Monday, September 5, 2011

A Great Sadness Among the Trees of Bangalore

"...'Diesel fuel in an ordinary engine,' he said, as he entered her office, wiping his hands on a large piece of lint. 'Would you believe it, Mma Ramotswe? That... that silly boy, the younger one, put diesel fuel into the tank of a non-diesel vehicle. Now we have to drain everything out and try to clean the whole thing up.'
'I'm sorry,' said Mma Ramotswe. 'But I am not surprised.' She paused for a moment. 'What will happen to them? What will happen when they are working somewhere else - somewhere where there is no longer a kind person like you to watch over them?'
Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni shrugged. 'They will ruin cars left, right and centre,' he said. 'That is what will happen to them. There will be great sadness among the cars of Botswana.'
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. Then, on a sudden impulse, and without thinking at all why she should say this, she asked, 'And what will happen to us, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni?'"
(A Great Sadness among the Cars of Botswana, from The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith)

What happens to trees in growing cities when there are no longer kind people watching over them? Or kind Gods? Or benevolent officials? A great sadness has filled the trees of Bangalore and, closer to home, the trees of the campus where I live.

Just outside our campus, a whole row of trees were cut down illegally for 'road widening'. Perhaps they had to go, in the interests of the city planners, but they were perched on the slopes of a road abutting a tank and it is hard to see how this road can be easily widened. The entire neighbourhood protested and several people were hauled to the police station. A few tree lovers actually camped on the high branches of the trees for some days. Before the matter could be legally resolved, the municipal corporation began an auction and ultimately hacked off the trees in the dead of the night on a weekend. Why the haste?

The city looks bare and dusty and I have been witnessing scenes of the trees' despair. Just behind my house lived a jackfruit tree. A large, magnificent creature that provided a temporary resting place for clouds of tiny birds, squirrels, monkeys and bats. Armies of red ants sewed its leaves together to make nests and spiders scurried along its bark. It also provided at least a dozen gigantic jackfruit that would feed the entire neighbourhood. One Sunday evening I even saw some jackfruit thieves, bringing down the large fruit and running off with them. (Despite this) everyone seemed happy.

Suddenly last week, someone called the campus maintenance and the usual band of axe wielding goons (somewhat like Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni's apprentices) appeared to 'prune' the tree, which implied that they would hack every branch within reach and then take the rest of the day off. The tree now stands, branchless with protruding stumps. Barely a leaf is left on it and the hacked off branches are carelessly strewn all round the base. Red ants have swarmed into our house and a deadly silence fills the area behind. But everyone seems oblivious. The neighbours walk past, and around, without a glance or word. It's just a tree and perhaps they were not fond of jackfruit anyway.

The same scene greeted me this morning at my yoga class. The class was full after a long time and I slipped into a corner and drew back the curtain. Instead of the leafy jackfruit and mango trees, I saw a wall of concrete, grey and smooth and characterless. Instead of the breeze, there was a smell of dust. I drew back in shock, glanced at the yoga teacher and he nodded to confirm my suspicion. The window could no more be opened during the yoga practice.

What happens to cities growing at this pace? A tremendous happiness fills the hearts of the city 'planners' and builders, employers and do-ers and a great sadness fills the small green spots and the laid back little watering holes of local inhabitants. The soul is going out of Bangalore's trees. The animal are scurrying away. And then, I wonder, what happens to us? Will we find other sources of gentleness and respite and beauty? I hope so but I have some doubts.

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