reveals a Frangipani tree as it recounts how it came to Bombay or Mumbai, and more specifically to a suburban building, and made itself at home with its young residents and their families.
I came to this suburban Bombay building wrapped as a goodwill offering, designed to usher in auspicious tidings. Perhaps it was my reputation as the “immortal tree” that made it a suitable choice for the young residents and their families.
I got an optimal, road-facing location within the building compound and yet my lithe stems struggled to adapt to the urbane surroundings. You see, although I came from the local garden centre, I craved for the beachy air of the Caribbean. My parents were Jamaican, wooed to this country by a similar coastline and weather. Perhaps, now it makes sense to you why the concrete compound did not feel like home to me.
That is when this chaotic city, known for its large heart, stepped in with a giant embrace. It nurtured my tender roots and in return I grew tall, my branches offering respite on hot evenings, while staying low enough for tiny feet to climb on and sprouting flowers for the devout.
Years passed and my girth expanded, imbibing the city spirit of stoic resilience and unmatched revelry. The longing for the Caribbean was replaced by a love for the spring colours of Holi and wet Ganpati visarjans. My acclimatised roots spread under the building structure, our fates fused together for eternity, or so we thought.
Together we battled winds of change – subtle ones, watching the trams gave way to fast cars and irreverent trucks and the brutal one – the monstrous flyover arching across our eyeline, blocking us out.
By now, we were getting old and feeling it too. My concrete buddy was leaking and cracking in places and my rotting branches were becoming a nuisance. Soon whispers of “redevelopment” grew louder, sounding the death knell for many time-worn buildings in the area.
We learnt of our fate when the sign went up. The building was to be demolished to make way for an upmarket multi-storey residential complex. We fought hard, deriving grim satisfaction from watching workers grunt as they struggled to separate me from the building. They did not notice that the uprooted branches they’d flung aside carried buds and it astonished them to see the flowers the next day. That was why I was called “immortal”, for this ability to defy death. Yet, at that moment felt as if I was laying our own funeral flowers, a nod to a friendship lasting more than half a century.
A bellowing gust of wind soon displaced the flowers, and in doing so, scattered seeds of hope – to be born again, to reclaim my corner – a phoenix rising from its own ashes.
About the author: Asha Krishna writes short stories and flash fiction. She lives in the UK but spent her formative years in Bombay. She used to live in this road-facing building with the Frangipani flower tree in the front. She recently went back and saw that the building and the tree had disappeared. That got her thinking what if the tree could speak…
This piece is a part of our series celebrating trees, and welcoming the summer. Read more about it here, and you can also find out how you can contribute to the series.
Says Nina Bhatt, in this beautiful retelling of a spring afternoon spent in the canopy of the Flame of the Forest tree – the celebrated spring-maker, also known by a myriad other names, from palaash to dhak among many others.
It was when we were in college. An excited whisper from a classmate drew my attention, “Something I’d like you to see. Grab your bag, we’ll go by cycle.” No questions asked if there’s even a slim chance of bunking class. And never on a fine spring morning. In no time at all we were paddling at top speed away from our Art ‘Practicals.’
As soon as we rode into the Girl’s Hostel complex and clattered into its cycle stand, my friend threw her head up and spread her arms wide, “Here are all your trees, the ones you spoke of the other day!”
The ground was littered with flowers. A rangoli of tesu blossoms – that celebrated spring-maker, also known as the Flame of the Forest. Flickers and flags in every shade from saffron to white lay around us. Yellows, whose names we have never found in any paintbox. Not only gamboge, ochre, lemon, Indian yellow but other, unnamed hues. All these brilliant dyes powdered underfoot by the comings and goings of five hundred hostel girls.
The university where we studied and its many departments squat along the banks of the Vishwamitra river which itself slices through the heart of the city. These banks are thickly wooded and support a variety of flora and fauna. Among other trees are some rare, slow-growing natives. Among these, the broad-leaved kesuda (what we also refer to as tesu, palaash or dhak), so dear to our city and state.
Not just in Vadodara, but also at the other extreme of the country, in West Bengal, the palaash has been a pet of other university towns such as Shantiniketan. Gathering its flowers for Holi celebrations came to be a very important tradition in that institution, in keeping with its ideals of reviving Indian art and aesthetics, of re-looking at the use of natural dyes.
As we collected flowers the pile grew to the size of an anthill. Then, as there was still a hint of winter chill in the air we also felt the need to toast our hands over that imaginary bonfire.
We too, as generations before us have done in literature, compared the strange shape of the flower to a parrot’s beak, a tiger’s claw, a new moon. But how soft the petals felt when we held them, even the leaves and seeds seemed warm to the touch as the fur of an animal does, the single seed a pod, long, and incredibly soft, like the ear of a little calf.
Unlike us, high in the canopy, the birds had eyes only for the nectar bearing hearts of the blossoms. The annual nectar festivals of the dhak attracts every kind of creature, but I love to pick out three mischievous mimics among them, the drongo, the tree pie and the leaf bird.
For a birder it is fascinating to listen to the leaf bird make drongo-like calls, which are again an imitation of the shikhra, a bird of prey. All this in a bid to scare other competitors and predators. A case of one thug borrowing the tricks of another to outwit a third!
My own theory, uncorroborated by science of course, is that the sweet drink loosens the tongue and makes these three scoundrels even more inventive, more raucous.
