A Butterfly Haven in Mumbai

~ Shobha Gallagher/ Photographs: Rachana Gupta

Blue ButterflyMumbai is my cacophonous, ultra paradoxical home city. Living now thousands of sea miles away in Ottawa, capital of Canada, I still try to find the face of the city I once knew. Each time I return, I am both bug-eyed and disheartened by the animated flux, the multi-stimuli that is its signature, the heat-and-dust of its streets and marketplace. And yes, the obsessive and incessant cell phone chatter everywhere.

So when I heard of a Butterfly Park in the Thane district of Mumbai – an area marked by a spate of luxe-condos and astronomically priced real estate, I was astounded. Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden as it is called, was located just off the long Ghodbunder Road in a little village called Owala.

Veering off from the noisy traffic, the rickshaw turned into a small dusty laneway that led us to this park. A nondescript sign of the butterfly garden (spelled “gardan”) outside the gate was accompanied by lopsided notices indicating the timings. This itself mirrored the persona of what lay beyond….a land wonderfully wild and thankfully exhibiting no manicured perfection.

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The owner, Rajendra Ovalekar, a physical education school teacher by profession and now a self-taught butterfly enthusiast, had painstakingly designed the area to reflect nature with its tangle of foliage, weeds, fruit trees and nectarine flowers. The mud pools allow male butterflies to replenish themselves with soil minerals, he explained. He showed us different caterpillars gestating under stems and leaves as a curator of a jewellery museum would. Some of these caterpillars were barely thicker than a strand of hair and the white eggs the size of pinheads, while others almost the size of a thumb were ruby red with little spikes or had smooth blue striped covering with yellow half-moon patterns.

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Then we waited for the midmorning sun – the usual time for the butterflies to flit in from the nearby Yeor Hills and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Ovalekar had fastened bright purple and blue plastic containers filled with overripe pineapples, chickoos and mangoes to the trunk and branches of the trees to attract these winged delights.

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They arrived – or rather appeared as subtly as fairy spirits might and danced above the flower bushes and fruit bowls. Ovalekar named them as they flitted by: the Common Crow, the Blue Tiger, the Striped Tiger, the Common Sailor, the Common Jezebels, the Blue Oakleaf, the Great Orange Tip, the Common Wanderer, the Swordtail, the Tawny Rajah, the Common Baron, the Sailor, and on and on. These military or sporty terms were apparently christened by the British during the colonial days.

The garden attracts more than a 100 species of these resplendent winged creatures and during the peak months from October to December, thousands converge in this haven. What is gratifying is that here, butterflies are literally free…and are not artificially bred under a glass dome or a netted world. “They come and go as they please,” underscores Ovalekar.

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What was even more fascinating is Ovalekar’s own story of how he converted his family owned two-acre farmland left fallow for a decade, into a butterfly park in the midst of Mumbai’s ever growing concrete jungle.  He recounts the time when he participated in a nature trail and a talk called “Breakfast with Butterflies” organized by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and was surprised to learn that many of the butterfly species discussed on this tour were indigenous to his own village of Owala.

The idea germinated instantly and he decided to convert his farm into a butterfly garden. With the help of Isacc Kehimkar, the grandmaster of butterflies in Mumbai, he planted all possible foliage and yes, including weeds, to attract even more butterflies into his agricultural land. He pulled out every root on his farm that would not serve the grand purpose and began to scout for plants in the nearby sewers and rail tracks. Today his land has over 5000 plants and bushes that serve as fodder for the lifecycle of the butterflies.

His story also reflects how a passion for holding on to a green space and to a richly natural environment in a granular hard-nosed metropolitan where the price of every square feet of land keeps escalating sky-high, has its own priceless rewards. He was stoically determined to resist the tempting offers of the real estate barons and nurture this golden bubble of space flooded with the flutter of gossamer wings.

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Ovalekar simply followed his heart and this brought him the support of some of the most committed butterfly and nature experts. Today, he also acts as a consultant for some of the corporate companies and builders of Mumbai and from the nearby sister cities of Pune and Nasik, who are keen on developing butterfly gardens in their premise or terrace. A number of non-government organizations (NGOs) are also lending him support for his venture.

