Author: sridhar

The library with no members

The library with no members

An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu on 10 January 2013 and also online here.

In his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, American author Ray Bradbury writes about a future society, a complacent and troubled world, where the possession of books is illegal. Firemen in this dystopian world are tasked not with putting out fires, but with burning down people’s homes if they contain books. In a world besieged by television and on the brink of war, Bradbury brings home a deep appreciation of books, of literature, whose greater purpose is best served when there is texture and quality of content, the leisure to digest and absorb it, and the capability to act on what one learns. And what better place is there for a citizen to find books to read, to absorb, to act on, than in a well-stocked public library?

The value of a good public library should scarcely need emphasis in any city that values cultural and intellectual life. Yet, in Chennai, in this bustling metropolis on the shores of India’s cultural sea, there is now a world-class public library that faces the spectre of being shut down, shunted out, subverted. The Anna Centenary Library, established in 2010, has since been threatened by closure, by conversion to a hospital, and by use of its public space and auditorium for unrelated activities such as a wedding reception, a result of what is apparently a political and administrative tussle. A public interest litigation has brought temporary reprieve through a stay order issued by the High Court.

That events have come to such a pass in Tamil Nadu is ironic, for it was here that the first Public Libraries Act of independent India was enacted in 1948. Today, more than two years since its establishment, the Anna library still does not issue books and has no members. No books leave its doors to grace the favourite reading corners in the homes of its citizens. The value of libraries thus seems to need re-emphasis. To see why, you only need to walk in and spend some time in this library yourself.

The nine-storey building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and holds a collection of over 500,000 books and subscriptions to dozens of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world. On a recent visit, I found at least a couple of hundred people using the library that day. In the lower floors, there was a small group reading quietly in the Braille section, a smattering of adults with children engrossed in novels, comics, and other books in the colourful children’s section, and people absorbed in current events in the newspapers and periodicals room. In every room, from the second to the seventh floor, there were students and other visitors browsing or reading in earnest or taking notes sitting at the tables.

The library is air-conditioned and well lit, with large rooms and spacious shelves, seating and writing spaces in each room, and comfortable sofas along the tall windows overlooking the city and gardens. The Anna library may lack the stately charm of Chennai’s Connemara library, yet it offers an inviting ambience to anyone looking for dedicated reading time as to anyone on a short visit for quick reference. The library carries a gold rating in the LEED green building certification system, becoming apparently the first such library in Asia, and currently employs 96 professional librarians and over 100 staff for security and housekeeping.

The Tamil section on the second floor has over 25,000 titles with four copies of most books: clearly the library is prepared for lending, despite this not being implemented yet. A selection of books from other languages—Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Kannada—also caught my eye. I drifted through the other rooms and floors, scanning categories and titles, exhilarated at the spectrum of choice. The English literature section alone would bring me here again, besides the sprinkling of translated works from Indian and foreign languages. As a scientist, I was also impressed by the collection in specialised fields of science and medicine, including my own field of wildlife ecology along with traditional subject areas of botany, zoology, and life sciences.

Clearly, this is a library with the potential to provide an energising public space to revitalise cultural and intellectual life in Chennai and an even wider role to play as an asset to civil society in the country. Yet, there is an urgent need for additional attention and impetus for the library to achieve its full potential. On my visit, I could not find some recent titles from 2012 and wondered whether procurement of books has stopped while only subscription to periodicals continues. If so, not only should book procurement be renewed, but the list of periodicals should expand to include international editions of major newspapers and other national and international magazines. One wishes that the Anna Centenary Library is also included as a national depository library mandated to receive copies of books and newspapers published in India under the Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954 (amended 1956). Currently only the National Library, Kolkata, Asiatic Society Library, Mumbai, Delhi Public Library, New Delhi, and the Connemara Library in Chennai are depositories.

Citizens can be involved more closely by opening up membership (including issue of books for which the infrastructure and systems are already available in the library), starting book clubs, readings by authors, and volunteer programmes, accepting donations of books and subscriptions, making the catalogue of publications available online, and implementing book loan and exchange arrangements with other public libraries. Bringing access to e-books and online membership will also allow the library to cater to citizens anywhere in India, besides opening a revenue stream. The auditorium, amphitheatre, and seminar hall could host literary and other cultural events related to the library. And not to be overlooked, the library must develop the food court for lunch, snacks, and beverages; the space is already available but is yet to be made fully operational.

Whatever be the reasons the extraordinary potential of this library is currently stymied, one hopes that the administration, politicians, and civil society will rally round to rise above the present stalemate. With the case in court, one hopes the wisdom of judges will rescue the library from its current crisis and return it, entire and enhanced, into the domain of the reading, thinking, and feeling public.

Before I reluctantly left the library, I spent two hours sitting by the large windows reading from two books—Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought and Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory—knowing full well that, as I could not borrow them, to read both books, each around 700 pages long, I would have to make far more visits to the library than my work would allow. I then felt like the little boy in the children’s section who I had overheard earlier exclaiming to his mother, “But I want to take this book home to read, Amma!”

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

The song of the whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.

