On Felling A Tree, 2021

(with thanks and apologies to Gieve Patel, whose On Killing a Tree (1966) was model, inspiration and organic root-stub from which this poem and post grew!)

I remember reading Gieve Patel’s powerful On Killing a Tree in class 9 or 10. I don’t recall much about our poetry classes (then part of what we used to call English Lit II) except that I didn’t much care for them. The slick-haired, pretentious teacher didn’t help any. Nor did the mostly Lake-District Romantic poems chosen for our ICSE curriculum. (Although I will admit that Wordsworth’s Daffodils did strike a chord with us, even though not one among us had laid eyes on real daffodils or narcissi in the fields). But this poem, Gieve Patel’s poem, was memorable. One of two by Indian poets — other one being Nissim Ezekiel’s Goodbye to Miss Pushpa TS — it reached out and grabbed you then. And re-reading it all these years later, it reaches out and grabs you now.

Patel, writing ironically in the 1960s, might have seen the effects of development projects burgeoning in post-Independence, pro-infrastructure but still largely socialist India.  Now, in a hardened and hardening 21st C, India’s ‘growth’ policies post liberalization in the 1990s are a very different ball game. With trees and tree policies, things have never been more difficult, nor has the very concept of environmental protection been at greater risk. The planet is burning and warming at an astonishing rate of close to 3 degrees C a year (say the new COP26 People’s Policy figures) – and our greed and dependence on fossil fuels are both rampant and reckless. The agreements hammered out at COP26 have been an abject failure in breaking that cycle and moving to renewables. And as we all know now, (post the protests and peoples’ movements taking to the streets) the world’s governments have failed us, and have especially failed the global south. The suits are killing us. They are killing the trees. And in killing the trees, they sound our death knell many times over. If they go, we go. Its as simple – or complex – as that.

This, then, is the new green development. And in response, this is the new green resistance. For the last two years, we have been trying to save a stretch of 1000+ stately, gorgeous banyan trees (along with 9000 other species) on the Chevella-Bijapur road just outside Hyderabad. They were –correction, they are (for they are still alive) — slated for the axe due to an ill-conceived NHAI road-widening project determined to destroy them in four-laning the old state highway (S4) into the gleaming new NH163. The mature trees lining the road are seen – in this development mindset – as mere obstacles, to be razed to the ground and cast aside. No matter that these extraordinary banyans are keystone species; entire ecosystems in themselves, home to myriad species of birds, bees, slugs, bugs, bats, small mammals, fungi, and more. In our petitions and representations to key stakeholders and those in power, we include a list of the more than 200 faunal species that might be affected if a single tree falls. Talk about the ‘ecological value’ of these irreplaceable banyans! In India today, especially under this dispensation, such wanton environmental destruction seems legion. Roads are more important than trees, even in states that pride themselves on their green policies, their green statuses, and so on. Take, for example, Hyderabad’s new green award from the FAO Council as the only Indian city to be given such an honour. Even as it sharpens its axes and its chainsaws to take down its oldest trees. Even as it puts in place tree protection committees that in reality help the process of plunder in the language of this era’s new greenwash. Even as it defines new ways in which compensatory afforestation – within a state law of water, land and trees (WALTA) that is more regulatory than prohibitive/punitive – can work to facilitate the destruction of mature trees when they get in the way! This is a well-oiled machine, an organized tree-felling system, institutionalized with all the Weberian bureaucratic rational-legal authority of an iron cage. We are all part of these pinjras, some of us outside locking up, some of us trapped inside.

Largely out of frustration, I began to write this poem below on how much easier it seems today to fell a tree rather than keep it. Patel’s classic poem fell out of some neural fold in my cortex, unbidden, like a worn bookmark, as memory and as model. And I felt both relief and satisfaction in calling out the tree-felling system and its functionaries.  

On Felling a Tree, 2021
(With apologies and thanks to Gieve Patel, whose poem was model, inspiration as well as organic root-stub from which this one grew!)

In this Anthropocenic 21st century
It takes much much less time to fell a tree
Customs galore and rituals aplenty
Differ state to state, and mentor to mentee
In, for example, ma Telangana
You don’t even need to hate the trees as bahaana
In fact, if you’re a government employee
You can rely on greenwash bureaucracy
Use loopholes in WALTA’s tree planting rules
To hoodwink residents and appeal to fools
Make tree revenue the new game in town
Call your green policy Telangana ku Haritha Haram
Plant 5 puny saplings for each huge tree that comes down
Then refrain from replanting (‘cos hey, who’s counting).
Give all your contracts to transplanting firms
As that’s where the business is: first felling
Then transplanting stubs in a haze of shh, who’s telling.
After that, its easy – refuse to share any tree survival data
A transplanted tree rarely survives or has betis or betas
When someone questions you, just flex those muscles
And say you – not them – are the real tree-savers.