But the dhak seems to turn a blind eye to all this. It pretends to be a symbol of renunciation. It also prefers to give the saffron dye it yields that same connotation. This is the uniform that men and women of learning put on, as if to disassociate themselves from worldly ways, from the mundane pursuit of wealth and fame.
Standing a little askance, a little crooked, on the margins of towns, in scrub and in wasteland, the kesuda wears its wisdom very lightly. This in spite of the fact that without its official seal of lac wax confidential documents would fail the test of authenticity. Lac is a red resin produced by insects reared on the tree and harvested on an industrial scale. Every single part of the plant lends something to the field of herbal medicine, its gum, bark, root and seed, not just the flowers and leaves.
For us classmates, the trees certainly proved to be the best antidote to bookish learning. The more time we spent under the flame trees, the more distant and unimportant seemed Art School. There was just so much at hand to study and exclaim over. The size of the leaves for instance. Trifoliate, as the botanical term says, each twig bears three leaflets, round and wide and slightly heart shaped. The khakhro, as tribals refer to the tree, points to a large roasted roti, it also hints at the fact that the fresh leaves are stitched together to make eco-friendly recyclable dinner plates.
As the afternoon advanced, the glory of the flame thrower grew. The sun shone its own powerful torch on the petals and the topmost blossoms seemed to shimmer in the heat. We were a little worried our trees might start a forest fire. So strong is the tree’s affinity with open space and sunlight, that it is said to be an indicator of disturbed forests. But where nothing survives, the tesu not only thrives, it soon starts a little jungle of its own kind.
There were tesu trees everywhere we looked that day, carrying the flame and passing it on, across the landscape and down the generations.
Yet, how few and far between the faculty members of the college of butea have become. They are immeasurably slow to mature, unkept in appearance and unwilling be called mere shade-givers. Instead, they delight in shedding leaves at the height of summer. Sadly, the tesu is a social misfit and couldn’t care less. It has forsaken our cities and is fast abandoning even small towns. Can this be because it is a tree that speaks about creativity, about the slow rumination and assimilation of knowledge, as against speed?
If ancient palaash trees could talk they’d tell us about the battle of Plassey (from Palaash), they would enact better versions of the Ram-Lila having done cameos in both epics, Ramayana and Mahabharat. They would sing to us about old tribal civilizations.
Verses of a Gujarati garbo (a song sung during the nine nights of the folk festival celebrated in Gujarat) telling of Radha and Krishna’s matching orange outfits certainly owe their origin to the flower’s dye, so much so that both Krishna and the tree under which he played share the same name. Listen to any Hindi film song and it will bear echoes of the Sufi sentiment of being ‘dyed’ in the colours of one’s beloved.
The tree envelopes us in colour, making us party to its affair with vasant ritu. It draws us into the sphere of dance that some call the circle of life, and others, garbo:
“Mara kesuda no rang che, kesariyo,
Mari chunari no rang che, kesariyo,
Mara kesuda no rang che, kesariyo!”
About the author: Nina Bhatt writes, paints, and makes leaf compost as garden produce from her home in Vadodara. Her poems can be found in Wasafiri, The Caravan, IQ, La.Lit, The Hopper, Hakara, Antiserious. You can also find her writings at https://hedgecaper.wordpress.com.
This piece first appeared in 2018 in Chakmak, a popular monthly magazine for children, and has been republished here with due permission. It is a part of our series celebrating trees, and welcoming the summer. Read more about it here, and you can also find out how you can contribute to the series.
The lead/main photograph is from a painting by Nina Bhatt, titled ‘Khakhra ni khiskoli’, a watercolour on paper. (Khakra – another name for the Flame of the Forest tree, and particularly the one that people in tribal regions use. Khiskoli is the Gujarati term for a squirrel.)
Whether you are in Himachal (Pradesh) or Karnataka or Gujarat – or for that matter, any part of India, you cannot help but notice how the arrival of spring has made the trees bloom and burst into colourful blossoms.
It’s true that we all seem to take more notice of the trees around us in spring. Those vibrant hues of orange, yellows, purples and pinks have us spellbound.
From the flame of the forest to the silk cotton tree, Indian Coral tree…so many trees catch our attention.
And while we revel in the beauty of trees in spring, we are rather grateful for the very presence of trees around us in summer.
As the mercury rises, we are so thankful for the trees in public spaces – the canopy of a tree shielding us from the harsh afternoon sun as we stop at a traffic signal or the shade of a tree giving us a perfect spot to park our vehicles. So many vendors operate their small businesses from under the canopy of a tree – from cobblers, street food sellers, those who mend and repair torn bags or faulty zips…
But trees in public domain are often disappearing. Or being replaced by trees that are not really native.
That is why we are asking you to share memories of your favourite trees – those that you find in the public domain. Tell us what attracts you to the tree/s, do you find that they are in abundance or disappearing, have you been able to plant a sapling and nurture it to a tree, have you been part of a group that helps our cities and neighbourhoods develop a green cover, and in doing so, have you faced any obstacles…
In 350 words or so. If you want us to call you, and take down notes and write it down, we are happy to do so too.
This way, we celebrate and welcome spring at The Good Story Project, and we prepare for the onset of the great Indian summer. We also ensure that the ‘seeds’ are planted – seeds of hope, and of greener cities and urban areas.
We would also like to have inputs from children as they are our future heirs – heirs to the neighbourhoods and cities that we will leave them with.
Email us your stories at email@example.com, and if you have, a photograph of the tree/s as well.