Through the window

The tea estates lie quiet, now. Through the window, he sees the tea bushes stretching away in precise rows, beyond the clustered houses of the town of Valparai, his home for the last twelve years here in southern India. Later, the drone and whine of the motorized pruning shears on the hill across the Naduar will kill the silence and the sounds of the hills. With visor and machine, the workers will swing shoulder and hip, arms tensed, grasping the handle, scything and slicing the green, leafy bushes to a prickly, wounded, brown fuzz. Smarting and stark, the shorn hills.

There is tension in departure. There must be. Bags packed, his and hers, water bottles filled, his and hers, a last glance around the home they leave behind for ten days, laces, sandal straps, pulled tight, the keys snapped onto the key hook in the backpack, they are ready to leave. They must leave the hills for the city—it is from the airport there that they will depart for Borneo. The cat stands above the steps of their home watching them leave, in inscrutable concern. Black-masked and calico, bushy tail flicking from one side to another.

* * *

The song of the koel in the swelter of the city. The cuckoo’s poignant refrain is heard through summer and monsoon in Chennai city. They have arrived to take their next flight, but must spend the day here. The heat rises, invisible, palpable, inescapable, from tarmac and pavement, from the concrete walkway in the front yard. The city throbs and growls with the stream of motor vehicles. Voices sound from the houses marking the stream of private lives. This is his home, too. The house was built the year he was born. He lived here for the first fifteen years of his life, before he was led to other places for his studies and his travels—to become, to be, an ecologist. Sitting on the porch, he looks to where the tree stood: the mango tree, now long dead, where the purple-rumped sunbirds built their nests, their downy, pendant homes. He does not hear, now, the lively gossip and chatter of the babblers, but the new, raucous conversation of treepies can be heard from the trees around. Trees younger than him, but taller three times, five times over.

The airports have no songs, only the monotony of announcements. There is the utter silence of a thousand noises—a dulling, meaningless cacophony that is always heard and never listened to. The voices of monotony punctuate the silence referring to destinations—flights delayed, arriving, boarding. Destinations: this is the last and final call, say the voices.

Inelegant but powerful, the bird flies though the air. From darkness to gleaming, ochre sunrise, from black to grey to stunning blue and white. Filled with lives, yet lifeless, the bird flies higher and faster. Another airport: Kuala Lumpur. One has to take a train to reach the next flight. Another journey: he flies now over unfamiliar forests and familiarly-carved landscapes. Far below the aircraft’s wings, he sees swathes of oil palm plantations in unending rows, sliced sharply by boundaries and roads, punctuated with towns and settlements. He falls asleep as the flight to Kota Kinabalu crosses the South China Sea. The destination arrives. Or one arrives at the destination. In half-sleep, he cannot really tell.

The chirp of the sparrow cannot be heard. Thick glass separates the waking, walking people in the airport causeway from the little tree sparrow flitting among the tyres of the vehicles onto which people load their luggage. One cannot hear, surely, the gentle swish of water, the soft rustle of sedge, against the egret’s foot in the roadside marsh, or the cry of the crow, even—the vehicle that takes them to their hotel is too fast, the glass windows are pulled tight-shut to keep the conditioned air in, and the unconditional tropical air, out.

The hotel is old, they say. It carries a certain history, of a certain people, they say, in the city once-called Jesselton, and now Kota Kinabalu. Colony, conquest, capitulation, civilisation: the pulse and passage of time has left its varied imprints. He sees it in the remnants of an older architecture, in the crowd and clutter now in the markets, in the high-rises and steely cars flashing past, in the very faces of the people passing by. As night falls, and the rain-drenched city in Borneo goes to sleep, another marker of time and place and history stands quiet and dark and silhouetted on the street. A cinnamon tree.

* * *

Dipterocarp forest at Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo

The forest is dark, dark. No starlight or moonlight, not even the twinkle of a single firefly. Leafy clusters in exuberant green are all he can see in the artificial light cast by the fluorescent bulbs—a few metres only, then it is dark. Unbroken blackness, yet not empty. He knows there is a forest beyond—a forest of tall trees, where orangutans sleep in their leafy nests. He knows they are there because he has been here before. In Danum.

She sits by his side, looking out into the darkness, too. A dozen others from the city have joined them on this leg of the journey. Their companions on this trip, they are tourists, photographers, nature enthusiasts. Over dinner, they chat and laugh and talk of what they have come to see. There is anticipation in the air.

Through the black window of night, the sounds of the river reach his ears. The river marks a boundary that a certain kind of person carrying a certain kind of intention has not crossed. On the far side, the old side, he knows, is the primary, equatorial, tropical rainforest: a lowland forest that has never been logged, its worth never converted into so many ringgit or dollar for so many cubic feet of timber. It is a forest of diverse dipterocarp trees. The trees that send their their seed whirring through the air on winged fruits. The trees that are among the tallest in the world’s tropical forests. On the near side, the new side, where he sits—as an ecologist in a research facility built partly with timber and oil money and partly with science funds streaming in from afar—here, on this side of the river, the forest is shredded by logging. The flat gravel roads have opened the forest wide for the logging trucks to come through. Now, by night, he and the others sitting there see the forest as lost in its darkness. He wonders, does the forest see them as blinded in their light?

Road through logged forest, Danum Valley

Earlier in the day: by the road, they are amidst tall grasses. She, one who is older than the others perhaps, looks through the grasses—one steady eye looking, one large ear gently flapping. She twists a few blades of grass with her trunk and curls it to her mouth; she moves her elephant body at elephant pace and steps forward. Ahead, her calf moves into the undergrowth away from the prying human eyes peering from cars. Another yelps further ahead, like a dog almost—is he agitated? Or lonely?

