Sumana Roy | Updated on May 28, 2020

Rest in pieces: A news report states that Cyclone Amphan felled 5,000 trees in Kolkata alone   -  PTI

Kolkata is mourning the loss of 5,000 trees, victims of Cyclone Amphan, in the way a family laments the dead

* Kolkata and North and South 24 Parganas may have lost 40 per cent of the tree cover

* Cyclone Amphan hit Kolkata, Sundarbans and several other parts of Bengal on May 20

* A news report suggests that 5,000 trees were uprooted in Kolkata alone

It began from the morning of May 21. Photos from friends and acquaintances — not photos of themselves but of uprooted trees. Cyclone Amphan had shaken everything and everyone that had fallen in its way. The power supply was gone, and cell phone connectivity soon after. In many Facebook posts — and social media soon became the only means of getting information, before phone batteries died — I saw the word ‘fear’, used by people I’d imagined as strong in an unrealistic way.

And yet, in spite of the water and the wind that had destroyed Kolkata, the Sundarbans and North and South 24 Parganas, those I knew were sending me photos of trees. One of my closest friends could only get himself to report the loss of trees in his city when I asked him how he was. Malabika Sarkar, vice-chancellor at the university where I teach, said that she was doing all right, “except that I lost my favourite casuarina tree planted by me nearly 50 years ago”. My Boro-ma — aunt — broke a finger while trying to shut a wooden window, but what my uncle sent me, after electricity had been restored to their neighbourhood, was a photo of the coconut tree that lay decapitated in their neighbour’s garden. I had never heard any overt declarations of affection for plant life from any of these people, and yet the photos and videos they were sending me were of uprooted trees. In trying to share the impact Cyclone Amphan had had in their lives, they had unconsciously chosen to represent it through its impact on the trees. Though they were perhaps unaware of it, they had, at some level, identified themselves with the trees.

We discussed them as we do those we’ve cared for, and we discussed urban forestry like sad and powerless amateurs. The Radhachura and even the Krishnachura, we’d noticed, are quick to fall. So are the coconut and the betel nut — we spoke of them as if they were toddlers, unsteady on their feet. An academic from North Carolina, who’d written to enquire about me, said that 40 per cent of the ‘tree cover’ had been lost in Kolkata and the two parganas. He reminded me of something that I had told him a few years ago: That if our urban planners had continued to plant only those trees that had been planted in the cities of ancient India — ashok, ficus, teak, moringa, peepul, bakul and jackfruit, and even the kamini and champa — most trees would survive, and the character of our cities would be different too.

Rituparna Sengupta, a writer and researcher at IIT Delhi, who is in Kolkata, wrote this in her online journal: “In our own garden, the jackfruit and banana trees were gone and several other trees had lost their branches. But it is what has happened to our mango tree that breaks my heart... Hundreds of mangoes had been shed in the night. It took us around two hours to gather them all and bring them inside. Half the tree was gone — the shattering glass we had heard the night before was the sound of the windows of our neighbour’s empty house that had broken under the impact of its branches crashing into them. The rest of it still stands thick and mighty, but dangerously bent. The ground near it looked curiously arisen — we realised that this was because the tree was being slowly uprooted, and may come down anytime. In all probability, we will be forced to get it felled ourselves, before it can fall over the house and cause serious damage... This is the tree that was planted decades ago when my grandmother, very fond of mangoes, was still alive, but which began to give fruit only after her death... And now it will be gone, along with its shade. So will the sunbirds, sparrows, crows, mynahs, koels, and the lone woodpecker who frequent it.”

Accounts such as Sengupta’s, mourning the loss of someone who was a relative, acquire particular significance in a time like ours. A news report mentioned the “loss of 5,000 trees” in Kolkata alone (it was accompanied by an image of a giant tree that was now lying on the remains of two or three houses, its roots almost blaring towards the sky, like humans do in prayer and urgent calls for help). The urge to replant the trees was mentioned, but not the actions needed to do so. For a moment I thought of the ‘number’ of people who had died of Covid-19 in India — it is fortunately still less than 5,000. Five thousand trees had been uprooted — or died — in one evening in an Indian city.

I, who’d never used a hashtag in my life, feel forced to use one. In the #LivesMatter hashtags that had come to give force to so many political movements, why have we never used #PlantLivesMatter?


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on May 28, 2020

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