By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai: Gaily decorated with twinkling fairy lights, angels, reindeers and cotton snow, this is one Christmas tree that stands out – and stands tall – in the country.
At an awesome 56 feet or a five-storeyed building, the Pine Conifer has entered the record books as India’s tallest, fully decorated, natural growing Christmas Tree in Adarsh Nagar, a private society in Worli, south-central Mumbai.
“I have been nurturing it the past 40 years. Earlier, my sister Twila used to help me out, but after her death in June 2005, I have been doing it,” said a proud Douglas Saldanha, the owner of the Christmas Tree.
The Saldanhas’ history is entwined with that of the huge Christmas Tree since it became a part of the four-member family – Henry Saldanha, wife Grace, their late daughter Twila and son Douglas. The family hailed from Mangalore.
“We had a neighbour who was growing it in his verandah, but at five feet, it became too tall and unmanageable. He sold it to me for a paltry Rs.250. This was peanuts considering Christmas Trees cost heavily in the markets,” Saldanha told IANS, showing the tree growing straight to the skies, with the lowest branches spreading out to around 10 feet.
A boy of barely 12 then, Saldanha with 14-year-old Twila planted it and the duo regularly watered it, watched it with joy as it grew healthy and strong.
“Every Christmas, we would lavishly decorate it, starting at least a fortnight in advance, with friends and relatives occasionally joining in. We liberally used streamers, colourful shining balls and bells, big and small cherubic angels, tiny crosses, reindeers, snowmen and, of course, a beaming Santa Claus,” Saldanha said.
In 1991, Twila got married to an NRI, Jude Bellow, and went to settle in the US – the Christmas Tree was left with a guardian, Douglas Saldanha, who continued the old tradition without a break.
Twila trained as a nurse there 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 the 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 to it 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 enquire about her favourite Christmas Tree, how it was growing, and whether it was being cared for properly.
“In fact, it was her dying wish that I should decorate the Christmas Tree so beautifully that she would be able to see and enjoy it from Heaven,” Saldanha said in an emotional voice.
Since then, he has spared no efforts or expense to ensure that Twila’s favourite Christmas Tree is not only the best in Mumbai, but all over India.
“As we watch it grow each year, we believe that Twila’s spirit resides in the Christmas Tree. It exudes so much love and warmth for all those who see or touch it. Absolute strangers come down and return as old friends,” Saldanha said.
Saldanha attributes a miracle associated with their beloved Christmas Tree – concerning his 82-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 the prostate and later in the cheek, but he not only survived and has recovered from it fully to live a normal, happy life, on both occasions in time to enjoy Christmas!
Besides, Henry has suffered five serious heart attacks, undergone an open heart surgery and seven major surgeries till date, but he conquered it all and came out weary but unscathed.
“Every day I have been living since cancer was first diagnosed in 2004, is a Christmas bonus from the Lord,” Henry smiled with Grace, 80, standing by him.
To ensure caring for his aged parents and the Christmas Tree, Saldanha – a financial consultant with an MNC – chose to remain a bachelor.
“I wanted to be a good son,” he said, having rejected scores of attractive marriage proposals in his younger days.