Oh Vardah, thousands of trees! Some have been standing tall and proud for over two generations, now destroyed by you in one fell swoop. I know it is not entirely your fault and I am reading about the various factors that might have contributed to so much destruction. But still... couldn't you have blown just a little gentler?
Listen, my mind and heart go back to the early 90s when I would drive from Nungambakkam to Besant Nagar in the evenings just to enjoy the magnificent trees lining the wide streets, Pandit Jasraj's Desh raga playing in my car....Chitvan Roke Ho Na Rahi (Don't stop/shy away from glancing). Traffic was not horrendous in those days; in fact, it was a pleasure driving from this end of the city to that.
And then in 1999, entered Coconut Tree, my confidante. Virtually every evening, sitting on the terrace of my home in Kotturpuram, I would communicate with her. She knew all my secrets and agonies. And when I listened carefully enough, she would churn out answers and possibilities. Oh those moonlit nights, gentle breeze, silent tears on my face that only Nature could and would care to wipe away. By the end of the evening, I would bid Her good night and shut the white door, hint of a smile in my heart. Oh wait, one glance at Gulmohar in the background. Adorned with her bright orange flowers, she was a constant eavesdropper. But how to reject the Beauty?
The landscape of Madras-Chennnai was dotted with these Gulmohars that had it in them to bring cheer to any gloomy day. They would take me back to my childhood days in Singapore... me as a young girl of 10 sitting at my desk struggling to finish my homework. Flame of the Forest as I knew her then, always providing some respite and joy each time I looked up and out of the window... which was often. And then being driven to school along Bukit TImah Road, I would sit back in the car and watch each distinct tree go by. To my eyes they all looked like dancers in various poses. They seemed to know they were breathtakingly beautiful and seductive.
Back to Madras-Chennai... I would always marvel at how the residents of the city seemed to cherish these magical beings. How often have I driven on a road to find a huge old tree bang smack in the centre. That's just the way it was. Chop down a tree to build a road? No way! What about the houses whose compound walls were built with large holes to accommodate the trunk of an existing tree, that extends out onto the pavement, it's branches providing shade to the inhabitants as well as to passers by on the street outside? Yes, they made it inconvenient to walk on the pavement but so what? There seemed to be not just tolerance but respect for these trees.
Can I ever forget Ms. Ashoka, my sakhi (woman friend) in Alwarpet? She watched me, quietly comforting me through some of my worst days. It is through communion with her, that Radha Now was conceived - a production that addressed the plight of the mythological Radha through the lens of a contemporary woman, with the Tree as confidante and silent witness. It took close to two years from conception to performing the work. In presenting it, I chose a space with a Tree that would stand there watching the story unfold. In the final scene, I left everything and everyone to dance against her, hold her tight and lie under her shade.
The peace, solace and blissful oblivion.
Here I am now, back in Singapore and lying on my bed with my laptop. Outside my bedroom window stands a huge old tree, her branches and leaves seem to be reaching out to me. I know she knows each and every detail of my present life. I have a feeling she also knows that my heart is broken today and crying softly for the city I so love and for her trees that now lie horizontal across the streets, waiting to be chopped and cleared.
Chitvan Roke Ho Na Rahi? But I have to stop. For what is there left to glance at?
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
(from Maya Angelou’s Celebrations: Rituals of Peace And Prayer.)
Photographs courtesy V.V. Ramani