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Mumbai’s fifty shades of green

Like its humans, Mumbai's trees are migrants too, each with a story. We chop so much more than wood when we cut them

Century-old trees at the Jewish cemetery, Chinchpokli. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Century-old trees at the Jewish cemetery, Chinchpokli. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

On Sir Bhalchandra Road in Matunga East, a Mumbai suburb, there was once a plot with many trees around a three-storey building. Only one now remains: a mango tree. It once had a drumstick tree whose long fruit would go into my grandmother’s sambhar. It had a jackfruit tree, on whose fruit the whole building would feast every summer; its harvest of caterpillars meant children would come out to play coated with Lacto Calamine lotion. In the backyard was a jamun (black plum) tree, whose fruit used to coat our tongues purple as we plucked them from the terrace while playing dodgeball. Between the badams (Indian almond) to the right of the building was a shrivelled parijat (coral jasmine) tree, the orange-stemmed and white-petalled buds used for worship.

My grandfather, who wore a white cotton dhoti, smeared his body with ash, and walked with a limp, would rise at 4 every morning and fill a wicker basket with the parijats before heading to the terrace for his daily prayers. He would sometimes take me along at that unearthly hour, to pick flowers that had fallen to the ground but had not yet been trampled underfoot.

In the evenings, I would sit with my grandmother, watching the fruit bats as a canopy of twittering birds descended along the stretch of the road. Towards the end, when my grandfather had lost much of his memory and would sit on the front porch with his walking stick, he remained clear on one detail—the trees had to be protected at all costs. He would shoo away imaginary miscreants who came for the fruit of his beloved trees, the saplings of which he had brought from his hometown in Killiyur, Tamil Nadu, in the 1930s. He was a wrestler who would become a chartered accountant and sometime patriarch. After his death, the trees were chopped down to make way for a block of apartments—just one more symbol of the city’s paved-over legacies.

Indeed, this is how many of Mumbai’s trees came into being, planted by migrants who wanted to surround themselves with the fragrances and fruits of their “native places".

Our trees are more than mere aesthetic borders and natural awnings—they are what remain of people who once stood where we now stand, markers of our many migrations. Dilip Ranade, artist and former curator at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, has spent many mornings drawn to the white flowers on the ancient Madagascan baobab in the museum’s compound, reminiscing about his childhood on the Konkan coast, from where the trees made their way to Mumbai, along with the Portuguese. They had come from Africa by boat; their fruit, the Gorakh chinch (chinch means tamarind in Marathi), said to be named after a saint who sat under its bough, is used to make a summer drink that relieves fevers and stomach aches.

‘Gulmohar trees’ in the Jijamata Udyan, or the erstwhile Victoria botanical gardens, Byculla.

Its dried gourds float at the ends of fishermen’s nets, holding them up, its leaves are eaten as a vegetable, and its bark is turned into ropes. But more than its assimilation into its foster Indian home, it still evokes images of Africa, the jungles, and weaves stories that connect two continents.

“Fragrance is an abstract entity, therefore every human being stores memories around it. While the pungent smell of jackfruit may be repulsive to some, it evokes a memory of home for another. Fragrance is how you are connected not only with the tree, but with the atmosphere," says Ranade. Long after the migrants who brought them are gone, the trees keep our connections alive. Jawahir Mulraj, an investment analyst, remembers travelling to Chennai on work with a Britisher who wanted to find the small chapel in which his father was christened. When they found the records in the chapel register, he wanted to find the house where they had lived. Sadly, the bungalow had been replaced by high-rises. At Mulraj’s suggestion, he took a photograph of a tree that looked quite old. Back home in England, his father burst into tears when he saw the photograph. The tree was the only marker of a time gone by.

Mulraj, who researched the history of the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) for a book to commemorate its 125th anniversary, recounts how the BSE itself began its functioning in the 1850s under a group of 22 banyan trees that stood where the Horniman Circle Gardens now is. “There was a small group of traders, and they didn’t have many stocks to trade in. Just those of some banks, like the erstwhile Imperial Bank of India and its components prior to formation, the Bank of Calcutta, the Bank of Bombay and the Bank of Madras. They didn’t have money to buy a building, so they met under the banyan trees for nearly 40 years. They then moved to the banyans on Meadows Street (now Mahatma Gandhi Road). When the cotton trade began, business boomed, so they moved into a building." Urban legend has it that the banyan tree derives its name—a British corruption—from the baniyas, or the trader community, who discussed their business in its shade.

The Mancherji Joshi Panch Udyan.

So it is with most of Mumbai’s localities. Babulnath is named for its babul trees, and Laburnum Road, where Gandhi once lived, is still greeted by a shower of laburnum blossoms. Naturalist Katie Bagli, a resident of the verdant Parsi Colony in Dadar, says the city’s love for trees is an inheritance from the original fisherfolk residents, the Koli community. Several areas still bear their names: Parel is named after the padel or trumpet-flower tree. Umbarkhadi is from the umbar or cluster fig tree, Fanaswadi from the jackfruit trees, Odina wodier, locally called kambal, gave way to what is now Cumballa Hill, Byculla from the bhavya or bhaya, the sandpaper tree, Chinchpokli from tamarind, and Wadala after the banyans (called wad in Marathi) that were chopped down to make way for the Mumbai Metro. “From the homeless to cobblers, many find stability under a Mumbai tree trunk. Where trees had no medicinal use, we worshipped them to preserve them," Bagli says.

To actor Ratna Pathak Shah, the coconut trees lining the beaches have always been synonymous with Mumbai. “The only tree I could recognize as a young girl was a coconut tree. It meant Bombay to me—Juhu Beach had miles of them. Madh Island was an ocean of green flanking an ocean of grey-blue. It came into its own dancing a glorious tandav in monsoon winds," she says. The decimation of the trees, especially in Juhu, is stark today.