Meanwhile, apply to make your town the new Green City
Because (at least on paper) that’s what counts
Create a TPC, a tree protection committee
Which, in theory, is neutral but, in practice, packs touts.
And then, prepare! When activists are able to successfully pause
An ill-planned NHAI road-widening project,
Take on NH163 as your pet Deccani cause
Just wait for pandemic lockdowns when everyone’s ill
Start by stealth-burning some trees to test the ground
If nobody checks you, you’re home scot-free.
Acquire land alongside, let real estate skyrocket
Ethics don’t matter; its not coming out of your pocket.
Target the banyans to show that you really don’t care
A fig about species or heritage. Or, for that matter, trees.
You just follow the rules, or (like Watergate’s Deep Throat) you follow the money
So that when the center finally gives you the dough
You plan to greenlight the road; the ending’s not funny
But you’re no sad slouches, you are hard-hearted pros
So one question you ask is – Whose trees are they anyway?
Who cares that they green cover or carbon sequesterate?
Climate change is here already, hello, its the trees that are late!
With banyans, you can take down more than just trees
You can destroy whole ecosystems for birds, slugs and bees
At one fell stroke, kill hordes to drive your point home.
That’ll show them all roads do not lead to Rome.
After all, (in your book), how does such a precious tree universe matter
When NH163’s just trying to get us to Bijapur faster?


In the warm sticky evenings that immediately follow the southwest monsoon, our badminton evenings on the terrace buzzed with new visitors: at any given time, at least a half dozen gorgeous dragonflies and damselflies. They were ethereal; like gauzy clothespins on wings. It had been a long time since I’d seen so many. And we’d watch, dazzled, as they flew around, dodging our twanging rackets as they sliced through the air (full disclosure: one evening we’d seen one get entangled, mangled, in the cross-hairs, so to speak, that could get out only with our help). After that fateful incident, I resolved it would never happen again; these creatures were too enchanting to die stupid meaningless deaths by racquet. And so we placed a mini-moratorium on badminton until the flies called it a season.

I’d seen dragonflies, of course, all through my life growing up in Hyderabad and Rishi Valley. And when I moved to the US for graduate school, I’d compare the bigger ones I saw there to the desi versions. But I don’t really remember seeing the smaller, slighter damselflies in such droves either in DC or in Hyderabad after I returned in 2014 (although, could it be that I hadn’t been able to distinguish one from the other then?!). Imagine my delight and surprise when wildlife cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty (of Green Humour fame) posted this wonderful cartoon on the discovery of four new South Indian damselfly species in South India: http://www.greenhumour.com/2020/10/new-damselflies-from-southern-india.html

Rohan’s post inspired me, in turn, to write something for my new flying friends. And so, without further ado, here’s a poem whose somewhat confused form (sonnet? villanelle? whatever) shouldn’t get in the way of its intended function: a celebration of four new South Indian damselfly species, ca. Autumn/Fall 2020.

On the discovery of four new species of South Indian damselflies
(Protosticta myristicaensis, Protosticta sholaei, Protosticta cyanofemora, and Platylestes kirani, October 2020)

How long have you hovered over that well
You beautiful bug-eyed sapphire beast
Half dragon’s tail, half Tinkerbell
Forged equally from sunlight’s East
And water’s darkening pools and ponds.
Your gossamer wings grew after birth
Unfurling like some fiddlehead frond
You announced your arrival upon this earth
With one giant exoskeletal explosion
Cracked like a peanut, dripping wet
You entered the kingdom of the sun.

And even after you were hatched
Your wings outgrew your little face
Their delicacy unmatched
By any Victorian crochet or lace
Though even that comparison’s out of date
Because it turns out your ‘native place’
Is south of the Vindhyas, Western Ghats!
You’re homespun. Desi in so many forms
What you wear is no foreign tulle
But this season’s blue kanjeevarams
And your English surnames don’t have me fooled
Who first called you – medieval word ahoy —
Damsel?! I mean, isn’t chivalry dead
It’s a word that separates ‘girls’ from ‘boys’
Questing knights from passive resting maids
Which couldn’t be further from truth or fact.
You have – all told – reptilian tact
In pouncing on your hapless prey!
Which makes you no timid has-been
But an ancient predatorial queen.
Your insectivarian predatees
Include mosquitoes and fleas
And nothing seems to make your day
Than lopping off their heads at play

And now there’s science, O Odonate
That brings genealogy home through the garden gate
The first rule of taxonomy
Is to find order in suborders, to find the many
In the one (the opposite of E pluribus unum)
So here, then, is a herald’s drum
Or, much better, the mridangam?…

Oye oye oye calling all official registrars!
Your old name damsel reeks of Arthurian myth
And suggests a shy, retiring fly
Often in distress, ready to cry
But this is so very far from true
You’re anything but a meek rescue
To the contrary, you’ve sown your oats
And you have Salem steel under your Ghati petticoats
Like the aquatic nymph you once were, you queened
It up before you crawled on land.

