Trees of Delhi: Falling to the vista

Sumana Roy | Updated on May 14, 2021

Standing guard: Some of the trees in the boulevards of Lutyens’s Delhi are nearly 100 years old   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The virus might have spared plant life, but India’s central government hasn’t

* A ‘Central Vista’ was to be built, it was urgent, it was necessary for... For? No one knew what

* In this topsy turvy space, trees, standing guard and witness and companion for decades, some for more than a century, were assassinated

* What is the death of a few trees, then, in a country where thousands of humans are dying every day?


What kind of flower or tree does one talk about when thousands around us are dying and the rest, not yet infected by the virus, are waiting to be attacked by it? This is not exaggeration but anxiety and hopelessness — the only certainty amidst the blur of our living today, that it will get to us too, a game of hide-and-seek where we will be found out in the end. How long can we hide, after all? And where can we? Presidents and prime ministers — and possibly kings? — are making provisions to hide in bunkers and tunnels, but how do you hide from a virus?

When the pandemic started last year, I began to hear of many, in America but also in Scandinavian countries, who had ‘run away from civilisation’. They used the word casually, perhaps even in self-conscious amusement, thinking of an escape from the human as the only way to survive. They had rented houses in isolated environments, stocked on grocery and other necessities, and were waiting for a return to an imagined and longed-for normalcy. What they were amidst were trees — the virus, even as it had been found in animals, had not yet mutated to destroy plant life. I know I say this almost with irony, but I will confess that there is also great relief in that thought, that at least someone had been spared.

Spared? Not really. For though the virus might have spared plant life, India’s central government hadn’t. Even as we lost count of deaths in our own families, even as we woke up not knowing who it might be next or whose name would appear in the list of the departed today, even as we wore double masks and face shields to delay death as long as it was within our power to do so, even as people died for lack of oxygen and hospital beds, even as we cried and pleaded for help from strangers, even as the dead were thrown into rivers and abandoned on cremation sites, our government chose to do what it thought was most important for the country. A ‘Central Vista’ was to be built, it was urgent, it was necessary for... For? No one knew what.

And so the process began, now in a zone forbidden for photography — the citizens must be protected from what is damaging for their mental health after all. In this topsy turvy space, trees, standing guard and witness and companion for decades, some for more than a century, were assassinated.

The writer Sakoon Singh, marking the change that such abrupt and arbitrary decisions bring to life and language, wrote this from Chandigarh:

Jamun raah kaale

Dilli de, shah kale

Jamun lai lo

[These jamuns, shining black

From Delhi, blackest of black

Buy some, buy some]

My mother recounted the above ditty that pedlars would sing while selling the famous jamuns of Delhi when she was a child. She has a prodigious memory with these things. People worth their salt bought jamuns that came from Delhi, grapes that came from Chaman...

She remembered this because today we read about the massacre of jamun and other trees of Delhi making clearance for the new Central Vista. Old Dilliwallahs have put out many a remembrance for the tree-lined, jamun-stained boulevards of Lutyens’s Delhi. As a student at JNU, I walked on many of those shaded lanes leading to Sahitya Akademi, National Museum and National Archives, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Teen Murti.

An environment department official, quoted in a newspaper report recently, said there were some 20-22 old jamun trees on Raisina Road which were said to have been planted in the 1920s and were part of Lutyens’s original design of New Delhi. “These trees are nearly 100 years old and might not survive transplantation.”

The complete indifference to the living, to these aged trees, should not surprise us. “6 out of 16 pages in Saurashtra Samachar’s Bhavnagar edition today contain obituaries,” journalist Deepak Patel reported on Twitter. What is the death of a few trees then, in a country where thousands of humans are dying every day? What is the murder of trees at any time? Kill them when you need a highway, kill them when you need a metro rail, kill them when you have nothing else to do. It’s an easy sport. They don’t resist, you feel like a gladiator, killing so many, as people watch. The government’s gladiator sport today.

“The original intention was to have major avenues point in the direction of a particular feature, like a monument,” wrote Pradip Krishen, the author of Trees of Delhi. “The trees that lined the avenue would frame the monument. The British chose trees like the Peepal or sacred fig, the Neem or the Indian lilac, the Jamun or the Indian blackberry, and the Arjun tree.” Writer Anchal Malhotra mentions the jamun’s purple staining “both her grandmother’s tongue and her memories”, a reminder of how plant life marks our history.

Our ancients, to which this government keeps harking back opportunistically, likened trees to rest-houses and places of cure and convalescence. The current regime does not care — neither for the living, nor for the dead.



Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree; @SumanaSiliguri

Published on May 14, 2021

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