Fifty years ago, Deonar was not synonymous with slaughter or slum. It was a sleepy village with a creek, mangroves and a fishing beach that spread all the way to Mankhurd. You could see a lot of lush nature in and around the homes of the Koli and Agri fisherfolk who inhabited the village.
It was the sort of place a young boy could spend hours gazing at the creepy crawlies in his backyard, chasing butterflies or going out to sea on an expedition with indulgent fisherfolk. Isaac Kehimkar's passion for nature in fact goes back to those idyllic years in Deonar.
Almost every nature lover in Mumbai would have interacted with 51-year-old Isaac at some point or the other. This general manager (programme)of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) knows every corner of the urban jungle, the brave birds, flowers, insects and reptiles that have made even this cement city their home.
Walk into the Goregaon education centre of the BNHS on most holidays and you are likely to see a gaggle of excited children engaged in nature gazing. Finding creepy crawlies under the rocks after rains, brunching with the birds, learning to make paper from herbs...most of these interactive nature camps are part of the society's effort to bring Mumbaikars closer to nature.
"Once they fall in love with nature, they will have the urge to protect it," says Isaac. He follows the 'butterfly philosophy' of sharing knowledge. When you touch a butterfly, it leaves its shine on your hand. Awareness, too, he believes should spread from one mind to another.
Isaac's favourite animals are no one's idea of cutesy nature. He is fascinated with reptiles and insects. It was a fascination that goes back to his childhood. His father, a bank officer, encouraged him to raise pets and read up on nature. "Those books showcased flora and fauna from the US or UK and I would try to search for one of those birds or insects in my village and not find them," he says.
Love for nature in those days never really got you a job. But he hung on to his passion through some difficult years in college and later, his first job as a management trainee at Lakme. He picked up the threads of his association with nature when BNHS hosted a snake show at Thane. He volunteered to care for the reptiles and talk to the visitors. It was at this show that a life changing incident occurred -- Isaac saw the legendary 'Birdman of India' Dr. Salim Ali at a distance but never got around to meeting him.
"I was desperate to interact with him. I was in a fix, I had to choose between a career and a hobby. The only job available with BNHS then was a library assistant's post. But my father backed me all the way. I quit Lakme and joined BNHS, even taking up a year's course in library sciences," he recalls.
The 15 years Isaac worked at the library made for a rich experience. He got to meet veteran scholars and naturalists like Dr Ali and Venkatesh Madgulkar and observe them at work. Something he deeply admired about Dr Ali was his fluid writing skill. There was only secret to brilliance the ornithologist would say: 'Give your best to whatever you do and perfection follows.'
Isaac's skills as a shutterbug grew when he graduated from the box camera he used to frame backyard nature to an SLR. With this he ventured into wildlife photography, shooting extensively around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. "But there were no takers for photos of reptiles and insects. So I moved to shooting butterflies and flowers," he quips. Isaac has so far written six visually rich books on nature and done a film on the life cycle of a butterfly and another on the Project Tiger.
He has found that help comes in from unexpected quarters for conservation ventures. BNHS was severely short of funds to publish books and Isaac offered to go an ask Tatas to donate Rs3 lakh. He found to his amazement a cheque of Rs30 lakh in his hand. Why? He asked the generous donors. "To promote new talent and also to educate people about nature," he was told.
Isaac has been at the task of educating Mumbai about nature for a while now. Apart from the headquarters at Hornbill House in Fort, BNHS now runs an active outreach centre at Goregaon and Isaac is actively involved in its camps and campaigns.
"I have always believed in spreading awareness and educating people," says Kehimkar. He has delivered lectures in schools, colleges and also to corporates. He is often invited to give talks at the Goregaon education and conservation centre of BNHS. "I believe that teaching and educating adults about nature is very difficult," he says.
At 51, Isaac is fit and sprightly enough to impress any youngster. He chose to make Navi Mumbai his home because it is the one pocket in this city closest to nature. He lives here with his wife Nandini and two sons, Sameer and Amit. Sameer has inherited his father's passion for reptiles and calls himself a 'reptile resuer'. "He is crazier and more daring than me," Isaac says with great pride.
Isaac incidentally belongs to a small and dwindling community of Jews who made India their home hundreds of years ago. Some drifted towards Maharahstra and integrated beautifully with the local populace and made Marathi their mother tongue.
As Isaac is being photographed, a colleague at BNHS pipes up to ask what the occasion was. 'Maybe because I am the last of the surviving Jews,' he jokes. The horrific events of 26/11 he says hurt him deeply not because his community was targeted but because it shook the entire nation up.