Turns out you damsels aren’t so young
You long preceded us on earth
Much like the dinosaurs your ajjis knew
You once were big; your wingspan two feet wide
A giant insect, iridescent blue
(coloured indigo before the plant arrove on land!)
And as you’ve shrunk and modernized
Part ancient drone, part modern plane
Part dandelion, part helicopter
Evolutionarily, this question remains a whopper:
Are you my mother? You tiny Dr. Seussian crane?

If 2020 taught us anything at all
Its that old viruses need new names
In order to know them better.
So too with you, our four damsel molls
You’re alike, but you’re not the same
As any taxonomist will claim
Its difference that makes the heart grow fonder
Biodiversity spins the earth around
So instead of seeing just one sub-order:
Zygoptera, we looked for species and found four!
The scientists who gave you your IDs
Were South Indian too.
So here without any further ado
Are your new Linnaean names
At their arangetram debuts:
Platylestes kirani, Protosticta myristicaensis
Protosticta sholaei, Protosticta cyanofemora

Latin for Dakshin India’s Fabulous Four!

A Virus Itihasa (an it-was-so history)

Inspired by Dr. Seuss’ Ode to the Lorax. Written between May and November 2020 (no, scratch that – started in May, languished for months, and posted just before two critical events, both announced on November 9, that will likely change the course of this virus’ history and itihasa: Biden’s win in the US elections and Pfizer’s announcement of a possible Covid vaccine! Until which … )

  1. Virus, n. late Middle English (denoting the venom of a snake): from Latin, literally ‘slimy liquid, poison’. The earlier medical sense, superseded by the current scientific use, was ‘a substance produced in the body as the result of disease, especially one capable of infecting others’
  2. Itihasa, n. Sanskrit, Hindi. Literally, इति  आस (iti ha āsa, “so indeed it was”), from अस्ति (ásti, “he is”).

Way back in the pre-Covidean mists
The viral ancestors of our contemporary pests
Rebels, no doubt, who wanted more
Threw lipid coats over their RNA core
And decided to venture out far from their ’hood
Go forth and multiply, went an adage they knew
So they hitched rides on anything that moved
A furry hide, a flea that flew
A bat that bit, a chimpanzoo too
Until over the years, they found the perfect host to tarry a while:
Those arrogant bipeds who’d taken over the world,
(In other words, us!)
As viral waves reached our human shores
In each successive era
Viruses looked in the mirror
Liked what they saw and said, let’s replicate
Let’s copy ourselves, let’s get more of us made.
These warm human bodies make perfect motels
Let’s skinnydip in their organelles
Let’s unzip our coats, Let’s start to play
And once we get our feet in the door
we can have wild parties:  facsi-melees!
As we know, the viruses proved terrible guests
They overstayed, didn’t clean up their spills
Or mop up their mess as they made their hosts gravely, seriously ill
Never learning that Athithi Devo Bhava also applied to cellular quests.

I first heard the word virus – meaning any virus, all viruses
In Thomas Akka’s sundrenched high-school biology lab
And while I remember so much about those classes
I cannot gloss over a very big gap:
We mostly ignored Virus and Co.
And that may have been quite the lapse
(This was of course before AIDS went pro
making its HIV virus a household name).
Because even way back then, if memory serves, they didn’t seem to fit
In the great Chain of Being, the tall Tree of Life
And even as we learnt about all creatures small and big
From “animalcules” to hammerhead sharks
We traced Darwin’s evolutionary arcs
Through mitosis, meiosis, Lucy, Watson and Crick
Galapagos finches, Mendelian peas
Or how life crawled out of the Jurassic seas,
The missing links archaeopteryx, eohippus
Only proving the point that while the rest of us
From starfish to geese
Evolved from the same genetic stuff
We didn’t know enough/about the lowly virus’ makeup.
If anything, they seemed outliers that had slipped through the cracks.
Betwixt and between, anomalies that couldn’t be seen
Microscopic contradictions in terms
A very very strange kind of germ
Not quite alive, not quite dead
Inert with a nucleic heart, but no other street cred
In Python-speak, they were organisms that weren’t.
Neither Archaea nor Bacteria; neither pro nor eu-karyotic
Truth be told – biologically, they seemed downright idiotic.

