Of tamarind and tolerance

As these trees make way for tarmac, here is a plea for better design and transportation solutions.

Updated - July 12, 2016 03:39 am IST

Published - June 16, 2012 04:37 pm IST

Green canopy: A highway lined by tamarind trees and people collecting the fruits in bags. Photo: P. Jeganathan

Green canopy: A highway lined by tamarind trees and people collecting the fruits in bags. Photo: P. Jeganathan

For centuries, long rows of grand tamarind trees have marked our roadsides, particularly in southern India. 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, 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 only needed a little space by the side of road, to set their roots in, and a space to stretch their arms.

Today, along the roads, men come with axes and saws for the slaughter of these trees. They bring heavy bulldozers and earth movers — construction equipment powered for destruction — to gouge the ancient roots out of the earth. Trees that stood for centuries are brusquely despatched in a matter of hours.

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.

Variety of benefits

Before the men and the machines came, the tamarind trees had an abiding presence, like torch-bearers marking a productive countryside. 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 millions of tiny leaflets. 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 granted many benefits and their beneficence was taken for granted.

Every year, the twigs were weighed down with hundreds of lumpy brown pods, with tart and tasty pulp, 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.

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.

And yet, there is more, something intangible, overlooked. A touch of beauty — an enlivening green filled with life — in an increasingly dour landscape.

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 tamarind trees drift into wayside anonymity, from anonymity to disuse, disuse to neglect. The fruits fall and are crushed under the tyres of vehicles. Shade and greenery are replaced by heat and grime. The songs of birds and sighing of wind in the branches are replaced by the cacophony of vehicles.

Now, the 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.

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?

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.

E-mail: trsr@ncf-india.org

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