It is late evening, a brief tropical dusk, and he sits high on the tree. He turns to see her where she ushers her child down a tree trunk onto a bridge of leafy branches and into the enveloping folds of another tree. He turns back to see the people spill out of the cars. Their chatter is clear, it carries, and the engines drone on. From the tailpipe, a different smell wafts up, wafts away. They point at the orangutans they think they have found, they gather together, they are absorbed in the handling of objects. Glasses glint like eyes, teeth flash in ephemeral smiles. Unhurried, he blinks his lambent eyes and turns his face away from them.

Orangutan in Sabah, Borneo

The palm civet and bearded pig find themselves in a blaze of light on the road. They only want to escape into the welcoming dark, perhaps. They pause, they look, but find nothing to see in the blazing beams. The vehicles pass, one by one and another and another, and one more. From inside the cars, eyes peer out into the forest where the civet has entered. They pause, they look, but cannot see anything in the depths of darkness. The civet can perhaps see them now, if he turned to look, but then does he really want to?

Under the glare of the fluorescent light, he wonders now why he has come back. Back to this place, to this very table. From his home in distant India, to Danum. To the forest that he cannot yet see. Is it for himself? For a reassurance that whatever he has come to see is still there? Rather like obsessing over a possession—a jewel perhaps, a pearl in a jewel-box that he must open now and then to see that the pearl is still there, still there for him. Is it for her? She, who has travelled long journeys with him, who cannot stay away from such places even if she tried—and why would she? Is it for them? The people from the other world—the world of the big city that has not left them, but is here, too?

The insects trill, they chirp and chitter, they utter sibilant and metallic squeaks. The patter and clack of frogs punctuate the night chorus. The forest is dark—dark, but not silent. He waves his flashlight seeking to find his way back to his room. The eyes of the resting sambar deer throw the light right back at him.

* * *

He turns forty this year, he remembers, in the morning, looking up at the giant dipterocarp tree that is ten times as old as he is and twenty-five times as tall. The air is heavy and humid. His shoulder slouches with backpack, the sweat drips off his face and runs down his neck and chest as he gazes upward. The tree stands straight and tall.

Tree in rainforest

The tree would have been a lanky sapling when the early men came, walked past, carrying with them one of their own. Carrying their bereavement to be entombed in belian, in the ironwood coffin that they will place with care further down the trail. For decades, it would have stood as a tree, weathering storms and sun in the forest, in the company of its cousins. Soon it would have been tall enough for hornbills perched on its high boughs to look across, past the storm-flattened clearing, past the browned waters of the Sungai Segama, into the forest beyond. And the hornbills gracing its high branches would have seen the forest on the other side whittled away only in the last four decades: the four decades of his own life.

Ten thousand square kilometres for a Forest Management Area, but just over four hundred square kilometres for Danum, for protection. The wheels of progress spin under the heavy logging trucks that cart away the forest—the managed forest—log by log by log. The managed forest: when trees become logs, the forest gains an adjective. Sustainable forests, certified forests, reduced impact managed forests: more adjectives. And further still, from stripped land, from the ashes of the burnt remnants, rise the giant plantations of a single species to begin new cycles of production: with the oil from the oil palm, the lubricated wheels of the economy spin smooth and fast. This is not madness, we are told, this is need—there is reason and it is reason, ultimately, that completes the circle. Nothing should go to waste.

Down in the forest, in stultifying, sweltering humidity, on the dark carpet of dry leaf and twig and fungus and seed lying among snaking roots and curled millipedes, in that carpet of multi-hued browns under the many shades of green above, is a small, black lump of animal excrement. It holds pieces of the shiny skins of fruits, the shining splinters of insect elytra, and it is studded with small seeds. A civet or marten has gone this way, very early in the morning. It is a mere scat, something rotting and dead, yet it seems alive. It moves. It heaves and struggles like something rising from paralysis. The scat is mere offal, these are dung beetles that are at work. There are two, he notes, crouched over them like a giant. Two beetles, seemingly standing on their heads, each gathering its piece of dung and rolling it away. They roll it upslope on the trail, over little leaves and twigs, their dull black bodies all earnestness, unfazed by such obstacles.

From a little distance, across the vast gulf that separates him from them, it looks like they are rolling ahead on wheels. The wheels that need to be buried to nourish the earth, feed the young and bring forth a new generation, and plant the entrapped seed of the rainforest tree. It is just a piece of dung. But nothing should go to waste, after all.

* * *

One thousand five hundred termites per square metre in the rainforest, he reads with astonishment in the new book, a scientific and photographic treatise on Danum. More than six hundred species of beetles from just five individual ferns. Mere facts, blandly stated, not to embellish or exaggerate, merely to inform. Just sundry facts about insignificant invertebrates placed before him like a sampler in a chocolate store: here, try this! Do you like it? Would you like some more?