But … (sotto voce) had we read them completely wrong?
Could it be that viruses were not in-betweeners at all
But pioneer species, the earth’s proto-critters?
Or anatomical relics like coccyx or appendix
Forgotten remnants of our own double helix?
Its unclear. But as more and more viruses leaped into our genes
We get to 2019 in the Age of the Anthropocene
That great tipping point where human destruction
Of nature, ozone layers, wildlife and wildforests
Created the sets for a new virus to arrive on the scene.
What form did it take? This viral Kalki
Did it inherit the wind, did it resemble a demon?
Turns out it had its own geneology: Seven
corona’d ancestors including common cold and the flu
Crazy aunt Nipah, mad uncle Ebola
Begat and begat, and like a game of tambola
Lo and behold, out tumbled the novel SARS-Cov2
Which straightened its crown and went out for a spin
Leaping from bat to – we think – pangolin
Remembering lessons from illustrious kin:
Balance deadliness with contagion; You want to keep those humans alive
Just isolate them and put them in quarantine
Hitchhike on their trade routes by plane, ships and rail
To make it truly pandemic, a global travail
They can’t see, hear or smell us so hit them through touch
The sense they use to show affection, caress, make love
They’re the only great apes with fully opposable thumbs
So target their tool-making laboring hands
And then, and then, go straight for the lungs, their central command.

Oh the lungs! Oh the lungs! those dense green arbors (and arbiters) of life
That hang in our ribcage like two giant beehives
Its funny how old bio classes leave us with vivid images
That stay in a brain even as it dimmages
Of all the visuals seared into my aging cortex
Thomas akka gave us this: a picture beyond text
The lungs, she said, when completely unraveled
Look less like bellows and more like a well-traveled
Tennis net. Spongy and grey, like wet cauliflower
Dipped in cement or caught in rain showers
And – she’d continue with dramatic pause
When you disentangle a single human’s lungs on a board
Trachea, bronchi, alveoli and their pulmonary gauze
The area covered would be a whole tennis court!
That’s 78 by 36 feet for anyone counting,
Just to keep one human respirating.

A tennis court of lung! Strewn like exploded balloon!
This is what happens when we try to lasso the moon.
In Covid-ean times, could there be a more vivid metaphor
Of how human hot air was brought to its knees by
A game! Serve and matchpoint, the winner takes all
Survival of the fittest in a high stakes play-ball?
Through volley after volley of the fevered nightmare
The virus gains inch by microbial inch
Until its global domination is a cinch
As it slits us wide open – the whole goddamn species – and lays our lungs bare
Its easy to see how Homo sapiens’ breath becomes air.

After the deluge – the cyclones, the locusts — the pandemic’s first round
Could such a pulmonary court offer a reckoning for trial?
The prosecution might bring as witness our first and last gasps
A baby’s first squawl, an old woman’s rasps
A meditator’s om, a migrant’s tired ‘saans’
Piped oxygen tanks, ventilators when we are under distress
Breath, inhaled air, is what makes the world’ s animals soar
And what’s at stake when we can’t breathe anymore
As the novel coronavirus devours our lungs
Its cold-hearted Descartian mantra: I exist, therefore I expunge.
While the criminal charge is murder most foul
The defendant covSARS2 stands in the docket and crows:
You forget, the death tolls could have been much much more!
Its time for you to shift your lens, from telephoto to wideangle
And then you’ll see that Darwin may have erred a bit
What matters is not survival of the fittest but the fit
Between our ACR receptors and the seat of your souls.
Evolution’s great leaps
Are not what happens to you at the top of the heap
But among the masses that throng the bottom floor
So if you ask us, in evolutionary terms
The crown for best fit with diverse habitats
Belongs not to you, but to us
And we have the coronas to prove that.

We don’t want to kill you, what good would that do us?
Just periodically infect you, like our Grandpa ‘Flu does
In fact our seasonal affair could lead to a beautiful marriage
We would bring our own babies (and of course horse and carriage)
You wouldn’t have to do a thing other
Than meet, touch and kiss one another
We’d do the rest and not even charge you the tariff.
The fact that Covid cracked open your society’s faultlines and dark holes
Your ugly class divides, your castes, your races
Your lack of compassion for the poor and the proles
Your neglect of the migrants who broke their soles
Your tendency to war, your constant skirmishes
Isn’t our fault, its yours!
When its crystal clear to us all that you can’t take care of your own.

If you truly love this blue twirling planet, our third rock from the sun
Do us all a favour and cut emissions by mega-tons
Your capitalistic greed, your oil rigs, your factory farms
Have kept you from seeing the incalculable harms
You are doing to forests, icecaps and seas
Its as elementary, Watson, as the birds and bees
Your tinpot dictators have made crises of calamities
And everywhere people have taken to the streets
Suggesting that Covid is not as bad as other pandemics
Plaguing your lands like race, class and religious fanatics.
Which makes us not the murderers you charge, but harbingers of change
So pay close attention: We’re not the bugs you undermine
We are just the proverbial canaries in coalmines
Warning of danger.

Our message is this: It’s the bloody apolocalypse!
So if you want a new normal, try understanding
That you have to completely transform your relationship with our earth
Stop, just cease and desist, from your constant plunder, loot, corporate branding
Your deforestation and fracking, your wet markets, your logging,
Give Nature time to recover, and come out to dance
Again. And then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a slim second chance.

PS: A CODA (written in October 2020)

And now, five months since those lines were first written
Here at last is a belated postscript
We’ve all been stung, we’ve all been bitten
By the virus and morbid tales from the crypt
So in response to Pitta, my pesky persistent friend
Here’s a start to a beginning to this poem’s end.

