This is about us. However, it is not about our forestation or rather de-forestation policies. Or our development projects that massacre foliage. Or our official and unclean love for morbid combinations of cement, plastic, plaster and metal. It is also not about tsunamis as those are destructive. Though despite our usual cynicism and parochial critique and the unfortunate name I laud the billion tree tsunami endeavor in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Whatever the number they prioritized the area and went ahead and planted so many trees. So kudos to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf for that. But do let’s keep aside policy and implementation successes and failures for the moment. I am not one to usually engage in self-loathing but what intrigues me here are we as people and our acutely fractured relationship with trees. Why do we hate them so?
I don’t speak here of the majority consumed by the ordeal of making a living in a deeply inequitable system while retaining their dignity. I speak instead of the well heeled, the well traveled, the well exposed, and the ostensibly well informed. I comment on those with power and privilege.
What amazes me is how we appear to have such few people of taste and discernment left in influential positions – and on that score there is no civil-military imbalance. They are similarly bereft of sensibility. But why? After all, many of our military (and civilian) leaders cherish and sustain their rural links. They can speak glowingly of glorious childhoods under the cool shades of the village neems, shireen, dharek and taali. Why did more ‘copse’ commanders not emerge from this lot – any defenders of ancient trees? After all great pride is taken in tree-lined colonial cantonments. They also had equal share in direct rule over the country.
Let’s look at other elites. A vast section of the powerful clan of Aitchisonian get misty-eyed at the mention of the grand avenues of trees and the majestic old banyans and peepal of their school. Where are they? These people who routinely travel far and wide and witness how cities are now gauged and ranked according to their tree cover, urban foliage, park spaces and gardens. They gush over it. They take pictures. They never try and replicate it – institutionally, socially, individually – at least not beyond their manicured lawns. Is there a link between the rampant apathy displayed when trees are cut down in our cities, when ugly, meritless, imported invasive species introduced, and when unsightly fountains and plaster structures displace an ancient trees, home to a hundred species and a refuge for thousands of pedestrians and to how we see and define ourselves? Which part of the brain malfunctions, as we don’t register the contradiction between what we are nostalgic about and what we don’t lift a finger to resist? Why does the heart not ache when a sublime tree falls?
Those who are very different on this score surround us. I shall not speak here of Sydney, Madrid, Munich or Oslo or the other great metropolises of the world that deeply value nature, greenery, verdurous spaces and the tree canopy. Arguably there is much else about these places that contributes.
Let’s look east. For here the challenges of development led urbanisation, population growth, urban migration, resource constraints, and ecological and environmental obliviousness can often be common. Many Asian metropolises are equally hapless as ours. There are, however, far too many glorious exceptions to ignore. Over the past years I have visited some of them and here are my impressions.
Hanoi in developing Vietnam also faces the aforementioned challenges. Yet visit the densest quarters of downtown and witness diverse tree lined avenues, tree-encircled lakes, and leafy rain screening canopies for outside eateries where the Vietnamese constantly dine on those wonderfully delicate, mint and lemon grass infused soups and noodles. Go to Angkor Wat in once genocide ravaged Cambodia. Not just the ancient overgrown temples dotted across hundreds of acres but also some of the tallest and grandest trees I have seen, lovingly protected, that conjure the magic, attracting millions of global visitors.
Bangkok continues to face its urban growth challenges and yet no one can describe it as denuded of its tree cover. Chiang Mai in the north is even greener.
In Sri Lanka trees are of course in the realm of the sacred. Along the vast old tree covered parks surrounding a grand stupa in ancient Anuradhapura, a wide avenue leads to a shrine built around a gigantic peepal – perhaps the oldest living tree and said to have emerged from a sapling from the original Ficus Religiosa that shaded the Lord Buddha – a sapling that came with Buddhism itself to the serendipitous island. Go to Peradeniya, Galle, Kandy or Colombo or any other place on the island and you will find the people and not just the state taking pride in ancient trees occupying prominent urban spots. Architecture often recedes to give way to a tree; trees grow through roofs and I am not talking of Geoffrey Bawa structures. This small, lovely country displays a very large heart and vision. A vision green and regenerative and worth emulating.
Climate does it you might quibble. Trees just grow with abandon in such humid and rainy places. But then how does one account for a spring I spent in distant sandy and arid Tunis. No tropical, rain-laden weather here, no bounteous soil perpetually pregnant with plant life. Yet when spring came the tree covered meadows along the highways filled with young green leaves and poppies and yellow wild flowers. There were thickets of trees everywhere one went.
