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Bark by bark
Trees’ company Pradip Krishen, seen here at the Ridge in New Delhi, is also a friend of dogs
“I not only love the smell of wood, but its texture, colour and grain fascinates me.”
Delhiite Pradip Krishen’s description of joy extracted from just a piece of firewood doesn’t quite stimulate your mind’s eye at once. But think again. Think of the smell, the texture, the colour, the grain, of wood. Does it not tempt you to close your eyes and catch a deep breath? Does it not make you reflect on how much you have missed out on the simple joys of life while chasing big dreams? When I heard Krishen relate his love for wood, raindrops were dripping from the window sill of our third floor work space, and I almost ran down the stairs — to cup, smell and sense nature.
Really, as we clamber down one high rise to go up yet another, to live, work, dine out or go shopping, admiring the bounty of nature now seems only meant for the holiday itinerary of many of us living in concrete jungles. We miss out on the trees between the buildings, as we zip through the roads without caring to look at the trees lining them. The sound of our blaring horns silences the bird songs with such ease that we have almost forgotten by now that they too dwell the city. And rain? Don’t we look at it as a nuisance that causes traffic jams?
But Pradip Krishen is not your usual example of a Delhiite in a hurry. If the fondness for firewood is not enough of an indicator, then note his lazy walks on the Ridge every day, his halts to stare at the tree canopies, his trips to the city’s Kirti Nagar area to buy firewood from the timber auction, and then curing it for over a year to make his home furniture. But what really separates him from the rest of us is his field guide on the trees of Delhi, a book that he wrote a good two years ago, which continues to turn its readers into tree lovers. It turned him into the city’s true tree man.
Relates Krishen, “I have always been interested in nature. Fascinated by wild places. Into birds in my early 20s, but trees came later, much later.” He knows exactly when. February 16 to be precise. “I know because I wrote it down.”
On that day, he noticed “that every dry twig on the Ridge had sprouted a tiny, pale green affirmation that it was still alive…” That day, Krishen, a filmmaker of repute who gave us a superb production like Massey Sahib, turned a naturalist. “Looking back, I am sure this was the exact moment when my interest in plants began,” he writes in the book, “Trees of Delhi”.
And today, the man who “could probably recognise only the neem tree at a glance” even after 40 years of walking on the Ridge, knows which trees dot which lane and their maiden entry into Lutyens’ Delhi. And also those that were here before the British came.
“Quite a lot of unusual species were found in the orchards on the edge of the city before the British came here, though they weren’t necessarily local in the strict sense. Kamrakh, for example, and badhal, which are still growing there in a patch of cultivation in Shalimar Garden could well be 400 years old,” he says. Most of the trees that the Moghuls planted were familiar species. “Except for one species of Garcinia which was reported by Royle in the 1840s. It was fed with milk in the royal Hayat Baksh Charbagh inside the Red Fort! Needless to say, the Garcinia hasn’t survived.”
Krishen, who spent two-and-a-half years of childhood in Africa, counts the Mangar Bani forest in Faridabad as his favourite green spot in the National Capital Region — besides, of course, a portion of the Central Ridge where he goes walking every evening. “I am very fond of it,” he beams.
Krishen’s tree book needed a lot of research and yielded many interesting stories. He left quite a few out of the pages for lack of space and adds, “There isn’t space to tell those stories here either. Maybe one day, in another book about Delhi’s trees…”
Though not new, the book, according to many a city bookshop owner, is still doing quite well. Krishen knows why. “Most flora or tree books presume that you know quite a lot and then try and deepen your knowledge. I presumed that most of my readers could perhaps tell a mango tree from a hedge but not more. So the book ended up by being very inclusive. And the reason I found this easy to do was that I had been a layperson myself, not so long previously!”
Having documented the city’s trees, Krishen says he has moved on to trees and plants in other regions now, close to Delhi.
He has also moved on from the art of filmmaking. “Done and dusted,” is what he says. Instead he is working on a book on the jungle trees of Central India. And promises, “It’s going to be another field guide, like the Delhi book, aimed at people who go looking for tigers in national parks.”
Also, he is directing the creation of a 70-hectare park in Jodhpur which will be a rocky landscape of plants that grow only in desert rock. “I’m also beginning work on an ambitious project to create jungle micro-habitats in Delhi’s Sundar Nursery.”
Well, you almost end up envying him when he wraps up the conversation saying, “Free time? I don’t have any!”
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