That second chance above? Was never seized
Corona continued to play while nations sneezed.
Bear in mind those words were written way back in June
But everyone’s STILL singing the very same tune.
No one’s made the pudding, no one’s pulled out the plum.
No vaccine, no immunity; no data, no errata
Everyone’s at risk, and nobody’s won.
Fatigue and cabin fever are ruling the course
Fear and rising infections are making it worse
Meanwhile, many world ‘leaders’ have caught the bug
They’ll recover, while others cannot be so smug.

Police brutality still reigns, caste violence is real
Democracy hangs by a thread, a political deal
The economy has tanked, like some great viral prank.
Contagion, it seems, is deadly twice over
If you’re ill (or you’re not) but then pass on the fever.
And yet maskless Covidiots think they’re over the hump
Don’t they get that they’re acting like Donald J Trump?

As to saving the environment, that’s out of tune
With the new mountains of plastic, the viral PPE runes
Now taking their revenge and rising from seas
While the media confuses forests for trees.
From the green perspective, the ecological view
That’s enough to make us all feel deep blue
To be sure, eco-warriors continue to show us the harm
Done to our planet; they keep sounding alarms
David’s made a new film, Greta’s still on board
But hello! we’ve not met a single one of the Paris accords.
If their predictions are accurate, and surely they are
We humans are doomed and guess what?
SARS-CoV2 is nature’s new star.
First wave, second wave, it keeps coming back to our shores
In fact, its here to stay on earth; Naysayers, karo mat bore!
Much as Thomas akka hinted at so long ago
Evolutionary predators come in all sizes and shapes
For all of us who’ve descended from great apes
This tiniest of bugs could be our mightiest foe.

— Sita Reddy

Acknowledgements and shukriyas: Thanks to Kavitha Buggana, Rebecca Mathai, Usha Raman, B.V.Tejah, Sadhana Ramachander, Malini Waghray for a close reading in writing group. And also to Venkata Kumar Sattapalli, Lakshmi Menon, Pearl Mistry, Gayatri Rajan, Murali Mohan, Shyamala Mani, Uma Magal, Gowri Reddy, Suchitra Reddy, Archana Atri, Mitali Sen for enthusiastically supporting the ‘josh’ of the first telling way back in May/June, and the second one as things dragged on before I posted. This is an incomplete history, of course, as we are bang in the middle of this pandemic. But since the virus isn’t going anywhere and is the protaganist, perhaps this is a tale that needs telling while its history is still being lived, as it appears to us (hence, itihasa). I write this as we go through another peak in India, the worrying surge in the US, new lockdowns in the UK and Europe. Should this be a virus murdabad, not an ode? I think so. Nothing to celebrate with this one.

Ode to the Banyans

Ode to the Banyans: Banyan-Sahasranamam/ A garland of names (and a prayer)

Originally written on  for Save the Banyans of Chevella blogspot/ http://www.savebanyansofchevella.com

Written by Sita Reddy, inspired by Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax: “For I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the Trufulla trees, for the trees have no tongues”. Drawing by Kobita Dass Kolli

The sad saga of NH163
Is that development often misses the forests for the trees
For that widening road is meant to replace and ride over
Telangana’s perfectly good StateHighway4
Along which live more than a 1000 stately banyans, marked for the axe
Since holocausts rely on cold numbers, not faces or names
This is an ode to putting hearts back.

Names matter, say the ancient banyans gracing that road
If we could speak from our shaggy-haired crowns
Our voices would rumble from our roots through our habits
For we are far from voiceless, we speak many tongues.
And we have more names than we can count on our thumbs

What’s in a name? Everything, it sets things apart
We name what we love, what endures, what should stay
Its where we believe the environmental movement must start.
We love what we name, we protect what we love
It’s the high-minded road we believe green policy must take
Our story begins in primordial mists
Around 80 million years ago some of our fig ancestors
Cut a deal with a wasp: Eupristina mason
iBoth species (tree and wasp) got their Latin tags later
When Linnaeus coined his binomial nomenclature.

But eons before we were named Ficus benghalensis
On jambudvipa, our peninsular home in the tropics
The earliest tree names (in Sanskrit, in Tamil) described our strange forms:
Bahupada, many-footed
Nyagrodha, downward facing
Inward blooming
Outward branching
Secret flowering
The oldest, largest, noisiest canopies in the world.