What gives him the most satisfaction, he notes, is when he instills the sense of respect for nature and butterflies among his little students and children who visit his garden. When he opens up the world of the pupa, the caterpillar and the butterfly to them, he knows he has ingrained in their little hearts the love for preserving these winged wonders. “The children of today are even ignorant that coconuts grow on trees”, he notes. “So when I see them in this garden running around and flapping their wings like butterflies, I know there is hope for the environment and for the butterflies.”

His future dream is to plant nectarine plants and flowers along some of the major arterial roads of Mumbai so that people can gaze at the butterflies as they drive by. Perhaps this is will prompt Mumbai dwellers who seem to be eternally on a fast-track, to take a pause … and breathe-in even for a moment, the translucent beauty of sun-kissed wings. Perhaps that shimmer-moment will be enough for some to ponder on the wing-beat of nature and her glorious rhythm.

A poet once noted that butterflies are God’s kisses sent to earth. It is also believed that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can be enough to cause a storm thousands of miles away. Perhaps these feather-light “kisses from heaven” will create a wave of another kind in hearts!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Purrfect Cat Café

Café Chat Sibérien

Café Chat Sibérien: The Purrfect Hypoallergenic Cat Café

~ Shobha Gallagher

A mystery wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a ball of fur. You probably guessed right – this is ‘cat’. Three letters that embody a host of head-on contradictions: conceited, adorable, standoffish, shy, therapeutic, manipulative, calming, restorative, irresistibly playful one moment, and iconically meditative the next … a being that God created “to give man the pleasure of stroking a tiger,” as François Joseph Mery so aptly expostulated.

Unfortunately, there are some who cannot always indulge in the joyous luxury of being in the presence of these tiger-souls. Michael Lebrun from Cantley, Quebec, an accountant by profession, and cat lover at heart, was one of them. Since childhood, he had cats all his life … but he was also severely unwell when around them, having to resort to his asthma puffer regularly. Though he was constantly allergic, he stilled adored cats.

Ironically and providentially if we might say so, it was his intense allergic reaction that, in a way, gave birth to the world’s first hypoallergenic cat café, Café Chat Sibérien (The Siberian Cat Cafe) in Chelsea, Quebec, Canada, about 13 kilometres on the outskirts of the capital city, Ottawa. The discovery of the hypoallergenic Siberian breed in 2012 was the turning point in his life. “It is a fantastic breed, an easy-going cat and they love people,” he remarks. Michael not only has a Siberian cat at home that he can now snuggle with without any reaction flaring up, but seven in the cafe that he and his partner, Natalie, setup in July 2015.

The breed is known for their endearing ‘cat-dog’ personality and loyalty to their owners. They produce 90 to 95 percent less of the protein Fel d1 in their saliva that is usually considered to be the cause of allergens. Siberian cats originated in the Russian forests. Due to the extreme cold climate of the region, they developed a water repellant skin with thick long fur that did not tangle easily.

For Michael it was “the perfect cat.” The other passion in his life was coffee. He had dreamed about having a coffee shop for the past fifteen years of his life. It was the couple’s visit to one of Canada’s first cat cafés in 2014, Café Chat L’Heureux (The Happy Cat Café) in Montreal, that not only left paw prints in their heart, but triggered the idea of opening one themselves. “We worked out the first business plan in about fifteen minutes on the drive back from Montreal to Ottawa,” he states. Their goal of being the first cat cafe in Outaouais, and the world’s first hypoallergenic one with Siberian cats began to increasingly take concrete shape as they drove home on the asphalt roads.

In October 2014, they bought a building that was once an art gallery in Old Chelsea. This light lemon coloured building is now the Café Chat Sibérien with a Cat Salon, a Bistro area and a Patio. The Cat Salon is the room with seven Siberian cats and where visitors can interact with the long-haired felines, while enjoying their coffee, lattes and snacks. 

Designed primarily with the cats in mind, this space has high wooden walkways close to the ceiling, cat trees with comfortable pods and perches near windows niches in walls, for the cats to snuggle in, scratch pads, a drinking water fountain for cats, and a rocking chair. There are tables where about 25 people can be seated with their selection of beverages such as the gourmet Cafés du Moussonneur coffee, master roasters of the monsoon coffee; Cha Yi, Asia’s reputed tea importer including a variety of teas from across the world, hot chocolate, lattes, onion soup and a variety of grilled sandwiches and desserts.

