Walking down the hilly slope, he says, “It’s like a little museum of what the rocky past of the ridge must have looked like before swallowed by Delhi.” We are in Mangarbani, a 100-hectare jungle consisting mostly of dhau trees in the Aravalli hills, a few miles outside south Delhi, and I’m with Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, a field guide detailing every tree species found in the city and its vicinity. The forest we are walking through is sacred, the trees are treated like gods and there are two temples. The valley is inhabited by Gujjar herdsmen who believe in a saint called Gudariya Baba. On Sundays, their children share stories of the invisible Baba under a banyan tree. Krishen, 62, is headed there.
When his book came out in 2006, it got gushing reviews. Author Khushwant Singh conferred upon Krishen the “status of a Brahmin priest of the community of tree lovers”. Can it be that I’m walking behind the Salim Ali of trees? “No,” says Krishen. “Salim Ali was a dedicated scientist with decades of scholarship and fieldwork on the birds of South Asia. I’m just an upstart.” Says the soft-spoken Krishen, “In my 20s and 30s I would take Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds with me everywhere, on holiday or visiting some new place. And I remember thinking way back then, ‘What a fantastic thing to do—to write a book that gives so many people so much pleasure’.”
Mangarbani’s wilderness—intertwined trees, twisted trunks, thorny twigs, sandy mounds, rocky riverbeds, bird sounds—is uplifting. But the continuous drone of aeroplanes preparing to land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport is a reminder that concrete civilization is not far. This savage beauty is fragile.
Krishen heard about the place from an archaeologist. He first went there a few years ago with a friend. Now he sometimes goes alone, sometimes with a group of fellow tree lovers. Looking at a cluster of dhau trees, Krishen says, “It is the only tree species that is perfectly adapted to growing on dry, rocky land. If they are destroyed, these hills will become barren.”
Krishen didn’t know anything at all about trees until he started out about a decade ago, in the 1990s. “I used to go walking in the jungle in Pachmarhi in Madya Pradesh and there are few things I have loved more than scrambling through jungle, swimming in wild pools… I had this forester friend living nearby and he became a guide, a gentle, joking, lovely guide, who inculcated an even greater love of the jungle in me.” Krishen runs down a sandy slope. I follow him. “Getting to understand the botany or the jargon or the scientific names of trees, that came quite easily once I was bitten. But I suppose the key was being so obsessive. All right, anal.”
“When I think back to my childhood, you know, I must have felt some primal interest, because I absolutely loved being in wilderness. They were the moments I treasured and loved above all, the times when I was in a jungle or national park.” Having lived in Nairobi as a child, Krishen travelled a great deal to national parks all over east Africa.
Krishen’s passion for trees goes beyond Delhi. “I’m doing something far, far more difficult in Jodhpur than what I did for the Delhi book. There we have something like 70 hectares of extremely rocky ground, and the attempt is to bring back all the plants we can find that are truly native to rocky desert niches in Marwar.” He is also working on a new book on the trees of central India.
Krishen used to conduct professionally organized tree walks, which would include people from all walks of life. “Doctors, artists, retired accountants, furniture designers, gosh, really an assortment. But I’ve had to stop doing public tree walks because I can’t handle the numbers that turn up. I’ve had 120 people turn up for a walk in the rain at 6.30 on a Sunday morning. How do you talk to such a large group? With a megaphone? No, I tell people to organize their own little groups of 10-12 people and then I take them on a private walk, but big groups are no fun for anyone.”
Krishen’s relationship with trees continues after they die. “Wood for me is one of the most wondrous materials on earth, its texture and colours and feel and fragrance. But I wouldn’t want to cut down a tree in order to use its wood. I’ve designed a lot of furniture for our home, but I buy all the wood from a taal (wood mart) in Kirti Nagar in west Delhi which sells wood for firewood and packing cases. All the privately owned trees that die in Delhi or within a radius of a few miles of the city land up at this one taal and the trunks are auctioned—in Punjabi—every morning. So nearly all the furniture in my home is actually made from firewood.”
Stopping by a temple in the middle of the jungle, we sit down to rest. It is dedicated to Gudariya Baba. The belief is that a person who breaks a branch in this sacred forest or grazes goats here will suffer harm.
A long time ago—it seems like another lifetime now—Krishen directed films such as I n Which Annie Gives It Those Ones and Electric Moon. Considered cult classics, they are not available on DVD and are screened on rare occasions in culture bubbles such as the India International Centre and the British Council.
Apart from his Jodhpur project, Krishen is working on a book on the trees of central India.
Sitting on a rock in the centre of a dry hilly stream, Krishen says: “We live in a city that basically sees one pulse of rainy season. Everyone has to adapt to the fact that outside the monsoon there is only a long period of drought. If you are a plant in Delhi, you germinate with the rain, quickly rush through your life cycle, take advantage of the moisture and then you die, leaving behind hard-coated seeds that germinate when the next rains come.”