Over 10,000 twinkling colourful fairy lights, cherubic angels and fairies, reindeer and snowmen, bells, streamers and festoons, tiny crosses, and a beaming paunchy Santa Claus waving from the “cotton snow” adorn this famous and majestic Christmas tree — said to be the tallest in India.
At a staggering 65 feet or nearly the height of a seven-storeyed building, the pine conifer has entered the record books as India’s tallest, fully decorated, natural growing Christmas tree in a tiny garden in Adarsh Nagar, a private residential society in south Mumbai’s Worli neighbourhood.
“I have been tending to it for the past 45 years. Earlier, my sister Twila used to help me out. However, after her death in June 2005, I have been doing it alone,” a proud Douglas Saldanha, the owner of the Christmas tree, told IANS.
The Saldanhas’ family history is deeply entwined with that of the magnificent Christmas tree since it “joined” the down-to-earth four-member family — the late Henry Saldanha, his wife Grace, their late daughter Twila and son Douglas. The family originally hails from Mangalore.
“There was a neighbour over four decades ago who grew it on his verandah. But, at five feet, it was already too tall and he couldn’t manage it. He sold it to me for a paltry Rs 250 ($4). This was peanuts considering Christmas trees were very costly in the markets even in the 1970s,” said Saldanha, pointing out that the tree was growing straight into the clouds, with the lowest branches spreading out from around 12 feet.
Barely 12 then, Saldanha and his elder sibling, the 14-year-old Twila, lovingly re-planted it in the ground, regularly watered it and joyfully watched it grow healthy and strong.
“At Christmas time, we lavishly decorate it, starting at least a fortnight in advance, with friends and relatives occasionally joining in,” Saldanha said.
In 1991, Twila got married to an NRI, Jude Bellow, and went to settle in the US — leaving her brother as the sole guardian of the Christmas tree.
Ever year, particularly during the December-January festive season, scores of people walk in to gape at the gigantic tree, click pictures/selfies and leave — silent and awestruck.
Twila trained as a nurse in the US and lived a joyous life with her CA-turned-realtor husband Jude in Houston till tragedy struck in 2002.
“Suddenly, the family was shattered to learn that Twila was suffering from cancer. She recovered with the help of doctors and my mother Grace, who went there to take care of her. Shockingly, a couple of years later, there was a severe relapse and she succumbed in June 2005,” Saldanha said.
Whenever the family visited her in the US or when she came down to her maternal home in Worli, Twila would first enquire about her favourite Christmas tree, how it was growing, and whether it was being cared for properly — and all other stories associated with it in her absence.
“In fact, it was her dying wish that I should decorate the Christmas tree so beautifully that she should be able to view and enjoy it from Heaven,” Saldanha said in an emotional voice.
Since then, he has spared no effort or expense to ensure that Twila’s favourite Christmas tree is not only the biggest and best in Mumbai, but all over India.
“As it grows taller each year, we believe that Twila’s spirit resides in this Christmas tree. It exudes so much love and warmth for all those who see or touch it. Absolute strangers walk in to see it, and walk out as old friends,” Saldanha said.
Saldanha narrates a miracle associated with their beloved Christmas tree concerning his 87-year-old father Henry, a retired structural engineer who was part of the team that developed Tata City in Jamshedpur many, many decades ago.
Over the past couple of decades, Henry was struck with cancer, first in 2004 of the prostate and later in the cheek, but he survived and fully recovered to live a normal and happy life.
In between, he suffered five serious heart attacks, underwent open heart surgery and seven other major surgeries, but he conquered them all to continue living in the protective shadow of his favourite Christmas tree.
Douglas said his beloved dad passed away peacefully in March this year aged 87, leaving only his 83-year old widow Grace and son to nurture the tree now.
This year, he has spent over Rs 100,000 on decorating the tree to fulfill his father’s last wish: “Celebrate my life, don’t mourn for me. Twila and I shall see our Christmas tree from the heavens.”
To continue looking after his aged mother and also the Christmas tree, Saldanha, a financial consultant with a multinational, chose to remain a bachelor.
“I just want to be a good son to her now,” the 56-year old said, having turned down many attractive marriage proposals in his younger days.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at [email protected])