He wonders if he can take more. Not because he does not desire more, but he really doubts if his mind, his irresolute brain, can really take more. He stands before the tree considering the thought. What is the information the tree contains? Its texture: sprouting like a finely-branched brush, or feather, or undersea hydra, sprouting from the surface of the land, spreading, flattening into leaves turned just so, and so, the upper surface shiny and smooth, ribbed with veins, velveted with epiphylls down to its pointed tip, more midrib than leaf at the point, collapsing over and around into the lower surface white and soft with hairs against impressed veins, with pits and, look even closer, even smaller pits, too, like nostrils for the leaf to breathe—a texture so dense, so particular, yet pliable and ephemeral, unlike the bark, ridged and rough, notched and creviced, with the spiders in the crevices, and eggs, fine eggs under a flake of bark that is dripping wet on the outside, but dry, very dry, beneath. And that does not describe it all, hardly does, there is more texture, and then there is colour and smell and sound and above all life—how many of the six hundred beetles are there on the single fern up there? Is the tree just a piece of the forest—an object to look at, measure up, pass—or a historical monument with its place, its purpose, its baggage, its limitless texture, its intricate forms?

Fern in the canopy

He overhears the man with the camera and lenses say to another member of his group that the best camera of the day is one which is beyond his means. It is a video camera so expensive that the professionals can only rent, use, and return it to the big companies. It shoots three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels. Megapixels? Mega, as in big, and pixel, as in small area. Eighteen big small areas? No, megapixel, as in the mathematically precise number of two raised to the power of twenty or one million forty eight thousand, five hundred and seventy six. A screen, a window of observation, of photographic record, parcelled into more than a million little pieces of information. At three hundred frames a second and eighteen of these millions at every instant, the video gathers and records in its cards, in electronic memory, terabytes of information: more information than can be displayed even today on any existing screen at contemporary capabilities.

Information. How much information does the tree contain? What if the video camera, or a whole bevy of such cameras, shot the tree, from every aspect and angle, at three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels, shot it every second of every day of its four-hundred-year life until the terabytes and yottabytes on the cards ran out? Would we have the information, of the tree, on hand? Would it even come close? And then what? Feed all that to the irresolute brain, the mind that seeks more? There seems to be a problem here. The information available seems far more than the best mind-screens of the day can handle, leave alone illuminate and display.

The rain pelts down in heavy droplets and finer drizzles, merging with mists skimming the treetops, the mists seamlessly melting into the overcast, grey sky. The air is humid; under the thin raincoat, he sweats profusely as he walks in a stupor through a world that seems now saturated with moisture. The rain breaks and the clouds quickly part. The bushy-crested hornbill, separate now from the rest of his flock, sits on a high stump, his wings held open and his back turned to the evening sun. In a world saturated, he tries to dry himself a bit.

* * *

Why does coming to Borneo feel like coming home? Even as he knows he will leave in a couple of days, he knows he will come back again. Yet, he is not of this place. He does not know the people, he cannot speak the language. He loves the food but does not know how it is made, where it all comes from, comes together, in that finesse of process and proportion and place that one calls cooking. The sounds are not alien, but unfamiliar, recalling sounds of his place and other journeys: the drone of the cicadas, the metronomic tk-trrt tk-trrt call of the blue-eared barbet that he last saw and heard in the northernmost rainforest back in his country, the patter of rain, the crunch and rustle of his own footsteps on the forest trail. Clearly, this is not the place where he can, like Walter Scott’s man, in returning, claim:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’

No, that doesn’t fit him at all.

Sitting with a bottle of beer, in the evening, he gazes out towards the forest. The forest is a multi-hued green, rising and falling in the irregular waves of tree canopies, clinging with climbers—rising and falling, but poking out of the waves like mushrooms over base litter are giants, their canopy brave against sky, kissing mists, clouds even. The falling sun and the clouded moon soon rob the forest of its texture, its depth, its waves and whispers, until there is only a formless black to the unattuned eye. The giants that rise above the rest include, of course, the smooth-skinned Koompassia excelsa, the menggaris favoured by the rock bees, and the lanky, straight-boled dipterocarps—favoured, unfortunately, he thinks, by the loggers who are called forest managers. Every other tree in the forest, almost, is a dipterocarp. How does the manager see the forest, he wonders? Half as commodity, a third as collateral, the balance mere crap or carcase?

Rock bees on Koompassia excelsa

He knows he will leave the forest soon. The forest will not leave him—it will go along, too. Who says trees cannot travel? The giant trees will reappear in his dreams, by day or night, for trees there must be in his dreams. From miles away, where the sweep of forest becomes the manager’s territory, the lanky dipterocarp will be brought down, laid flat, sliced flat, and shipped with him, without him, to his other place, his other home. He can buy it in his town in the hills of the elephants, make a cot with the timber of Malaysian sal, to place his mattress and sleep on and dream his dreams of the trees.

Logging in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Further afield, still, in time and space, the forest stripped of commodity and collateral will burn and scar. The carcass needs cremation, the cremation ground its scar tissue. And from the ashes of the fires will rise the new Phoenix, the palm that has travelled, too, across the oceans. The oil palm is the new fruit of the land, the one stubborn shade of green that will replace the many subtle greens.

Large-scale monoculture, oil palm cultivation in Sabah, Borneo

The new earth-scars, the roads to carry crop and cropper, will scour the countryside. The shanty towns will spring up in the backdrop of the factories belching smoke, as after a good meal, the fire in their bellies are well-oiled machines producing well-machined oils.

