As a child, a Champa tree outside my bedroom window was my friend. I observed the birds resting on its branches, its glorious golden-yellow scented blooms, the way it caught the sunlight as it swayed in the breeze. I was sure it was watching me too. Our neighbouring building had a row of coconut palms with anthills at their roots. The road outside was shaded by canopies formed by a variety of trees, but barring a few, I did not know their names. Often, I thought I heard them sigh, and as their leaves rustled, I eavesdropped on their whispery conversations.
The first time I moved home, a tamarind tree peeped into our living room, and joined my family for breakfast every morning. A pair of white-spotted fantails built a tiny cup-shaped nest on it with a tapering tail at the bottom. The fantails never tired of dancing on the branches of the tamarind tree from which brown pulpy pods hung in bunches. The pods braved the rains, turned black, and subsequently, dropped off. When I read that tamarind trees are hosts to ghosts, it sent a shiver down my spine, and though there is no scientific evidence to back this claim, I began to dread the shadows that the tree cast on the glass panes of our windows. I hoped and prayed that the tamarind tree would keep the spirits confined to its body.
Where I live now, the garden in our compound houses a variety of trees. Initially, I could identify very few, but I did recognize the mighty banyan that lives down the road, and that I meet almost every day during my walkabout. This huge banyan stands right outside a crematorium. It’s almost like solitary jungle, what with its trunk, branches and aerial roots spreading out to create enough space for colonies of the different creatures that flock to it, not to mention the departed souls from the crematorium that may be resting on it awhile before crossing over. I often wonder what this old banyan may have heard and seen over the many years that it has stood rooted to that particular spot. It there was a way to find out all that it has witnessed, it would be a revelation.
This year, on Vat Pournima, women from our residential complex performed the festive ritual in our garden itself. I was surprised to know that a young banyan lived in our compound on the rear side. The morning after the festival, I spotted it because it stood out amidst a small jungle of trees by the way it was adorned with red and white sacred threads, haldi-kumkum, red-and-gold ceremonial cloths, and sets of tiny green bangles and mangalsutras. Had the banyan read the thoughts of the worshipping women, some of whom may not have been too enthusiastic about having the same spouse for the next seven lives, as they are supposed to pray for. I wished I could read the banyan’s thoughts.
The World of Trees
As I began to write about the trees in the neighbourhood, I realised that I knew such little about them. I had begun to observe closely the changes every season brought in their appearance. I noticed how the leaves changed colour, or how the kadamba, for example, yielded yellow-orange ball-shaped fruits in May. I wanted to know more, to familiarize myself with the botanical vocabulary, to find a way to communicate with trees.
My quest began with ‘The World of Trees’ by Ruskin Bond, followed by a Marathi book on trees, ‘Sobat’ by Madhu Mangesh Karnik. Bond’s book has a chapter titled ‘Great Spirits of the Trees’ in which he writes about how in Gwalior, a famous tamarind tree stands over the tomb of Tansen, the great musician at Akbar’s court, and how it has become a tradition for singers to eat its leaves to improve their voices. ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, ‘Cities and Canopies’ by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ and ‘The Heartbeat of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben (the last which I am still in the process of reading), are some of the books that not just left me wonderstruck with their fascinating stories supported by the latest scientific research and groundbreaking discoveries, but also deepened my love for trees, woods and forests.
The Delicious Faraal of Diwali Ank: Continuing The Annual Reading Ritual
An eye-opening chapter in ‘Cities ad Canopies’ talks about the tree deficit disorder, which is especially relevant in a post-Covid world where screens have left us with lifestyle disorders. The panacea? Spending more time in natural environments, getting outdoors, and perhaps conducting a vanabhojana (a meal amidst trees), knowing that “recreation in nature helps us relax, makes us creative, gives us energy and improves blood circulation and health, and helps us reconnect with friends, neighbours and family.”
This, I know, is the good life.
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople. The views expressed are the author’s own.