to nibble at. Once, a very young one was even adopted by my second brother who took care of it for some weeks before it just disappeared one fine morning. It was fed milk, to begin with, and then was given small pieces of biscuits to nibble on. But then, it didn’t hang on with us.
In the inner veranda, as in the outer veranda, my mother had huge planters from some of which she had raised creepers of Morning Glory. Over time they had become thick and meshy with plentiful blooms attracting swarms of noisy sparrows. I am yet to see so many sparrows together kicking up a racket like they used to on our verandas. They used to be all over our house, flitting from one end of the room to the other. After more than fifty-odd years, sparrows have become a rarity for reasons mostly unknown. Speculating on the reasons some have found the radiation from the mobile phone towers to be the villain and some others ascribe their disappearance to the kind of houses we live in today – the flats in apartment blocks that are not conducive for them to cohabit with us. Their numbers have declined so alarmingly, at least, in urban India that a campaign for revival of this little chirpy bird is being carried out by the Bombay Natural History Society. After all, every species has an ecological role and the total disappearance of this little bird will surely damage one way or the other the ecosystem we inhabit.
The trunk of the neem tree was also used by the dhobi to tether his bull on which he used to bring the washed and ironed clothes of our family as also those of many others in the area. His black bull would be loaded with huge bundles hanging on both its flanks held by a sheet that went across its back. Generally the dhobi would arrive every Sunday to deliver the clothes and take away the ones that needed washing and ironing. If I remember, the charges for his labours were, to start with, only Rs. 3 per hundred clothes and then as the prices rose my mother had him agree to Rs. 6 per hundred a few years later – a price that would seem ridiculously low today. Dhobi with his ill-fed bull with bundles of ironed clothes hanging from its sides, as an institution, has in fact disappeared from urban India with the advent of detergents and washing machines. Clothes are washed at home and households, at best, engage a man today only for ironing who commutes on automated two-wheelers. In metros such people do this job in almost every multi-storied complex in an obscure nook or cranny