Clearing for oil palm plantation, Sabah

Palm oil. Palm kernel oil. The oil will follow him, too. It flow and glide along, melt and slide inescapably into his everyday life. He will see it in his soap and shampoo, his cake and fries, his chocolate that he will have now and then. Who says, he thinks, that trees cannot travel?

Perhaps that is what he feels, going back, coming back, to his home in the hills of the elephants, where the whistling thrush sings under the monsoon clouds. If going into nature, into Danum, is like coming home, then isn’t going home also only coming to nature, coming to terms with nature? He has read the poet, Gary Snyder, an unlikely American in the same world: “Nature”, the man said, “is not a place to visit, it is home—and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.” He thinks, now, with the bottle of beer in his hand, that he senses something of which the poet wrote. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just the gentle stream of alcohol coursing his veins: he’s just let his guard down too much, tonight. What do poets know anyway?

He’s no poet. He’s an ecologist. At work, off work, he remains preoccupied with ecology. Ecology, from the oikos and logos of the Greeks. Logos, as the scripture, the study, of oikos, the home. With a renewed awareness, he realises that ecology is nothing less, and nothing more, than a deep preoccupation with home. Everything, now, appears to point home. Even the alcohol offers no escape.

It is late. The darkness descends. He must catch some sleep before the morning. Tomorrow, he must return home.

Of tamarind and tolerance

Of tamarind and tolerance

An edited and shorter version of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 June 2012.

For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. The wide, old roads radiating from Coimbatore city, in particular, had long rows of grand tamarind trees on either side. One could see them on the road to Mettupalayam and the hazy blue mountains beyond, on the road to the sacred hill of Marudhamalai, towards the Sathyamangalam hills and Mysore to the north, through the expansive plateau and plains to Salem, and southwards past Pollachi to the ancient hills of the elephants, the Anamalai.

A highway flanked by tamarind trees, with people collecting fruits in bags, near Anamalai in Coimbatore District (Photo: P Jeganathan)
A highway flanked by tamarind trees, with people collecting fruits in bags, near Anamalai in Coimbatore District (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

The trees have stood like old sentinels, serene and solid through the rush of years. Their sturdy trunks and strong branches have towered over and across the roads, quite unmindful of buffeting rain and searing sun. Their twigs, festooned with dark green leaves, each with its paired row of little leaflets, have provided an impartial and unstinting shade and shelter for all. In return, the trees seemed only to need a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.

They stood like this until the men came with the axes and saws for the slaughter of the trees. The men brought heavy bulldozers and earth movers—construction equipment powered for destruction—to gouge the ancient roots of the tamarind trees out of the earth. Trees that had stood for centuries were brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.

Tamarind trees hacked away on the Mettupalayam Road (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
Tamarind trees hacked away on the Mettupalayam Road (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

The tamarind tree is an old and dignified citizen of our city avenues and gardens, our countryside and farms. Its name, derived from the Arabic tamar-ul-Hind or the ‘the date of India’, finds mention in written historical accounts of India going back centuries. There is irony in this, for the tamarind is native to Africa and not a species that grows naturally in India’s forests. Despite being alien to India, the tamarind has not run wild and become an invasive pest, becoming instead what biologists call a naturalised species. Embraced by a deep tolerance and cultural acceptance into Indian cuisine and culture, the tamarind is today a familiar and inseparable part of Indian life and landscape.

A wild tamarind tree near Laka Manyara in Tanzania, East Africa (Photo: Divya Mudappa)
A wild tamarind tree near Laka Manyara in Tanzania, East Africa (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Abiding benefits

Before the men and the machines came, the tamarind trees seemed to have an abiding presence, like torch-bearers marking a productive countryside, like the enduring blue mountains in the distance. Their wide trunks rose above stout roots that pushed into the soil, like muscled and flexed thighs gripping the earth. Their fissured bark was thick and brown, aged and toughened and weathered, like the wrinkled face of the old woman selling mangoes in the patch of shade below.

Under the dense canopy, thousands of pedestrians and riders of two-wheelers found quick shelter from rain. Or, in scorching summers, a refreshing coolness cast by the tiny leaflets—how many leaflets does a tamarind tree have, a million, ten million? Even the air-conditioners seemed to waft easier and cooler in the metal cocoons of parked cars that escaped roasting in the sun. The trees seemed to abide, they granted benefits, and their beneficence was taken for granted.

Every year, the twigs were weighed down with hundreds of lumpy brown pods, with skins like coarse felt covering pulp, tart and tasty, and disc-like, shining seeds. The fruits were there for the taking. The adept and nimble climbed the branches to knock down the fruit. Their friends darted around to grab the fallen pods, dodging traffic.

Tamarind fruits collected from the roadside trees (Photo: P. Jeganathan)
Tamarind fruits collected from the roadside trees (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

On the roads, many tamarind trees had managed to rise above anonymity: each tree, even if not named, was numbered; each individual claimed by negotiation or auction by someone from the village or panchayat for its fruit. Collected, dried, and packed, the fruit of the tamarind trees would eventually find its way into a thousand dishes, enrich the palate of millions, and become inseparably incorporated in people’s cuisine, in their lives, in their very bodies. And no one could stop the children, who needed only a handful of stones to claim their share. The trees brought utility, food, cash, plain fun.

