At the corner of Cleveland Road and Coles Road in north Bangalore is a lovely old champak tree. Anyone fortunate enough to walk or bicycle past it will enjoy its heavenly fragrance. This tree bears the lyrical botanical name of Michelia champaka. Indigenous to India, belonging to the magnolia family, and ancient of provenance — it has been written about in Hindu Puranas — the champak flower is a key ingredient in sensuous heavy perfumes such as J'adore and Joy Jean Patou, both of which, as it happens, I adore.
Garden city: The Golf Course Road is one of the greenest stretches in Bangalore. Hemant Mishra / Mint
One of the pleasures of living in Bangalore is the privilege of close encounters with ancient gnarled trees that spread their branches over Maruti showrooms and municipal graveyards, Ulsoor Lake and Cubbon Park. Many of them were planted by German horticulturist Gustav Krumbeigel at the behest of the then Mysore maharaja. The feature that probably earned Bangalore its Garden City moniker was its avenues of flowering trees that blossom in sequence, delighting pensioners and schoolchildren alike. We have jacarandas, gulmohurs, cassias, tabebuias and millingtonias that provide outrageous, orgiastic floral displays.
Bangaloreans are passionate gardeners and proud tree-huggers. Prem Koshy, the effervescent owner of Koshy's Café, once hugged an old mahogany tree right outside his café when the government's lackeys came and threatened to cut it down to widen St Mark’s Road. The tree still stands, and the old woman who has sat under it for decades still sits there. Koshy distributes mahogany seeds to anyone with horticultural proclivities, urging them to plant seeds.
It is one of those Indian paradoxes. All of our big cities have beautiful trees. Pretty much every Indian I have met loves trees. This is not a detached, “oh, how pretty they look” kind of admiration. We have passionate attachments to particular trees. We have favourite trees on our walking or driving routes. We sleep under them, live under them (some of us anyway). Then how come we allow trees to be cut? How come we don't do more to preserve trees? How come our urban environs are so grey, not green?
The diplomatic enclave of Delhi has broad tree-lined boulevards that provide a soothing canopy against the scorching heat. If you are lucky enough to drive down these roads in the rain (as I once was), the verdant green against the chocolate brown branches will take your breath away and bring tears to your eyes. After a peg or two, you will be sobbing at the poignancy of the beauty surrounding you; beauty that is always on the verge of being cut down and lost forever.
Mumbai too has its leafy neighbourhoods, which are all the more startling because of the high-rises all around. Yet they exist, in Bandra and Khar, in Matunga and Malabar Hill. I didn’t grow up in Mumbai but I imagine that walking hand-in-hand under these trees, slurping a cone with your sweetie, or taking shelter under them during Mumbai’s famed monsoon was one of those “growing up” experiences that percolate through every Mumbaikar’s collective unconscious.
Mumbaikars are famous for their morchas — why not organize one to save their trees?
As with any systemic failing, who is responsible is, of course, the big debate. Should the government write more stringent laws against the cutting of trees than they already have? Should we as citizens make an effort to plant more trees? Or should the builders who are taking over urban India write trees into their blueprints?
Planting trees in public spaces seems a formidable enterprise. In Bangalore, a wonderful NGO called Treesforfree.org gets permission from the local authorities and plants trees pretty much anywhere. Run by Janet Yegneswaran in memory of her husband, this NGO makes the whole thing easy. Best of all, they do it on request for free, thanks to donor contributions.
When I moved to Bangalore, I decided that I would buy a flat from a builder who was at least marginally eco-conscious. At that time, only Good Earth Homes, with its penchant for solar power, natural materials, energy conservation and rainwater harvesting, fit the bill. Total Environment System was my other option. I was determined to buy a home from one of these two builders. The problem was that they were not building anything in north Bangalore; nothing near my children's schools, or our jobs. My point is that even concerned citizens are sometimes hostage to a city's geography. I ended up buying from Sobha Developers, who have no environmental plan worth writing about. I think in today's eco-conscious world, a smart builder can turn environmentally friendly building practices into a brand advantage.
Most builders use nature as a lure in their marketing brochures anyway, with photographs of a villa perched amid trees and birds while they raze down a thousand trees to build a project.
Trees do more than give us a green cover and convert carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen. Just looking at them is salve for the soul; balm for the ego. Like great works of art or a pet dog, their worth cannot be measured in economical terms. Simply having them around can make you live longer — quite literally, as studies with the limonoids in the neem tree will bear out. As botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger says, trees are a “living miracle”.
Shoba Narayan's favourite trees are Azadirachta indica, Tabebuia heterophylla and Ficus religiosa. Write to her at email@example.com