A botanically-inclined friend once told me how the ugliest of cities are made beautiful by trees. She then introduced me to Millingtonia hortensis , a slow-growing indigenous species that bursts into fragrant bloom from October to December. If that sounds like a name J.K. Rowling would give to a loopy aunt, it’s the lyrical mara malli (tree jasmine) in Tamil and Malayalam, the latak chandni (dangling moonlight) in Marathi and the Sitahaar (Sita’s necklace) in Bengali. I have spent every year after that helpful conversation with my heart uplifted at the sight of the many mara mallis in the city, every one of them carpeting indifferent roads and boundary walls with their slender blossoms towards the end of the year (I even know of one that leans gamely over the roof of an unsightly public toilet on the Theosophical Society Road in Adyar).
Talking trees is a hobby that delights me. I learnt, for example, of the shady magizhampoo ( Mimusops elengi , or the bakul of which Kalidasa writes in Meghaduta ) from a fellow walker who was tsk-tsking at how carelessly sweepers had shoved the tiny, sweet-scented flowers of the grand yet diffident evergreen, as she picked them carefully off the ground and folded them into her stole. I must have squashed hundreds of them under my sneakers till we met.
It was chats like these that I wanted to have with Shobha Menon, founder of the urban greening NGO Nizhal, over its evocatively-titled Living Landmarks of Chennai , a book on the many remarkable trees that may still be seen in the metropolis.
Vardah was still a ‘low pressure area’ faraway in the Malay peninsula when I first sought to meet Shobha, who was travelling at the time. Neither of us knew it was to become a ‘severe cyclonic storm’ that would make landfall at Chennai, of course, and this story would have turned out quite differently had we managed to connect before it did.
Instead, when I drove up to meet her, it was past roads lined with fallen trees, trunks and branches askance, roots ripped from the earth, splayed as if the limbs of the city had been torn asunder. The air was thick with the heavy scent of composting leaves, and if there was a sound more terrible than the fall of axes on trees being cut to clear the roads for traffic, it was the sickening whine of the electric saw hurrying the process.
Carnage, someone said. It’s like a graveyard of trees out there. “I somehow never realised our locality had so many trees,” someone else ventured. “It’s terrible to see them gone.”
In conversations across the city, it was the loss of trees that Chennai appeared to mourn most, which can surely be seen as reason for hope. Shobha, who appeared saddened and resolute in equal measure, said Nizhal had been deluged with calls from people asking how they could help. She herself was trying to save what she could at the Kotturpuram Tree Park, pointing out that it’s useless to lament. “Look at the amount of work to be done,” she said, quietly. Saving trees and planting more is, naturally, the best way to replace regret with recompense.
How to help
Log into www.nizhaltn.org and stop by for its shramdaan gatherings to meet like-minded folk and learn how to care for trees, our low-maintenance treasures. Click the link to Nizhal Tree Lists on the home page for clear instructions on how to plant trees (they even account for the width of avenues and the proximity to water bodies in the helpful guide to native species), including the ideal height of saplings, the distance between them, the dimensions of the pit, and post-planting care. Trees are classified for their medicinal, flowering and ornithological traits… or, you may like to have butterflies and leafy canopies in your neighbourhood?