The mango tree was not planted by my grandparents. I did not grow up climbing its branches. Its fruit was rather fibrous, hardly of the finest mango pedigree. Yet the morning after Cyclone Amphan ripped through Kolkata, the sight of the naked stumps where there once had been a tree was heart-breaking. All through the storm the tree had groaned, its branches flailing against the whipping wind. Now the branches were strewn on the ground, green mangoes rolling in the mud like spilled marbles. By daybreak they had been picked clean by passersby.
The full price tag of Cyclone Amphan’s destructive sweep in Bengal is yet to be tallied. Villages have been pulverised, paddy fields flattened, embankments breached, mangrove forests brutalised, water sources contaminated. I hear all kinds of numbers — 6 crore affected, 10 lakh homes damaged, 4.5 lakh electric poles uprooted.
In the face of such devastation, especially in rural Bengal, the loss of a mango tree in the city seems trivial. But perhaps mourning something as ordinary as a tree can sometimes be the only way we can wrap our heads around so much loss, so much heartbreak. As the city struggled back to its feet the morning after, the first elegies I read were requiems for fallen trees — mango, jackfruit, wood apple, krishnachura, mahogany, banyan.
Someone mourned a mango tree his late mother had planted. Now the next time he visits the city even the tree will be gone, he said. Another lamented a 50+ year old radhachura tree, home to crows, sparrows, orioles and tailor birds, a tree that would carpet the street with tiny yellow flowers. It was the only tree on his sidewalk, now rendered treeless. In 1908, after another cyclone, the Musi river overflowed in Hyderabad, write Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli in their book Cities and Canopies — Trees in Indian Cities. As many as 15,000 people died but 150 people managed to survive by clinging to a giant tamarind tree near the Osmania General Hospital. The tree, supposedly 300 years old, still stands today. Events to remember the flood victims continue to happen in its shade.
My city is strewn with trees, trees that took years, even decades to grow and toppled over in just one night’s fury. The 270-year-old Great Banyan tree had survived cyclones Aila, Phani and Bulbul but Amphan has ripped its canopy apart. Hundreds of trees in the garden have been uprooted. The chairman of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation estimates 5,000-6,000 trees fell in the city alone, our mango tree one of them. The city corporation looks at the trees now as obstacles to normalcy, impediments to the restoration of electricity. Environmentalists lament the loss of green cover and wonder what appetite there will be in an economy reeling under the Covid lockdown to devote resources to re-greening.
But the loss of a tree hits us at some more fundamental level. There is something about its solidity that anchors us. We scratch our names on its trunk as if freezing moments in an album. As generations pass, the tree reassures by carrying on, a family tree in a literal sense. It is a place to gather, for the roadside barber to set up shop, the street dog to nap, shade for the domestic help and the rickshaw puller. We plant trees in memory of loved ones. And we take them for granted just like loved ones.
When our old house was torn down, it was the neem tree we tried to save. We had grown up with stories of ghosts who lived on its branches, ghosts with feet that turned inwards. Its tender leaves were our harbinger of spring, not daffodils. I used to hate their bitter taste as a child and missed it as an immigrant in California.
The mango tree carried no special childhood memories. But it had made the Covid lockdown more bearable. In a shuttered city, the fruit had not been picked clean by boys with slingshots. While others made Dalgona coffee, we had charred mangos over the stove and turned the pulp into tangy aam pora. The neighbours made spicy mango pickles and sent us some.
We did not know then those would be the last pickles from that tree. Now babbler birds and squirrels hop along its felled branches and stop confused when they end abruptly. The city resounds with the whine of electric chainsaws chopping trees into chunks of wood. Our tree too was hacked to pieces. And there amidst the wreckage of the tree we found half a dozen more mangoes that had eluded the mango scavengers, the last gifts of a fallen tree.
We had mango rice that weekend and mango chicken and mango chutney, the mouth-puckering tartness of unripe green mangoes rendered bittersweet by loss.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.