Every tree a circus! A mela! Teeming with animals and birds
The most cosmically upside-down trees on the planet
Sanctuaries, shrines, pathshalas and groves
To put it quite simply – each one a whole forest!
Colloquial names soon followed; nouns, less adjectival
Reflecting the many tongues of people who loved us
Marri. Badh. Bar. Bor. Bargad. Bargot.
Although our genealogies trace back to jungle figs
We slowly began to travel where moved
Via wasps and animals, birds and bats
Where seeds found their way and decided to stay
We found singular spots to hang our marri chettu hats
Our names became place-names, linked to journeys and roads
We spread north, we went west, we flew east, we grew south
From Calcutta’s swamps to the Adyar mount
Each tree carried tales of its own spirits and ghosts
The largest, from Thimamma’s funeral pyre where she followed her husband
The oldest, from Kabir’s toothbrush when he threw it in a dustbin!

And then came the Europeans (no strangers to naming), to maraud and to plunder
But lo! when they saw us were struck in nameless wonder
Alexander was gobsmacked; his general Syko too
He waxed about 10,000 soldiers standing under one tree roof
But the Greeks couldn’t name us; even that botanical guru Theophrastus
Saw in us only scientific proof
Of giant fig cousins to those on their islands.

It wasn’t until medieval times when function followed form
And we got our current name based on those we sheltered
Our birthplace may well have been Bandar Abbas in Iran
Where one Thomas Herbert saw a tree festooned with garlands
Bannyan, he and other Englishmen called it, the tree under which the baniyas (traders) gathered
Baniyans, said the Portugese, who recognized the same in Gujarat
And our name banyan was born; For an entire tree species, the largest figs of them all.
Much like our girths, the meaning of ‘banyans’ kept expanding
To any tree that was strangler or epiphytic
And thence to an entire figure of speech
So that now banyans refer to (and it could’ve been worse)
A sheltering, sweltering, skyholding universe
A collective noun, an umbrella, a canopy of things.

Which is entirely appropriate for us banyans of Chevella
For nowhere else in the country – we think – would you find such a large road-lining cluster
To get rid of us, to cut us till we bleed
Would be to decimate a clan, an entire demi-fleet
Put a ban on cutting banyans before its too late
They are Blake-ian worlds sprung from little seeds of sand
To name is to care; naming is an act of love
And so, since our name comes from traders whose language was commerce
Let’s do the math …We are NOT mere numbers, we have many names
Mark us with love, with drishti and haldi and charms against harm
With spell songs and poems and art galore
But do not mark us for death, that’s way premature.

If names don’t convince you, here are some numbers that might
Sway your bureaucratic minds with our plight:
1165 trees lining both sides of road
(and that’s just one fig species from at least 850 more)
At least 200 bird and animal species count us as home
And I’m not even including the ghosts and spirits who live in our branches
Or the countless villagers who sit in our considerable shade
To commune and gossip and sing songs and dances

We cannot be translocated; our canopies will die
And our interlocking branches would surely collapse
We are keystone species; we support entire eco-systems
If you cut us to stumps (and we are stumped why you would!)
It will take us decades to grow back and develop those broods
But if saving trees as ecology will not convince you, here are some figures:
We will cost to be moved; at least 4 lakhs per tree
And that’s not even counting the risks of sure death
As you cut off our arms and hack down our roots.
Some 80% die each day in this foolhardy migration
We ask and beseech you: Please let us stay!

We hold in our arms your heritage, your pasts
Tagore wrote about us, as did Sarojini Naidu
Your nationalist heroes even made us your state tree
But what state do we stand for – if its not reciprocal?
Stand for us! Now that would be a grand gesture!
More so because we think we are utterly unique as a group
So be good fellas
Think plural, think larger; no other road in the nation has this many banyan clusters
As our beautiful old tree-lined SH4 to Chevella.

Don’t make us history; that would be foolish
Think forward, not backward.
Let US be your future.
Do it for your children and your children’s children; think big
Let them know you cared a whole fig!
For once make the right call
Don’t be cruel; don’t cut us to heartwood
Will we not bleed just as you would?
Name us Heritage Banyans and let our Xylems stand tall!

Lost Archives: Ootacamund Flowers

 “Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours”
Loren Eiseley, How Flowers Changed the World

Open your doors and look abroad
From your blossoming garden gather
fragrant memories of the vanished
flowers and plants of an hundred years before.     
Rabindranath Tagore, The Gardener

Between those two quotes lies a tale. And a memory. And an archive. As always, Loren Eiseley nails it. Flowers do change the face of the world. But equally, as Tagore reminds us, the weight of a vanished petal from a hundred years ago – whether in a forgotten garden or a missing archive – hangs heavy on the world and makes it less ours. Less diverse, less indescribably beautiful. Lost flowers damage us all. But so do century-old floral archives that go AWOL. Consider this …

I’m in the Nilgiris, in Ootacamund — the queen of hill stations — or, as its now officially known, Udhagamandalam. Despite the garbage, the dwindling shola forests (dwarf evergreens), the invasive eucalyptus, and the failed monsoon this year, the hills are spectacularly beautiful. But I’m not looking for the contemporary 21st century version of these places. My sights are set a few centuries prior. I’m focused on the archival rearview mirror.