The rules for entering the Cat Salon includes the washing of hands before entry, refraining from disturbing the cats if they are sleeping; avoiding the use of cameras with flashes, avoiding picking up the cats unless they voluntarily jump on your lap, avoiding feeding the cats or making loud noises. Children under 10 years are not allowed except for a few hours during the weekend. The rules are meant to establish respect for the cat’s space. Visitors usually keep their level of talking low and no music is played in this area to ensure that the cats are not over-stimulated by sounds from multiple sources.

Naturally, the Cat Salon is the main attraction and is a place where people may prefer to move around or squat on the floor to pet, play or just enjoy the presence of the cats.

“Cats seem to feel whenever you need to have them around,” says François Ramsay, from Montreal. “Just the fact of being able to cuddle them … seems to be extremely calming and peaceful.”

Sometimes Retirement Homes organize visits to the cat cafe, informs Michael. “Cats are little soul therapists,” he notes. “They just jump on people and so it is good for people to enjoy the animal presence….nothing is better than making people happy.”

A cat “is a soul….it’s a life,” underlines Isabelle Léger, Gatineau, Quebec. “They enhance our life, they are like my family and just being in their presence is therapeutic…so I can understand that a person who lives alone or an elderly person will gain so much from spending an afternoon here with these cats.”

To define a cat café, it is a bar or a café where patrons can interact with a number of cats. But for those who prefer to have a cat-free zone, the Bistro area is ideal, informs Michael. This section is tastefully decorated with wood paneling, cat theme artifacts and gifts, a counter for placing your orders, shelves with local gourmet coffee and tea packages. But even though the Bistro is a cat-free space, one cannot help but feel their larger-than-life presence in the gigantic pictures of the resident cats, that adorn the cathedral wall above the counter. “The cats are after all the superstars over here,” emphasizes Michael with a nod and smile.

The same is reflected in the big pictures of cats on the exterior railing of the building and the paw prints on the fencing of the parking lot. The expansive outdoor Patio made entirely of wood has a comfortable lounging area with long sofas and a fireplace for the cold months when skiers can stop by for a breather, and some cosy warmth and rest.

The Cat Cafe is ideally situated near the gateway to the sprawling Gatineau Park, Outaouais region – a popular destination for nature lovers, hikers, bikers and, during winter, for skiers. Michael’s dream is to establish three more cat cafes in the next few years and given his relentless motivation and expertise, it will probably become a reality in the near future. His penchant for lighthearted advertising brought attention to the café when he put up mock-election signs featuring the cats as candidates for imaginary political parties: Bloc Chat, Chat-chasseur, Libre and Nouveau Parti de Dimitri (the name of one of their cats). Though he had to pull the signs down as it went against the bylaw, it drew some laugh and cheers in the community and publicity for the cafe.

“We just want to share our love for cats,” he exudes. Referring to the cream coloured Siberian cat, Konstantin, lolling on his lap in bliss, he states,“The cats are really the superstars especially this one….he is the manager, he is the owner…and now he does not care about us!”

The ball of fur stretches laconically in response.

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Cat Cafés: A Brief History

The fist cat café, Cat Flower Garden, opened in Taipei in 1998 with the main intention to offer urbanites a place to relax and unwind. It soon became popular as a tourist destination especially for the Japanese. The concept took off in Japan with the first called Neko No Mise (Shop of Cats) setup in Osaka in 2004. Japan now reportedly has about a 150 cat cafés. They became the ideal location for those who lived in constricted spaces or in apartment buildings that did not permit animals in their premise.

Cat Cafés spread to Europe with the opening of Cafe Neko in Vienna in 2012, Café des Chats in Paris in 2013. In 2014 the concept took root in USA and today there are cat cafés in places such as California, Florida, Denver, New York City, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Michigan, Texas, Seattle, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Ohio.

The first cat cafés to open in Canada was Le Café des Chats in August 2014 and Café Chat L’Heureux in September 2014 in Montreal. This was followed in 2015 by cat cafés such as Café Chat Sibérien, Chelsea, Quebec, Catfe in Vancouver, British Columbia. Two cat cafés, Kitty Cat Café and Pet Me Meow are being planned to be setup in Toronto.

Cat cafés have hit the popularity chart over the recent years and are now also found in countries like Singapore, Korea, Thailand, Slovenia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, UK, Scotland, New Zealand.

Perhaps the reason for the popularity of cat cafés the world over in recent years, is because they offer a place where people can indulge in the presence of a relaxing and magnificent being and know that these jungle-souls will not judge them in anyway.

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