As our cities grow and villages turn to towns, I can only hope our Indian trees are spared. Because if there is a tree, I am sheltered, and even the wrong turn is right.
I was on a dusty National highway next to a village in Haryana, looking for directions. The villager explained the path through the village Peepal. And the words could have been spoken to me anywhere.
Around the country, directions are given around these markers — a Peepal tree, a chauraha around a Banyan (Bargad) tree or the village temple or Mosque. Photos: Neha Sinha Go around the Bargad; turn from the Peepal, you will be told. These large trees, full of figs throughout the year, leaves swaying even when there is no breeze, are not just trees.
They are places.
A village Panchayat will often meet under a Bargad or Peepal. Monkeys, mynas and butterflies chatter in the tree above. Figs fall and leaves spin in the breeze. And people discuss their life below. Before summer comes, the Peepal drops its leaves. Glossy new ones soon emerge — tightly curled into spires, before unfurling into graceful, tapering leaves that look like a paan ka patta. And the Peepal is not the only one heralding spring and summer by putting out new colours. The Semal or Kapok tree is the first colourful declaration of Spring, putting out large, fleshy flowers, coral, red or yellow in colour. On trees full of Semal blossoms, visitors from Europe — pink and white Rosy Starlings here after a long migration — land, eat and sing. Below the Semal is a different world — everything gets covered in the flowers of the tree. Cities look brighter with this shade of Semal, thrown like a prayer. And our calendar matches that of Nature. The Semal opens its flowers at the time of Holi. People use the flowers to make organic, deep colours for the festival.
Soon after Holi and the last Semal blossoms, it is summer. The sun climbs higher into the sky. Most of India is panting in the heat. I am back in Haryana, looking for an owl, and the last migratory birds. Fields stretch around me, dry as bones, brittle with dust. Like wild animals, I am desperate for the shade of a tree. In the heat, like the Peepal, any Indian tree is a place, not just a tree.
You wait till you find a tree. Then, you dive into its shadow. Under the merciless Indian sun, a tree’s shadow feels like a deep plunge. A surrender and an immersion. A soft embrace, a lover’s kiss. The leaves break up the harshness of the sun. The sun will fall on your arms, but now broken into bits, the light greenish-yellow, not harsh and blinding. When the wind blows, the leaves fling hypnotic shadows on the ground. The tree is like a parent – it protects you from the harshness of the weather and the world.
Summer is unfriendly, but it is the time for every colour and flavour through trees. The mango breaks out into inflorescence: small and shining blossoms. There is a smell of talcum powder around the Bakain tree, with its delicate, lavender-and-white flowers. The Neem puts out new leaves that are an unexpected pink, not green. The Siris tree is now dressed in lacy new leaves and clattering, beige and white pods. On the Mahua tree, flowers that taste like sweet, musky butter are sought out by bears, birds and people. The Amaltas opens out its gold reserves to the world — long strings of the brightest molten gold flowers. The Chamrod tree is sprinkled in clusters of star shaped blooms. How lucky our country is, to tell the passing of seasons through flowers. And the birds and beast now come out to play like never before, feasting on flowers and fruit. I notice that the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon is the same colour as the Semal’s velvety green pods. A brilliantly green Brown-headed Barbet merges into new, emerald-green Peepal leaves. Sunbirds are lining their nests with spring and summer flowers, like the fuchsia-pink bougainvillaea, which is built to withstand India’s heat.
In another part of India, in a Gond Village in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench tiger reserve, a villager wants to show me his favourite place. The ‘place’ is a large Banyan tree, growing between rocks on a raised slope. It looks like a building, a house with columns, built through the leafy fingers of the tree and the strength of its trunk. A house built on hard rock. If you try to plant a Bargad or a Peepal, you may have a difficult time. Rather than growing in soft soil, these massive trees prefer stony, rocky places. They grow through impossible odds—breaking rocks, dissolving barriers, crumbling walls, re-shaping tiles, thrusting their roots and fruit forward, creating a new universe. “Eat the fruit”, my Gondi friend says. “But the rule”, he adds, is “eat without looking”. His smile is mesmerising, and better than the fig. He has asked me not to look because the fruit is full of wasps that help pollinate the fig. This is old wisdom — figs have insects in them, which are harmless and will not bite. Most of the villagers leave the fruit for monkeys. They come there more for the place; and the place is the tree, and comfort is its shade.
But places are changing, slashed by blind, blinkered planning. Across the country highways are being widened and dams being planned, and trees are being mercilessly chopped or chopped. I wonder if children will now know that the figs of the Bargad have wasps inside them. That Semal flowers turn into silky cotton. That the sound of the wind in Siris pods, going shak shak shak, is like that of a musical instrument. I don’t mind getting lost as long as there is a tree at the end of the right turn. As our cities grow and villages turn to towns, I can only hope our Indian trees are spared. Because if there is a tree, I am sheltered, and even the wrong turn is right.
This first appeared in my column in Gaon Connection.