So, scratch that beginning, and let me start again. Rewinding … I’m in the Neil-gherries! in Ooty! For that is the way the Blue Mountains and the hill station were spelt – and seen – by the first British residents in the early 19th century. And that is the world I’m chasing: the world of botanical art produced by these settlers as they documented and depicted the Neilgherries as both strange as well as intimately familiar. Botanically speaking, that is. Strange in that the foreign flora included exotic native plants unique to its slopes,  chief among them being the blue wildflower shrub Kurinji, Strobilanthes kunthiana, which blooms only every 12 years and gives the NilGiris, the Blue Mountains, their name. Familiar in that the vegetation and landscape of these open grass-covered hills also reminded these homesick Britons of Blighty! Whether the comparisons made were with rolling Sussex downs or Scottish highlands or even – for those who hated the Neilgherries’ rainy season – with Lusitanian gloom!  The cool, temperate hill climate was pronounced ideal for British constitutions. And so the hills became further domesticated even as they were colonized. By the late 19th century, the Neilgherries had become – sometimes even more than was possible in the narrower, rockier, steeper Himalayan hill stations – idyllic little pockets of England-in-India providing much needed green respite from the burning alluvial plains and the hot Deccan plateau. Continue reading


Sometimes an entire city can feel like an ajeebghar, a museum of wonder.

Sell your soul to get to Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. You’ll find it there again, I promise. Over and over again. And it won’t sneak up on you quietly either. Expect high drama at every turn and you won’t be disappointed.

For this is a decidedly dramatic city. A physically dramatic city. When I took the train up from London, a friend advised me to sit on the right side for the views and indeed, that first glimpse of the North Sea along the Scottish coastline is gasp-worthy.  But stunning as that is, it merely sets the stage for Edinburgh’s brooding, craggy beauty of contrasts. Which other edgy, Trainspotting, 21st century city on the planet whose identity is forged in Celtic history and a literature-soaked, Scottish Enlightenment past can also boast an extinct volcano and glacial fjords (the Firth of Forth!), lochs and leiths, crags and tails, medieval castles in Old Town, a Georgian-era planned New Town, green belts, four botanic gardens (including the astonishingly beautiful 400 year old Royal Botanic Garden, the subject of my next post), screeching seagulls, salt air and that sexy brogue, the world’s best single malt whiskeys and most notorious dish of offal (yes, haggis, I mean you. you weren’t so bad after all), sheep and salmon, mud and fog, gentle mist and violent storm.

And then there are the museums, my ajeebghars of choice, offering their own dramas and histories of Edinburgh. So many superb world-class museums, many of them funded by the city, strewn along the Royal Mile or the Waters of Leith, a green, gurgling riverside walk that made our eyes ache with the beauty of it all. The National Gallery of Contemporary Art (where we saw a definitive exhibition on Surrealist Art). The Surgeon’s Hall Museum (which in its heyday included the offices of Dr. Joseph Bell, inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes). The whimsical Museum of Childhood. The tell-it-like-is Museum of Edinburgh. The cozy little Writer’s Museum. The People’s Story Museum. The John Knox Museum. The Scottish Poetry Library. The cavern-like National Museum of Scotland (where we saw the blockbuster exhibition Celts: Arts and Identity). And on and on.

Years ago, as an avid follower of book art, I’d read about the famous Edinburgh book sculptures – eleven exquisitely crafted paper sculptures that were made by a single artist, and gifted anonymously to museums and libraries of the city, each inspired by a Scottish literary masterpiece – Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Lanark etc. The artist was nicknamed the Banksy of Books, and the rapturous press often focused on the books that inspired these 3D love letters to reading and ideas. Now, after tracking down some of these delicate paper dioramas and seeing them in the flesh (or is it woodpulp?), I had a flash of insight. Yes, they are paeans to reading and to books, certainly, but they are also paeans to Edinburgh’s ‘special places’. I understood why the artist may have wanted to pay such generous homage to the city’s extraordinary museums, cultural and literary centers in the first place. For they are that extraordinary, that deserving.

To say nothing about the friendliest, most helpful people you could hope to meet while traveling. This isn’t a place for sauntering – people stride purposefully here, even uphill, often with walking sticks. And it isn’t easy to get lost; the city is remarkably compact and walkable. But just open up a phone map, even, or look a little geographically confused, and at least three gentlefolk will descend on you – mid-stride – to ask if you need help, and then go out of their way to show you the way. Even if you’re climbing what seems to be a straight path upwards to the charmingly named Arthur’s Seat.