Tamarind fruits, seeds, and leaves are used for food and flavour, juice and snacks. Tamarind is now an inseparable part of Indian cuisine (Photo: Kalyan Varma)
Tamarind fruits, seeds, and leaves are used for food and flavour, juice and snacks. Tamarind is now an inseparable part of Indian cuisine (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

And yet, there is more to the tamarind. Beyond the utility and the benefits of the trees, there is something intangible, amiss, overlooked. It seems to emerge as a touch of beauty—an enlivening green in an increasingly dour landscape. A beauty fragile forever from the prospect of loss just a chain-saw away. It seems to emanate from the trees, too, from the sounds where a few still remain. The soughing of wind through ten million leaflets, in mournful restlessness, carrying the delicate aroma of the tamarind’s modest, finely-marked flowers. The creak of branches and the click of twigs holding the tamarind’s pendant fruit. Or, when the wind abates, a calming susurrus pierced only by the occasional screech of parakeets. And when dusk descends, the tamarind trees darken to the chuckle of mynas, the chatter of shy owlets, and the hoots of somnolent owls, rising with the stars. The trees are silent but full of sounds, and one who hears them may find things worth listening to.

Roadside aesthetic: a misty morning with tamarind trees along a road in Tamil Nadu (Photo: P. Jeganathan)
Roadside aesthetic: a misty morning with tamarind trees along a road in Tamil Nadu (Photo: P. Jeganathan)

Reading the landscape

Naturalists and ecologists, who spend a fair bit of their time watching the earth and its creatures, sometimes say that you can read a landscape, you can see its wounds and sense a need for healing. On the Mettupalayam road and onto the hills beyond, sure, you cannot miss reading the landscape: somebody has spelt it out in big letters for you. “Vote for ——— Party”, says one sign, painted with a crudely-daubed logo, rather unwittingly symbolic in its background of whitewash. “Faith in God”, says another, pointing to a higher authority. “Enjoy the Serene Villas”, declares a sign for a resort promising a better place, not above, but ahead. A painted board of the Forest Department, placed in front of a patch of forest that has existed for millennia, asserts: “Preservation Plot: This Forest has been Protected as it was for Decades”. And a wit, who has perhaps had a bumpy ride, has painted on: “And so has this road.”

The wounds are there, too. There are the cuts and gouges in the land, festering moistly with garbage and hyacinth. One wishes the waters would not find their way into these old tanks and streams to turn dry dumps of civilisation’s discards into suppurating sores. There are the stumps of surgery: trunks and branches neatly sliced to make way for better things like wires and cables. The rot sets in, hollowing into the stumps, but only to make homes for families of owls or mynas. There are the thorns in the side of the stumps and trees that remain: nails hammered in the hundreds, carrying rusty boards and advertisements and nameplates, or garlands of wilted and dried flowers placed for adornment—of what? Then come the nooses and garrottes—wires and ropes—some hanging loose, some stretched taut, decorated with ribbons or hooks and loops to hang the street-trader’s merchandise, or merely forgotten and cutting into the bark. And there is the wounded heart, cut with deep, desperate strokes, on the blazed bark of one of the trees still standing; a heart pierced by an arrow saying, “Sundari, I love U”.

Fall from grace

Then the old roads were labelled tracks, the tracks became streets, the streets became roads, and the roads became highways. And yet, we are not satisfied, we need super-highways. This idea brooks no questioning, no obstruction. The trees must make way for tarmac. The people who stood in the shade must make way for the cars that proliferate. The vitality of a living countryside must make way for the deathly artificiality of the city, spreading like a virus down the arteries. The living countryside and its other users don’t really matter: they mostly don’t have cars, anyway.

The tamarind trees are now painted with broad waist-bands in white and black, so that they are more visible to the highway motorist who can then avoid them. How effectively we mark something to be more visible and to be more ignored at once!

So, the tamarind trees drift into wayside anonymity, from anonymity to disuse, disuse to neglect. The fruits fall and are crushed under the tyres of vehicles. The road surface is studded with hard, shining seeds driven into hot tar, staring like eyes without eyelids at the sun and sky. Shade and greenery are replaced by heat and grime. The screech of parakeets and chuckle of mynas is replaced by the endless screech of tyres and squeal of brakes. The hoot of owls is deafened by the toot of horns and the soughing of wind by the howling of sirens: the ambulances are now busy day and night. Places where a person could live a full, good life become sites, where one cannot even die a good death.

Now, the tamarind trees are but old fixtures in the landscape, like old people, grandparents and elders, suddenly out of place in a redefined world, suddenly unwanted. And when the old trees fall, the countryside is bereft, like families broken.

Better road sense

It does not have to end this way. Engineers and ecologists, citizens from the city and the countryside, can join hands to find better design and transportation solutions. Solutions that incorporate retaining the old trees, such as tamarinds and banyans, as essential components of roadsides for their varied and indisputable uses, and as representing a more refined aesthetic sorely needed for our cities, roads, and countryside. What call do we have to deprive those who come after us of the public utility and beauty of these grand trees?

