Mission Delhi – Pradip Krishen, Mangarbani
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Walking down the hilly slope, he says, “It’s like a little museum of what the rocky past of the ridge must have looked like before swallowed by Delhi.” We are in Mangarbani, a 100-hectare jungle, mostly consisting of Dhau trees, in Aravalli hills, a few miles outside south Delhi and The Delhi Walla is with Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, a field guide detailing every tree species found in the city and its vicinity.
The forest we are walking through is sacred, the trees are worshipped and there are two temples. The valley has a village of Gujjar herdsmen who believe in a mystic called Gudariya Baba. On Sundays, village children share stories of the invisible Baba under a Banyan tree. Mr Krishen is heading there.
When his book came out in 2006, it got gushing reviews. Author Khushwant Singh conferred upon Krishen the “status of a Brahmin priest of the community of tree-lovers”. Can it be that I’m walking behind Dr. Salim Ali of Trees? “Nooo,” says Mr Krishen. “Salim Ali was a dedicated scientist with decades of scholarship and fieldwork on the birds of South Asia. I’m just an upstart.”
Mr Krishen’s foot size is 9, and he has a beard. He is a Punjabi and is soft-spoken. “In my ‘20s and ‘30s I would take Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds with me everywhere, on holiday or visiting some new place. And I remember thinking way back then, “What a fantastic thing to do – to write a book that gives so many people so much pleasure”.”
Mangarbani’s wilderness – intertwined trees, twisted trunks, thorny twigs, sandy mounds, rocky riverbeds, bird sounds – is uplifting. But the continuous drone of airplanes – preparing to land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport – is a reminder that our concrete civilisation is not far. This savage beauty is fragile. Mr Krishen heard about the place from an archaeologist. He first went there a few years ago with a friend. Now he sometimes goes alone, sometimes with a group of fellow tree-lovers. Looking at a stand of dhau trees, Mr Krishen says, “It is the only tree species that is perfectly adapted to growing on dry, rocky land. If they are destroyed, these hills will become barren.”
Mr Krishen didn’t know anything about trees until he started out about a decade ago, in the 1990s. “I used to go walking in the jungle in Pachmarhi in Madya Pradesh and there are few things I have loved more than scrambling through jungle, swimming in wild pools… I had this forester friend living nearby and he became a guide, a gentle, joking, lovely guide, who inculcated an even greater love of the jungle in me.” Mr Krishen runs down a sandy slope. I follow him. “Getting to understand the botany or the jargon or the scientific names of trees, that came quite easily once I was bitten. But I suppose the key was being so obsessive. Alright, anal.”
“When I think back to my childhood, you know, I must have felt some primal interest, because I absolutely loved being in wilderness. They were the moments I treasured and loved above all, the times when I was in a jungle or National Park.” Having lived in Nairobi as a child, Mr Krishen travelled a great deal to National Parks all over East Africa. He wrote a holiday project about it a few years later.
Mr Krishen’s passion for trees goes beyond Delhi. “I’m doing something far, far more difficult than writing a book in Jodhpur (Rajasthan). Here we have something like 70 hectares of extremely rocky ground, and the attempt is to bring back all the plants we can find that are truly native to rocky desert niches in Marwar.” He is also working on a new book on the trees of central India.
Once Mr Krishen conducted professionally organised tree walks, which would include people from all walks of life. “Doctors, artists, retired accountants, furniture designers, gosh, really an assortment. But I’ve had to stop doing public tree walks because I can’t handle the numbers that turn up. I’ve had 120 people turn up for a walk in the rain at 6.30 on a Sunday morning. How do you talk to such a large group? With a megaphone? No, I tell people to organise their own little groups of 10 to 12 people and then I take them on a private walk, but big groups are no fun for anyone.”
Mr Krishen’s relationship with trees continues after they die. “Wood for me is one of the most wondrous materials on earth, its texture and colours and feel and fragrance. But I wouldn’t want to cut down a tree in order to use its wood. I’ve designed a lot of furniture for our home, but I buy all the wood from a taal in Kirti Nagar which sells wood for firewood and packing cases. All the privately-owned trees that die in Delhi or within a radius of a few miles of the city land up at this one taal and the trunks are auctioned – in Punjabi – every morning. So nearly all the furniture in my home is actually made from firewood.”
Stopping by a temple in the middle of the jungle, we sit down for rest. It is dedicated to Gudariya Baba. The belief is that if anyone breaks a branch in this sacred forest or grazes his goats here will suffer grievous harm from the baba.
Long ago — it seems like a different lifetime now — Mr Krishen directed films like In Which Annie Gives It To Those Ones and Electric Moon. Considered cult classics, they are not available on DVD and are screened on rare occasions in culture bubbles like the India International Centre and the British Council.
Sitting down on a rock in the center of a dry hilly stream, Mr Krishen says, “We live in a city that basically sees one pulse of rainy season. Everyone has to adapt to the fact that outside the monsoon there is only a long period of drought. If you are a plant in Delhi, you germinate with the rain, quickly rush through your life cycle, take advantage of the moisture and then you die leaving behind hard-coated seeds that germinate when the next rains come.”
[This is the 52nd portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Pradip Krishen with tree lovers
Careful, tree man
Another forest, another day
Trees of Delhi