And I haven’t even touched on the Fringe yet. Oh Fringe Fest, you lovely cultural beast, delight for the artistic soul. Called the biggest performing arts festival in the world, it is monumental when you think of its sheer range, diversity, and raw creative energy. A staggering 50,000 performances of 4000+ shows in more than 200 venues all over the city. We were told, depending on who did the telling, to either watch out for the crowds, or to revel in them as they’d remind us of crowded Indian cities. And indeed, there are buskers and flyers everywhere, performers, comedians and magicians doing their business on each cobbled corner of the Royal Mile. It seems that the entire performance art world does gather here on annual cue, or at least its more adventurous and experimental fringe (which was the whole point when the Fringe Fest began convening more than 50 years ago)

Continue reading

Chinese Wobblies

May 1 has evoked a mixed bag of emotions in our family for the longest time. Its a palimpsest; a layer cake. Yes, on the one hand there are all the celebrations embedded into the day. The pagan May Day celebrations (dating back to medieval European maypoles and the first day of summer) for one thing. And grafted onto that, the socialist International Workers of the World Day celebrations that began in Chicago (circa 1905) by the Wobblies, as they are affectionately known. And indeed, taking the two together, that is a lot to celebrate – Flower Power! The Power of Flowers! Flora, first day of summer, labor rights, the struggle for the 8-hour work day, industrial unions for the world, the Wobblies. What’s not to like about any of those? Who doesn’t love flowers? (and now that I study flora and botanical gardens, how can I stay away?). Who doesn’t love the Wobblies? Not to say anything about their strikingly beautiful (pun intended) Soviet-style poster iconography. Continue reading

Death of a House: A Forensic Tale


And so it ends. Or so it begins to end, for the dying has been slow and painful, and it isn’t over yet. The actual death knell will be struck only tomorrow when the house changes ‘registered’ owners just short of its 50th birthday. And then one day after that happens, because of the commercial development juggernaut that dictates our urban lives, a house, this house, seemingly indestructible, will – much like Monty Python’s dead parrot – simply cease to be. The demolition won’t happen overnight, of course. But at the whim of the builder-buyers, who will tear it down to make way for a 5-floor monstrosity of their choosing, it will soon be an ex-house. Already, it looks much the worse for wear, dusty, damaged, missing its main doors, jaws agape as if in permanent shock at its imminent fate.  It will likely stay like this for a while, hanging on its last hinges. But then sometime in the very near future, we will pass by that familiar corner, looking for it out of habit. And poof, the house would have disappeared without a trace. Continue reading

Medicine Corner!

COMING SOON!! To an Indian city near you …

A multi-city arts project from Wellcome Collection UK

Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India
An exhibition at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai
12 January – 28 March 2016

A contemporary arts exhibition at Akar Prakar Gallery, Kolkata
18 January – 15 February 2016

BLOT! A workshop and live performance
The British Council, New Delhi
22 January 2016

Three cities. Three landmarks on the Indian arts scene. Three ways of exploring India’s diverse medical cultures from the popular to the professionalized, the exotic to the everyday, the mainstream to the marginal.   Medicine Corner, the overarching umbrella initiative, presents a cutting-edge introduction to the entire spectrum of health, healing and wellbeing in India as well as its astonishing plurality of healers, remedies, therapies and tonics.

Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India, the centerpiece exhibition on the history and modern practice of medicine, will open in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Prince of Wales) museum. Organized around four generic locations – Home, Shrine, Clinic and Street – Tabiyat draws on a range of historical and contemporary works from Wellcome Trust’s rich collections (being shown in India for the first time) in addition to material from Indian museums and private collections.

Jeevanchakra, to open in Akar Prakar Gallery, Kolkata, is a contemporary arts exhibition that revolves around the life cycle of the human body and its contacts with medical practice. It includes works by contemporary artists Gauri Gill, Nilima Sheikh, Sheba Chhachhi, Mithu Sen, and Paula Sengupta.

BLOT!, a Delhi-based media arts duo, will present a workshop and performance that examines India’s vast, parallel systems of informal health practice. In their one-day performance at the British Council, Delhi, BLOT! will raise critical issues of access, affordability and equity.

Medicine Corner is an initiative of Wellcome Collection in London, a key destination for the incurably curious.  Its Indian offering is a trifecta – a run of three surefire hits – that is guaranteed to delight, dazzle, and engage audiences. Don’t miss!

Project Head and Curator of Tabiyat: Ratan Vaswani

Thanksgifting 2015

My Thanksgiving this year turned south and Sufi.  As always on Turkey Day, my thoughts flew to feasts (I confess an unhealthy obsession with pecan pie), family, and colonial encounters (good bad ugly). Which are hardly unique topics; such seasonal preoccupations are universal on T-day.  But because this year it coincided with my time in Hyderabad during Heritage Week – a series of organized walks to tombs, gardens, monuments in the city – I’ve also been thinking about accidents.

Accidents of history, accidental journeys, accidental heritage – what we leave and what we take away, what we call new and what we call old, what’s serendipitous and of our choosing.  And the fact that Thanksgiving owes itself to one of navigation history’s major accidents. Some four hundred years ago, a Genovese explorer in search of spice routes landed in the Bahamas thinking it was India – proceeding to massacre both the lands he mistakenly named, and its ‘Indian’ peoples! No Thanks there, Columbus. Continue reading