We need to retain the trees that remain and design better roads and public transportation that includes keeping the trees. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
We need to retain the trees that remain and design better roads and public transportation that includes keeping the trees. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

Even now, many stumps of felled trees lie metres away from widened roads: one wonders why they had to be felled at all. Natural landscaping, planning service lanes around trees, traffic regulation and public transportation solutions need to be found before the engineers and bureaucrats wield the axe, albeit indirectly from behind their desks, distanced and disconnected from land and landscape. Taken as a matter of wide public importance, decisions to retain or fell such trees should be based on democratic and public debate and consultation with and concurrence of citizens and citizen groups, and involvement of representative local administrative bodies, the judiciary, and the media.

Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress, that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.

Yet, it is not merely that one misses seeing the trees for the road.The tamarind trees—those still alive on the roads around Coimbatore amidst the stumps of those that are gone—seem to stand for something deeper. An awareness that beauty is forever pitted against the peril of loss and tolerance against the spectre of alienation. Only when we cannot bear alienation, will we usher in tolerance. Only when we cannot countenance loss, will we embrace beauty.

It does not have to end this way. Engineers and ecologists, citizens from the city and the countryside, can join hands to find better design and transportation solutions. Solutions that incorporate retaining the old trees, such as tamarinds and banyans, as essential components of roadsides for their varied and indisputable uses, and as representing a more refined aesthetic sorely needed for our cities, roads, and countrysides. What call do we have to deprive those who come after us of the public utility and beauty of these grand trees?

Even now, many stumps of felled trees lie metres away from widened roads: one wonders why they had to be felled at all. Natural landscaping, planning service lanes around trees, traffic regulation and public transportation solutions need to be found before the engineers and bureaucrats wield the axe, albeit indirectly from behind their desks, distanced and disconnected from land and landscape. Taken as a matter of wide public importance, decisions to retain or fell such trees should be based on democratic and public debate and consultation with and concurrence of citizens and citizen groups, and involvement of representative local administrative bodies, the judiciary, and the media.

Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress, that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.

The pigeon’s passengers

The pigeon’s passengers

There is a modesty in their conquest of mountains. From the heights, they commandeer vistas of rugged mountains covered in forest or countryside dotted with great trees. From tall trees on high ridges, they scan the landscape, their heads turning on long and graceful necks. They have scaled peaks, even surpassed them. Yet, they speak only in soft and hushed tones that resonate among stately trees. For the imperial pigeons are a dignified lot, keeping the company of great trees.

Down in the valley, the pigeon’s voice throbs through dense rainforest: a deep hu, hoo-uk, hoo-uk, repeated after long pauses, like the hoots of an owl. In the dawn chorus of birdsong, it sounds like a sedate basso profundo trying to slow the tempo of barbets and calm the errant flutes and violins of babblers and thrushes. The calling pigeon, in a flock with others, is in a low symplocos tree whose branches shine with dark green leaves and purple-blue fruit. They are busy picking and swallowing the ripe fruits, each with fleshy pulp around a single stony seed.

These large birds, neatly plumaged in formal greys and pastel browns, are Mountain Imperial Pigeons—a species found in the rainforests of the Western Ghats and the Himalaya in India.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon (Ducula badia) in a rainforest in north-east India. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)
Mountain Imperial Pigeon (Ducula badia) in a rainforest in north-east India. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)

In more open forests and on grand banyan and other fig trees along the roads through the countryside, one can see their cousins, the Green Imperial Pigeons shaded in more verdant sheen.

Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) on a fruiting fig tree. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)
Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) on a fruiting fig tree. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)

As a group, the imperial pigeons have a penchant for fruit that necessitates roaming wide areas in search of food. Weeks may pass in a patch of forest with no sign of pigeons, but when the wild fruits ripen, the nomadic flocks descend from distant sites and the forest resonates with their calls again.

The transporter

Like other birds such as hornbills and barbets in these forests, imperial pigeons eat fruits ranging from small berries to large drupes, including wild nutmegs and laurels and elaeocarps (rudraksh). Yet, the pigeon’s bill is small and delicate in comparison with the hornbill’s horny casque or the barbet’s stout beak, which seem more suited to handling large fruits with big stony seeds. The imperial pigeon’s solution to this problem is a cleverly articulated lower beak and extensible gape and gullet that can stretch to swallow the entire fruit and seed.

Lured by the package of pulpy richness in fruit, the pigeon then becomes a transporter of seed. Many seeds are dropped in the vicinity of the mother tree itself, scattered around with seeds from rotting fruit fallen on the earth below. The concentrated stockpile of seeds below elaeocarp and nutmeg trees are attacked by rodents and beetles, leaving little hope for survival and germination. But when the pigeon takes wing, some seeds go with the pigeon as passengers on a vital journey, travelling metres to miles into the surrounding landscape. Voided eventually by the pigeon, the dispersed seeds have an altogether greater prospect of escape from gnawing rat and boring beetle and—when directly or fortuitously dropped onto a suitable spot—of germination. By carrying and literally dropping off their passengers where some establish as seedlings and grow into trees, the pigeons become both current consumers and future producers of fruit.

Still, it is the quiet achievement of the trees that seems more impressive. Rooted to a spot, the trees have enticed the pigeons to move their seeds for them. Deep in the forest, one discovers a seedling where no trees of that kind stand nearby, bringing a rare pleasure like an unexpected meeting with an old friend. The pigeons are plied with fruit and played by the trees. The modest conquest of the mountains by the pigeons is trumped by the subtler conquest of the pigeons by the immobile trees.

