Walking the greens in Delhi, we discovered Vasaka, the shrub that is known to treat many ailments

A few years ago I was working at Leap Years, a creative activity centre for children started by Rahul Bhandare. Among the activities we conducted at Leap Years was walks through different parts of the city, its monuments, gardens and the little patches of forest that have managed to survive in Delhi, tenaciously clinging to the little foothold that they have in this rather uncaring concrete jungle.

The walks that I started with these school going kids gradually began to attract their parents and then through word of mouth the news spread. So I continue to climb steps of preserved and crumbling monuments and explore the small bits of green that one comes across along the truncated remains of the Arravalis.

On one of these walks through the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, a little girl called Madhavi, who was then in class two pointed to a shrub and told me excitedly, that is Vasaka. The shrub had lance shaped leaves, broad at the base ending in a sharp point, the leaves grew in profusion from several branches clustered around the central stem. Most branches were topped by white flowers with very fine light violet veins running through them. I asked Madhavi who told her about the shrub and what else does she know? She said she liked the flowers and her parents, who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, had shown her the plant.

A few weeks later, I had taken the kids out to hunt for the eggs and caterpillars of the monarch among the milkweed plants that grow in profusion in the rocky outskirts of the Arravalis. An office-boy called Subhash from Rajasthan accompanied us since he wanted to see the caterpillars. Subhash pointed to a Vasaka shrub and told me that the leaves and flowers are boiled or crushed and used as a cure for cough. On yet another outing, Vijay a driver who worked at Leap Years and belonged to Uttar Pradesh told me that the leaves were a cure for asthma, and that the leaves, branches and dried roots were all used to treat all kinds of ailments including joint pains, stomach disorders, skin infections and eczema. This wild shrub was turning into a miracle cure.

It was a few months before the penny dropped and the name Glycodin Cough Syrup popped up from the bank of childhood memories. I also remembered Terp Vasaka and the name Glycodin Terp Vasaka had a strangely familiar ring to it. This was the most popular cough syrup of my childhood days, consumed widely even today and here was the shrub that was the source of the medicine, growing wild all over the plains. Fortunately it is not neglected, ignored and forgotten. People know about it, not people like me and you, perhaps, but people who have an interest in history and our environment and more importantly ordinary people, people who we treat as ignorant or barely literate. How many other shrubs and trees are there in these small strips of green that we know nothing about, and do we care?

Last Sunday, I requested Pradip Krishen, film maker and the Tree Man of Delhi, to take some of us for a walk through Sanjay Van near Kishan Garh and Vasant Kunj and he showed us what we do not see even if we go to these forests every day. It was sheer joy to see a man who knew every shrub, every tree, every creeper, knew when they flower and when they shed their leaves and how trees that do not belong to this environment behave when they are re-located in alien environment, some like the invasive Juliflora Prosopis, popularly known as the Vilayati Keekar and Su Babool, spell doom for the native vegetation like the Ronjh and Desi Keekar, while others like the Terrygota, I hope I have the spellings right, grow stunted and deformed while they grow into magnificent trees in their native Dehradun. It was Pradip who told us that the Vasaka is not grazed because of the bitter tasting leaves. Vasaka is known as Adhatoda in Malayalam which translates into “a plant that goats do not touch”.

The care with which Pradip touched each tree or leaf or drew our attention to the miniscule flowers as he talked about them made you wonder, how many Pradip Krishens does this city need to stop the wanton chopping and destruction of whatever green cover we have left in this city.

Even as he was taking us around, there were bulldozers outside the Sanjay Van breaking down the oldest part of our geological heritage -- bits of the Arravalis that protrude from Sanjay Van. Breaking them down, pulling down trees and shrubs, trampling upon clumps of Vasaka, all for a car park being built ostensibly for visitors to the proposed Bio-Diversity Park, of which one sees no sign, but the car park and the fencing of the forest continues unabated. While this mayhem rampaged unchecked someone stole Pradip’s car, stolen from the gate of Sanjay Van in broad daylight, right under the nose of a police picket and a guard post at one of the gates.

I was hoping that I’ll be able to pull Pradip out once in a while from his work in greening Jodhpur, requesting him to lead such walks for larger groups, to hopefully build a group that will begin to see and care for the trees in these forests and save them from this mad race to concretise every bit of land. After losing his car on his first outing with this group, I wonder if anyone of us will have the courage to go to him again.

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