Some of my most favourite illustrations that accompany certain poems happen to feature trees in them. Cassia Fistula also known as Amaltaas in India, Copper Pod, Laburnum with its golden shower is also described in a lot of novels written by C.S.Lewis, Oscar Wilde, even J.R.R.Tolkien. In urban spaces, increasingly as there is a shortage of space for housing, on-site trees are often cut by builders and property developers to build a concrete community. We don’t even feel the lack of green where we live as anything amiss in our surrounding environment. Many years ago, I witnessed a giant tree cutting ‘ceremony’ in the locality where I lived as a kid. I call it a ceremony because the labourers who cut the tree over a span of five-six days first offered prayers and applied red vermilion to the trunk of the tree before proceeding to cut the giant. I was very pained to see the remnants of the huge tree afterwards. It seemed like a defaced woman’s body. I have always considered trees to possess a woman’s soul. Perhaps I feel so because of their tender and gentle nurturing aspect.
Fortunately, the heritage precincts in Mumbai still have a considerable lot of tree cover in its surroundings. I used to say that only because of the buildings did the trees get an extension to their life. There are many beautiful by-lanes in Mumbai with exotic trees lined up in a disciplined yet charming array lending their names to streets and areas as does Laburnum Road near Cumballa Hill. Mumbai is home to some of the best college campuses in urbanised cities. The University of Mumbai, Elphinstone Institute, Sir JJ School of Arts, the David Sassoon Library all have wonderfully protected trees and gardens. The David Sassoon Library garden is one of my favourites for its magical forestry gateway atmosphere. One enters the library and after walking straight through the corridors adorned with marble sculptures and plaques, suddenly there appears a huge black doorway and out through its steps, do we enter an absolute sacred and majestic little garden with trees and carefully pruned bushes and white coated wrought iron patio furniture. It feels like an entirely different land with paved tar roads just outside the library gates separating the heat and this cool shaded reading space available right in the heart of the city. I once attended an evening of poetry recital by none other than Gulzar here and in that February evening, even the cold seemed to fade away as Gulzar’s honeyed voice swayed with the trees right into my heart.
There was a Gulmohar Villa near the bungalow where I lived in my childhood. The Villa was a huge land mass with Gulmohar trees planted all around the bungalow which itself occupied very little space. I often saw the adults in the villa sit on the benches underneath the huge red spread of Gulmohar in evenings. I envied their luxury then. Once I befriended them, I often went and sat under the Gulmohar arches to read books in summer holidays. It was a dreamy sight with the red all around and over me accompanied by little squirrels running throughout the shaded ground into bushes. But winter bought a very gloomy look to their Villa. The trees stood like old men with drooping branches and a sad forlorn look fell over the villa. I would see the trees swinging and rustling their leaves on wintry nights and they seemed to whisper to me about their sorry tale of lost blooms. I had a happy childhood with all these trees and the colour riot I saw around me.
Another city whose urban layout really impressed me is Pondicherry. I visited Chennai and Pondicherry in early January in 2009. The clean air, bright skies, well-planned housing layouts and lots of trees along the avenues won my heart upon first sight. One of the most memorable experiences there was taking shelter under a huge Bougainvillea tree laden with pink and white flowers whilst being caught in an unexpected shower. I forgot everything about being drenched and couldn’t stop staring lovingly at that full bloomed spread. Promenades in Pondicherry are full of Coconut, Bougainvillea and other roadside shade trees. Every city that I travel to tends to enchant me more when I see trees and green spread on streets. Calcutta is one such city. The old city parts have a massive amount of thick, shade trees planted along street sides. There is a lake in mid-town Calcutta whose name I forget now, which is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever been to in a metropolis. Nothing soothes a tired mind and body as much as a leafy, green enclave does.
I moan the lack of flowering trees these days. Even the strong shade trees like Neem, Rain Tree are slowly falling prey to real estate sharks lurking everywhere near green open spaces in urban areas. Sadly, rural towns have not escaped the cruel fate of tree felling too. Until a few years ago as far as I remember, every little house in rural towns and hamlets had tree laden front and back courtyards and I loved the sound of saying ‘aangan’ in vernacular. There were so many stories crafted around trees and courtyards by grandmothers for their grandchildren. Swings would be put up every summer for children and a particular festival that called for young married girls to return to their maternal homes for a little vacation. The movies glorified these festivals and regional poetry would have so many songs for girls enjoying swinging on trees and reminiscing their happy childhoods before marriage. I remember so many stories learnt in literature classes in school. The memories come rushing quickly once I decide to dwell deeper into those happier ‘Trees are our friends’ stories from childhood. We have failed to establish a balance between Ecology and the built environment and this failure is badly going to cost the future generations their health, well-being and safe surrounding living spaces. We have both ignored and failed in nurturing the nature and green habitat for the alarm bells are dangerously ringing now. Alas! I feel sorry for myself and the future generations who will never be able to experience the rich cultural heritage of growing up with trees and are stuck instead with living in cemented block buildings that emit nothing but heat and dry chipped nothingness.