For a park that’s in the centre of the city, Bangalore’s Cubbon Park is remarkably deserted during the day. The Page 3 people who populate nearby UB City are absent here. Instead, the park is left to pedestrians, plebeians and proletariat, which is exactly as it should be. Unlike Central Park, Hyde Park, Lodhi Gardens or Tokyo’s Shinjuku, Cubbon Park hasn’t been overly gentrified: overtaken by stroller-moms in True Religion jeans, joggers in neon tights, or bare-chested drummers who jam all evening. Instead, Cubbon Park remains sedate, even somnolent, offering refuge for tired Bangaloreans who want to decompress in anonymity.
Treesome: Hugging them is addictive. Hemant Mishra / Mint
I visit Cubbon Park three times a week to walk my dog off-leash while my daughter plays tennis. Often, I see the same people. Law clerks from the nearby Attara Kacheri walk across, discussing cases and files. Weary men who look like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman sit in grey pants and beige shirts under the broad canopy of a fading rain tree, making peace with their thoughts. Furtive lovers lurk in the shadows. Boys speaking Bhojpuri climb trees and chase each other. Burqa-clad women clutch toddlers in shimmering frocks. Two dreadlocked men play frisbee. A British man walks two sleek Weimaraners off-leash. Men urinate under the bamboo bushes. Retirees walk by in eye-popping attire: monkey cap, bright red tilak or namam, white banian, khakhi shorts, mismatched purple socks and chalk-whitened Bata shoes. A drunk auto driver gives a loud but perfect rendition of Mere naina, sawan bhadon.
Humans are a minority in Cubbon Park though. It really belongs to the trees, and boy, are they characters. There is this grandmotherly fig tree with stomach-folds that seems to have compressed itself to spread its canopy to the maximum extent. People sit on benches under it. Geckos breed in its fold. Fur-balled squirrels run spirals before jumping off its trunk. Eagles rest on top.
An upstart silk cotton tree arches sideways and upwards like a ballet dancer, surrounded by matronly peepal, gulmohar and banyan trees, all shivering and hovering. You can almost see this young tree navigating and negotiating with these matrons to get its place in the sun.
After walking amidst these trees for three months, I did something I have never done. I hugged a Laburnum. This Cassia fistula is a common sight in Bangalore. One evening, I wrapped my arms around this Cassia for 6 seconds—that’s how long it takes for the beneficial oxytocin hormone to release itself and make you feel good, so if you are hugging your spouse, lover, friend, child, or pet, make sure you hug for 6 seconds at least. So I hugged this tree in Cubbon Park. That was the turning point. Like a drug addict, I wanted more.
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I googled “Trees of Cubbon Park”, and came across just one worthwhile site that documented the trees, done by S. Karthikeyan, the chief naturalist of JLR, or Jungle Lodges. Called Wildwanderer.com, this site, or “Karthik’s Journal”, documents the flowering trees of Bangalore. I cold-emailed him and asked if I could walk with him the next time he was in Cubbon Park, which was how I found myself with the Wild Wanderer.
“Trees as a group can do amazing things,” says Karthikeyan. “We don’t notice because they operate in a different timeline than we humans do.” When I ask for an example, he asks, “Have you ever seen a fig flower?” I say “No.” “Then how do we get the seed?” He talks about inflorescence and the fig wasp, a co-evolutional relationship for the last 80 million years.
Karthikeyan points to an Albizia lebbeck or woman’s tongue tree, so called because the rattling of its pods sounds like women chattering. A proud peepal arches to the sky like a dad giving a lecture to a drooping millingtonia just across. Pink bauhinias are blooming and the sausage tree is shedding thick flowers. A Desi Badam or Terminalia catappa stands, slim and strong, like a teenage girl, preening before guests.
Karthikeyan spent 45 minutes identifying trees in Cubbon Park, but the high point was when I asked about a native “Pongam” tree. He held its discoloured leaf and said softly, “Lovely”. Turns out that there were two jumping spiders in the leaves and off he went into an explanation about their mating.
The true gift of spending time with a naturalist is not the species that he identifies, although that is a highlight. The true gift is how naturalists quietly transmit their enthusiasm for nature. Karthikeyan has the kind limpid eyes of a musician who operates in a different dimension. He notices different things than perhaps you and I. He thinks, for instance, that “arachnids are quite amazing”. When I asked him to repeat the sentence in plain English, he said, “You know, most of us take a vacation to experience nature—we go on wildlife safaris and such. Nothing wrong with that. But nature surrounds us every day. Every urban Indian is exposed to bees, bugs and spiders. Why not observe and enjoy them? Why give up those pleasures?”
Here is the takeaway: Next time you or your kids see a spider, ladybug, or even a cockroach, try not to squeal. Instead, become still and observe. Oh, and consider hugging a tree. Like a pet who will listen to you sob your broken heart out, without any seeming reaction, these trees will make you feel better. I know this because I was a sceptic converted into a regular tree-hugger. Just like Prem Koshy (of Koshy’s in Bangalore) and others like him.
Bangalore, by the way, is full of tree-huggers. It is one of the best things about this city.
Shoba Narayan is looking for the book, Forest Trees of South India, by S.G. Neginhal. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org