City Life – Pilkhan Tree, Old Delhi
Tree like home.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A solo violin miraculously producing the effect of an orchestra. Or, a whole universe bursting out from a single atom. Such is this tree. A stubby trunk splitting into a multitude of thick leafy branches, each branch as densely detailed as an independent tree.
This tree is in the Walled City, a historic quarter with an odd relationship with trees. Purani Dilli is full of mohallas, mandirs, masjids, galls, kuchas named after trees, but those trees themselves no longer exist (try looking for imli tree in Pahari Imli). And then there’s this pilkhan, so flamboyant, and yet it does not give its name to the place on which it so royally stands. The long sleepy lane—this stretch links Turkman Gate to Dilli Gate—is simply known as Faseel, Urdu for ‘city wall.’ In fact, the lane runs along the length of the vanished city walls.
The pilkhan is on the unpaved pave but its jungle-wala foliage spans over the lane to the other side, forming a shaded tunnel beneath. Since the tree stamps a supremely commanding presence in the area, it must have been here for centuries. No, a man cries. The tree is “sirf” 25-years-old; his assertion comes from a combo of facts and memories. A labourer, he has been living under the tree for as many years, and remembers it from the time when the tree was “itna sa”—he stretches out both his arms to convey the tree’s early smallness.
The pilkhan shelters two dozen labourers. Their common residence, right beside the tree, resembles a camp, with a plastic awning for roof. The men work for a construction material trader, hauling “bricks, cement, Badarpur (sic) to building sites inside Purani Dilli, and to sites outside in New Delhi, to Connaught Place and beyond.” All the men are from Katihar in Bihar. “Our villages fall under the same thana,” says a fellow.
This evening, the leaves are glossy green, freshly bathed by the sudden showers. “The pakad was naked some weeks back,” a voice remarks, referring to the pilkhan by its colloquial name. Another voice confirms that the tree gives a cooling “thandapan” during the sweltering summer months.
Graciously responding to a request, some of the men shyly gather under the tree for a joint portrait. From left: Kalam (1), Amrol, Kalam (2), Salim, Mushtaq. See photo.