In Dharavi, a caterer has built his shed around a banyan tree. On Malad Link Road, a Sai Baba temple hugs the base of an ancient banyan. In the Yeoor Hills area, inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Thane, the compound walls break for the trunks. This give and take is who we are. Our “development" has always made space for theirs, or is it vice versa?

A.D. Singh, whose restaurants are built around existing trees, doesn’t allow a single nail to be hammered into their trunks. The culture of trees intertwining with our livelihoods is everywhere. If in Everard Nagar, Sion, residents date trees, with the help of oral accounts, back to the time their grandparents migrated from villages with saplings, in the neighbouring RCF colony, Chembur, Satwiki Nair of Walk The Mumbai Trees, a tree appreciation group, says much of the dense foliage is part of the original island vegetation. As Stalin Dayanand of Vanashakti, a tree advocacy non-governmental organization, puts it, “The only parts of this heat island of a city that remain bearable today are the parts with trees."

The only tree I could recognize as a young girl was a coconut tree. It meant Bombay to me—Juhu Beach had miles of them. Madh Island was an ocean of green flanking an ocean of grey-blue. It came into its own dancing a glorious ‘tandav’ in monsoon winds.- Ratna Pathak Shah

Numerous tree advocacy groups, some led by prominent citizens like Pheroza Godrej of the National Society of the Friends of the Trees, and some local neighbourhood groups, like Baobabs of Mumbai, have come up to protect them.

“The spaces beneath the trees of Mumbai, especially banyans, have always been the hubs of activity and spawn their own economies," says M.S. Gopal, an intrepid city wanderer and photographer. Beneath the banyans of Horniman Circle Gardens today, the pyau or drinking-water dispenser remains the hub of frenetic life—a meeting place, with tea vendors and peanut sellers. In Khar, near the Hanuman temple, another under-the-banyan-tree economy subsists. In Deonar, under a colony of coconut trees, the elderly poor make a living selling brooms and winnowing trays made from its fronds. Several homeless people store their meagre belongings on trees. “There is now a whole ecosystem of painting dead trees; others fashion saleable items out of dead branches," says Gopal. Along Mumbai’s khadis, or creeks, the fisherfolk are planting mangroves again, to trap crabs and fish.

It starts raining as I enter the Dadar Parsi Colony’s birdsong-serenaded Mancherji Joshi Panch Udyan, also known as Five Gardens, and I dive for cover under an unending umbrella of rain trees. Zarine Engineer, granddaughter of Mancherji Joshi, the legendary planner who laid out the colony and its gardens, points out that he planned the open spaces first, trees next, and living spaces third. So there are Ashokas on Jame Jamshed Road, copper pods on Mancherji Joshi Road, and rain trees on the central axis, Lady Jehangir Road.

In a city crying “development" as it axes the ancients, Joshi was not the first urban planner to make trees personal to his mission. In his home in Goregaon, Marcelin Almeida, the legendary tree man and co-writer of The Trees Of Mumbai, describes this legacy. “The cannonball tree changes with the seasons. The day before the monsoon hits the city, all the cannonballs along the sea-face shed their leaves. Same with each season. They regrow them the next day," he says.

Mumbai’s trees were planted with fastidiousness and care, for their ability to withstand the monsoon, their propensity to provide a canopy of shade, and nesting spaces for birds.

They were planted by men who went on to catalogue the collection. The first documentation of Mumbai’s plants was by Anton Pantaleon Hove, who was financed by banks to collect them for Kew Gardens in London in 1787. References of the flora date back to the third century in the 17th century text Hortus Malabaricus, by Hendrik van Rheede. John Graham, Joseph Nimmo, Alexander Gibson and William Hooker added to this body of knowledge.

“Fifty per cent of trees that migrated to us came from areas within a specific radius. Gulmohars that naturally regenerate form 70% of our trees now, though they are the first casualties of the monsoon because their roots spread horizontally due to urban cramping," says Almeida. The catalogue of the city’s plants and trees today is based on the list in Flora Of The Presidency Of Bombay (1903), authored by Theodore Cooke. He was appointed director of the Botanical Survey of Western India and established the herbarium at the College of Science, Pune.

The drinking-water fountain under the banyan tree at Horniman Circle.

In The Hidden Lives Of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From A Secret World, author Peter Wohlleben describes how fragile a dance the immigration of trees is. “In contrast to tree species that have migrated naturally, they arrive without their typical ecosystems…. Trees that migrate under their own steam can only establish themselves where they feel completely at home...," he writes. To have more than 50% of our trees assimilated is no mean feat, or one easily replicable. The trimming of aerial roots, the eating into root space by roadwork, the diminishing of groundwater by builders who “dewater" construction sites, and the trimming of crowns, all affect their growth.

The Bombay Natural History Society and the Blatter Herbarium are the city’s repositories of this legacy of knowledge. “When trees are chopped, the entire ecosystem of insects and birds is also uprooted, and they don’t always come back on just any tree. The foliage and branching patterns matter," says a curator at the Herbarium.

Neglect of this legacy results in a mistaken belief that merely planting another tree will undo the damage done.

What changed our trajectory of careful planting? The real-estate lobbies of the 1990s, say activists, erected a development model that reduced trees to token implants. According to the 2015 BMC tree census, Mumbai now has around 2.64 million trees, up 40% since 2008—the tree count of Aarey, a natural forest in the heart of Mumbai, with around 486,000 trees, has been included for the first time.

“To calculate the true economics of a single tree, you have to include the cost to ecosystem, temperature control, medicinal uses, food, flowers, and the tree’s self-spawned economy," says Dayanand. More than just timber is felled when a tree is cut down.

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