Or take for that matter the equally arid Isfahan — that city of bejeweled architecture where too I spent part of a picturesque spring. Orchards fringe the outskirts of that metropolis — the last barrier between it and the trackless desert beyond. Despite water scarcity the city boasts of wonderful walled gardens where hidden speakers play Persian poetry, as do Kashan and Shiraz. University campuses in Iran have reading gardens — top that. I once suggested the idea to the benefactor of a big local university and was met with silence. Istanbul is rather dry and has also faced many tree massacres. Its citizens at least valiantly continue their resistance to save some of its endangered parks.
Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are massive, teeming urban jungles and yet a love for trees at policy as well as popular levels is evident. Singapore is tiny and densely populated and still boasts some of the most well-preserved green open spaces. Struggling Kathmandu in Nepal offers banyans and peepal trees of such ancient provenance that one can almost imagine the calm visage of that great soul from the jungle kingdom of Lumbini who meditated and found nirvana under such a tree.
You can’t fit more people in a city than they have managed to do so in Beijing or more sky scrapers in one than in Shanghai and yet nature is never too far away, the horizon never deprived of green. Tiny Qatar jealously protects every tree and celebrates them in its national symbology. Neighboring Delhi has some remarkable gardens and green spaces – the wild forests of the Delhi Ridge are a particular delight – all lovingly documented in Pradip Krishen’s delightful Trees of Delhi. As does leafy Bangalore with its memorable Lalbagh built by the visionary father-son due of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan. Though they too face egregious urban development policies what is also palpable is growing opposition to the same.
I am fortunate to have enjoyed a beautiful childhood. There are scars though. One dates to the first time my impressionable eyes saw the spawning of spring festivals and beautification drives in Lahore — plastic flowers festooned on flimsy, latticed screens, gigantic clay pots and pitchers further disgraced by half-hearted drawings, and precarious flotillas with garish, cardboard figures listlessly afloat on the murky canal water.
These were the dark days of the nascent Parks & Horticulture Authority (PHA) of Lahore — a disorganisation almost constitutionally committed to doing everything but planting trees. Countless cement monstrosities, plaster fountains, plastic foliage, and expensive imported and rapidly withering palm trees later PHA leads the forces intent on the desertification of Lahore.
One particular horror has stayed with and haunted me all these years. I tell you today while trying hard to restrain tears that I saw cardboard figures of the father of the nation, his right hand man, and a dinosaur of uncertain classification riding in the same PHA flotilla. I value history. I also value decency. This was ahistorical and indecent in so many ways. To make matters worse, another flotilla closely pursued this flotilla of national significance. That carried Mickey Mouse and other such Disney rodents and pests that have eradicated many delightful indigenous fairy tales, epics and indigenous art and song for children around the world.
I continue to get scarred when I see a Paper Mulberry, Eucalyptus, a Conocarpus or a False Ashoka pushing aside one of the multiple local trees of great charm, beauty, benefit and blessing. I get scarred every time an ancient tree gets murdered in my city — often clandestinely, quickly and decisively. With such unholy alacrity that we don’t even have the opportunity to resist and protest. We are left to mourn over the stump and the memories of what once was.
So it’s not religion or climate or stage of development it seems. It is something about the people. But we were not always like this. The emperors who ruled this land as well as the colonists who colonised it had one commendable commonality amongst some others — they planted great gardens, lined highways and avenues with trees, and effectively protected them from menaces. Our own ancestors did the same and it is the trees planted by their blessed hands that we benefit from today.
In my novel Snuffing Out the Moon the leitmotif is the Peepal Tree — appear as it does in Mohenjodaro seals, cardinal as it is to sacred memory of the one who inspired the Gandhara civilisation, ubiquitous as it is on Mughal highways and in colonial cantonments as well as contemporary court and kachehri premises, and hopefully survive as it will in the future due to its resilience and ability to grow in the most inhospitable surroundings. Quite apart from imperatives of climate change and environmental pollution, trees are what give us our shade, our fruit, our birdsong and a sense of our seasons — our romance, our inner peace and our sense of beauty. They have been an integral part of our civilisation, our history, and our culture and have evoked our art, our literature, and our songs — on display in intricate miniatures of forest and gardens, epic poems welcoming the monsoon, and songs of laughter in the rain.
What happened? When did we step out of the shade so that the merciless sun impacted our minds? How did we forsake their friendship? Why do we so detest our trees?
Osama Siddique is the author of the novel 'Snuffing Out the Moon' (Penguin Random House, India) and the non-fiction 'Pakistan’s Experience with Formal Law: An Alien Justice' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).