Peril of extinction

In speaking of the pigeon’s passengers, one recalls with misgiving the fate of Passenger Pigeons. The Passenger Pigeon was once found in astounding abundance across North America in flocks numbering tens of millions—flocks so huge that their migratory flights would darken the skies for days on end. Yet, even this species was exterminated by unmitigated slaughter under the guns of hunters and by the collection—during their enormous nesting congregations—of chicks (squabs) by the truck-load. Within a few decades, the great flocks and society of Passenger Pigeons were decimated in vast landscapes transformed by axe and plough, plunder and profiteering. By 1914, the species—at the time perhaps one of the most abundant land bird species in the world—had been reduced to a single captive female. The last known Passenger Pigeon, Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914, closing the page on another wonderful species, in another sorry chapter of human history on Earth.

Our pigeons are more fortunate, but in many areas they, too, are dying a slow death. Some fall to the bullets of hunters who take strange pride in their dubious sport or skill. Some roam large areas of once-continuous rainforest, which now have only scattered fragments. The mountain imperial pigeons are still seen winging across in powerful flight from one remnant to another, over monoculture plantations and stagnant reservoirs. Their forays are getting longer, and their journeys often end fruitless. Our countryside, too, is becoming bereft of their green cousins, as grand banyans and other fruit trees vanish along our widening roads, and diverse forests of native trees are replaced by miserable Australian acacias and eucalyptus, if they are replaced at all. As their homes are whittled away, the hornbills, barbets, and other pigeons vanish silently. With them vanish subtle splendours and prospects of regeneration. On the roads, the vehicles speed along on their wheels of progress, carrying passengers of a different kind, barely aware of the majesty and opportunity for renewal left behind.

From the valley, the imperial pigeons take wing and—in a minute—fly high and swift over the mountain to distant rainforest. There, sometime in the future, new seedlings will perhaps still emerge in a silent testimony. A testimony that one can forever fly high and strong if one only consumes what one also regenerates in perpetuity.

This article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 6 May 2012, and in the In School edition on 9 May 2012.

Restoration in the Palani hills

Restoration in the Palani hills

A lovely article written by Ian Lockwood, which seems most appropriate to read today—Earth Day, 2012—has been published in Frontline. The article ‘Breathing life back into the sholas‘, which also talks about ecological restoration, is accompanied by a little box item explaining this as a ‘New idea in India‘. The article speaks of the unique shola – grassland ecosystems of the high mountains of the Western Ghats and of the ongoing work there on restoration of sholas and grasslands that have been degraded, destroyed, or badly affected by invasions of alien plant species. For those not familiar with Ian Lockwood, he is a brilliant photographer, educator, and writer, whose work you can see in the website High Range Photography and on his blog.

It is well worth picking up your copy of Frontline magazine (Volume 29 – Issue 07 dated April 7-20, 2012) just to see the beautiful photographs, especially the black-and-white landscape shots and panoramas that Ian Lockwood is famous for. You can see a preview of some page spreads on Ian’s blog here. Frontline is one of the few magazines that frequently carries full-length and detailed articles on the environment along with photographs and it is always nice to read a piece such as this in the magazine.

Lockwood’s article describes the unique montane landscape, its history, and conservation concerns, all of which serve as the backdrop for the ongoing ecological restoration work by a local NGO, the Vattakanal Conservation Trust (VCT). Through pioneering restoration efforts and partnership with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, VCT is working to change the way we view and conserve the larger landscape.

In our own restoration work here in the Anamalai hills, we have learned much from and been inspired by the work of VCT, especially Tanya Balcar and Robert (Bob) Stewart of VCT. Bob and Tanya, both founders of VCT, are a couple of British origin settled in Kodaikanal for over 25 years. Sharing a deep passion for native plant species and their conservation, they are self-taught, top-notch botanists with wide experience of the incredible diversity of plants in the Western Ghats, including in the Palani hills. Concerned over the widespread degradation, especially in the Upper Palanis, for more than two decades now they have also done pioneering work on ecological restoration. This includes careful floristic studies, development of germination techniques of hundreds of plant species of shola forests and grasslands, implementation of restoration of highly degraded sites to sholas and their again-pioneering efforts at restoration of the unique montane grasslands (the famed habitat of the kurinji). Their contributions are also recorded in the monumental 3 volume The Flora of the Palni Hills by K. M. Matthew, one of the botanical treatises and authoritative reference works to emerge from Southern India.

Bob and Tanya and the VCT staff also maintain one of the longest-standing and diverse native plant nurseries in the region, besides having developed a grassland nursery and techniques to propagate native grassland plants. These are also documented in a chapter in our joint publication here. Their success in convincing the bureaucracy of the need for ecological restoration using native shola and grassland species and in working with committed officers is something to be respected and emulated. Their work is also showing insights into the effects of alien plantations on grasslands and wetlands, and water tables, and how ecological restoration can help to reverse the tide of degradation with benefits both for nature conservation and local people. Ian Lockwood has also written articles earlier, including in Sanctuary Asia and Frontline, with a highly appreciative but modest mention of VCT, all of which you can find linked on his blog. Taken together, this set of articles, documents well the context and significance of the region and the ongoing restoration work.