How do trees survive in cities, and what do they dream of?
Sananda Mukhopadhyaya imagines what it feels like to be a tree in a city overwhelmed by people and concrete.
In the city of dreams, what do the trees dream of?
Probably the same things you and I dream of in Mumbai- footage space and light. Like us, trees make for a community of migrants who have come here from far away places to call it home. And like most folks in this city, trees too need to hustle and make a “living”.
In a city struggling for space, trees moonlight as advertisement posts for drivers, domestic workers, key makers and most commonly masseurs. Besides this, they are also prolific wire holders, and if you look closely at a typical Mumbai neighbourhood tree, you are likely to see wire coiled up within its branches or trailing down its trunk. In this season of festivities, they work all night as fairy light holders and are likely to be found posturing as marionettes to Chinese paper lamps at wedding banquet halls.
They also do small jobs that are not always dignified with their due respect. Especially when they have to lend their branches to be stuffed into manholes that have missing covers so that pedestrians and cars can move around them safely. Branches are also ruthlessly yanked from trees to be placed on the sides of trucks and cars that break down on the roads.
But chief among the jobs they do in the city these days is being recruited as CCTV posts. In a time of rampant surveillance, the army of avenue trees in big and small streets in the city have been employed to keep a keen eye on their neighbourhood. This is a coveted position among trees, as it potentially ensures their safety, even though they must endure the sharp pain of mechanical drills piercing their trunk and the weight of big and small CCTV cameras.
Other odd jobs include providing shelter to makeshift chai stalls, and serving as hangers for tyres for repair stalls in the vicinity.
Despite their versatile adaptation to the ways of the city, trees fall prey to a number of threats within the cityscape. It would seem that trees growing within the sea may be safe from any immediate dangers. But on Carter Road alone, the mangroves have seen a steady decline as debris from redevelopment projects finds its way to the sea. And with close to 80 redevelopment projects underway in the densely populated Bandra Khar zone with large oppressive LED Clocks counting down every minute till the building is made…things continue to look bleak for trees. Concrete chokes the avenue trees. It battles the trees in the national forest area in the northern part of the city and displaces them from redevelopment sites each time an old building is broken down.
It is hard being a tree in the city. And if it wasn’t enough that their existence was being threatened, trees have to deal with the additional indignity of being trimmed during the monsoons with no consideration for their architecture or aesthetic.
But not all trees need jobs to survive, a few lucky ones get to live and even thrive in places like graveyards or old campuses like those of the Navy, or the IIT. While some live peacefully within chaotic train stations.
I’m sure we’ve all had bad haircuts, ones performed by family members when we were too young to have agency over these decisions. The BMC displays the same reckless abandon giving ghastly haircuts to the trees all over the city before the rains. This year it has been particularly brutal, as they have probably chopped off branches more ruthlessly than usual to compensate for the pandemic. The pandemic had given Mumbai’s trees a chance to stretch and momentarily hold more space for themselves. But apparently not for long. Which is why a lot of city trees grow fresh leaves on their trunks and look like columns with a bit of foliage on the crown but stay mostly bare through the rains and through the winter until spring comes. But even spring for both trees and humans alike is too short lived in the city.
The city tree that thrives regardless of concrete conquest is the Ficus. Most common among them are the Peepal (Ficus religiosa) and the Banyan (Ficus benghalensis). Ficus are essentially the family of fig trees. They fruit often and make for a good source of food for birds in the city. The Peepal and Banyan are part of the notorious strangler fig family. They get this name for their ability to strangle other trees and grow on them using them as a host. This ability proves to be a super power among city trees. For these trees are then able to grow on walls by piercing through the concrete or anchoring themselves on footpaths and other built structures, wherever they can find water. And in a city like ours with ample rainfall, this is a non-issue. So a quiet revolution is always at play, where the ficus is fighting the concrete conquest of the city one wall at a time. Lucky for both the Peepal and the Banyan, they are also revered as trees so their occupation of walls are not always seen as an obstruction. But other trees often get the axe for innocently growing on an avenue in front of someone’s window, blocking their light or for being a fall hazard near a bus stop during a monsoon storm. Not so innocent the BMC will correct me, as in 2020 there were 1200 tree related accidents in the city.
It’s hard being a tree in the city like I said. It’s hard being anyone in this city really.
But of all the city trees that I love, in my mid life now (one that already feels too long in this city), I have found a favourite – the tree that grows in a train station and often on the platform itself. It stands completely still like a Zen monk among throngs of fast moving crowds, taking in that spirit of the city from its workforce, as it eavesdrops on people’s lives, with its crown and foliage safe above the tin roofs of the station. It serves its purpose of being home to birds and other tiny beings, getting uninterrupted sunlight and not having to hold down odd jobs like other trees in the city. The train station tree has become a totem for my own ambitions in this city, to hold a little space for myself, cultivate some peace and joy and hopefully not have to do that extra odd job.
Sananda is a theatre maker and arts based educator. She hosts a tree walk in Mumbai titled ‘Mumbai Overstory’.