I am naturally drawn towards trees. In McCluskiegunj, the tiny hamlet in the state of Jharkhand where I spent my childhood, trees grew everywhere. I remember sitting out in the garden enjoying the gentle spring breeze that blew delicate mauve jacaranda petals about, like confetti. During a game of hide-and-seek as I squeezed in between the entangled aerial roots of the ancient banyan tree in our backyard, I imagined my ancestors who someday must have stood in its shade, whispering secrets into my ears. And even the brightest summer sunshine could not match the brilliance of the yellow radhachura and carmine krishnachura blooms of these roadside trees that grew alongside the flame of the forest and semal which exploded in fiery orange and large red blooms respectively, around springtime.
So, when I came to Kolkata two decades ago, in Salt Lake City I was fortunate to find my new neighbours were trees I recognized from my hometown. And we connected instantly. A tall, young neem tree shaded our veranda. I heaved a sigh of relief when its olive size green berries turned a brownish-yellow, signalling the end of a sultry Kolkata summer and the arrival of the monsoon. And even before the children had fired the first cracker bullets from their toy pistols, tiny, green insects from the mango tree in our backyard swarmed indoors, announcing the arrival of Diwali.
But when I first met the saptaparni, commonly known as chatim or devil’s tree, I didn’t recognize this stately species, so we didn’t connect spontaneously, until one autumn evening. A whiff of breeze brought with it an intense scent that overpowered my senses. It was a distinct wild, musky fragrance, and felt rather serendipitous given our urban surrounds. Unusual, I thought, and began to look around for the source, expecting to find a neighbour wearing an overdose of exotic perfume. Standing in the veranda, beyond the neem, just around the corner I noticed the tree cloaked in tiny creamy-greenish blooms.
Since the tight clusters were so high up, like pearls studded atop the luxuriant canopy, I hadn’t noticed the profusion of buds until that evening, when they bloomed, filling the surrounds and my lungs with intoxicating fragrance.
Sapat means seven and pani is leaves in Sanskrit. Native to Asia, saptaparni (Alstonia scholaris) is named after renowned botanist and professor C. Alston, of Edinburgh. The tree is found in many Indian cities, growing in rows along the roadsides and in clusters in parks. Owing to its heady fragrance, it courts a love-hate relationship with the residents which literally goes to the head. For instance, I’m head-over-heels in love with the scent, while the strong smell gives my neighbour a headache.
A tropical evergreen tree, it stands resplendent throughout the year as it retains its glossy, dark-green leaves, new ones sprouting during spring and monsoon season. Especially in cities where there is a dearth of green, its dense foliage is a safe haven for many birds to roost and nest in its branches. When it blooms, which to my absolute delight happens twice a year from August to December – it attracts a variety of insects, butterflies and even sunbirds. The bark too is of immense value. Apart from making blackboards and slates, it is believed to contain healing properties and is used in traditional Indian medicine to treat stomach ailments like dysentery, diarrhoea, also effective in curing fever and asthma.
When I read that scholars of the Visa Bharati University were awarded a sprig of saptaparni at the annual convocation, I wondered if there was a connection between this tradition and the scientific term, ‘scholaris’ in its name. But years later, when I visited Shantiketan’s Chhatimtala, I came across a white marble plaque that marked it as the very spot where Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, father of our much loved and revered Rabindranath Tagore, meditated. Since the ritual was started by the Noble laureate himself, perhaps this was the real inspiration. And standing in the cultural land of deep red earth and mystical Baul sangeet, where the original chatim once stood, felt surreal. Surrounded by saptaparni, sal, banyan and some unknown species, both young and mature, I experienced a mindful silence that I’d never felt before. Instantly, the famous naturalist John Muir’s words rushed back to me – “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
It’s well known that trees have the power to rejuvenate the soul, and much before the Japanese concept ‘shinrin-yoku’ or forest bathing – which means immersing oneself in the sights, scents and sounds of forests, gained popularity – tree lovers like me have enjoyed the presence of trees around us, naturally. No coffee shop ambience can match the experience of sipping my favourite brew seated in the cool, refreshing shade of a spreading tree. And no human’s company can fill me with as much positivity as the company of trees. To ensure our bond of humans and trees gets stronger with time, until it’s unbreakable, gift your children a tree. When that isn’t possible, allow them to befriend trees around them, so they grow to love trees so sincerely, they will always stand by them, the way I stand by my saptaparni.
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