“I consider it as desirable that a man’s or woman’s major research work should be in a subject in which he or she has not taken a degree. To get a degree one has to learn a lot of facts and theories in a somewhat parrot-like manner. It is rather hard to be original in a subject in which one has learned with a view to obtaining first class honours in an examination.” -- J B S Haldane (eminent biologist)
The history of science is replete with instances where individuals have made significant contributions in fields which were not their chosen spheres of work. Winter-Blyth -- a Brit -- came to India as principal of Rajkumar College, Rajkot, fell in love with the pristine charm of Indian butterflies, and authored the monumental Butterflies of the Indian Subcontinent. C V Boys was initially trained as a metallurgist, but was later taken with soap bubbles. His book Soap Bubbles,written in 1890, remains, a century later, an unmatched piece of popular science literature.
So it comes as no surprise that two of the best city tree guides in India -- Trees of Delhi by Pradip Krishen and Trees of Pune by Shrikant Ingalhalikar and Sharvari Barve come not from professionals in the field but from rank amateurs.
Pradip Krishen is the well-known filmmaker of Massey Sahib and married to Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy. At the start he knew little about trees; barring the common neem, he couldn’t name any. But one day -- on February 16, 1995, to be precise -- something magical happened. He noticed “that every dry twig had sprouted a tiny pale green affirmation that it was still alive -- little, glinting points of life”. That moment seized him and compelled him to produce a masterpiece.
Srikant Ingalhalikar strode another path. In the early-1970s he joined Telco (now Tata Motors) as a young engineer. Telco was then led by a visionary chairman Sumant Moolgaonkar whose slogan, ‘Expect the best, ask for it, pursue it relentlessly, and you will get it,’ set a new benchmark for excellence. In line with Tata’s long-term vision, ‘People and trees don’t grow in a day,’ Moolgaonkar scouted and hired the best talent. He recruited Sharma, chief horticulturalist at the Lal Baug Garden, Bangalore, to landscape and green up his factory. The hundreds of acres of land in Pimpri were totally barren terrain -- all rock, no soil. So thousands of holes were blasted in the basalt, lovingly filled with soil, carefully planted with trees, and nurtured with love. Each drop of rain was religiously impounded to imbue the plants with life. Telco planted 10,000 pipal trees in a row and pioneered the propagation of the Yellow tebebuia,freely supplying its seeds to Friends of Trees.
All this, perhaps, left an abiding love for trees in Ingalhalikar’s heart.
Ingalhalikar left Telco to start his own factory, but continued to pursue his floral passion vigorously. Armed with a copy of Theodore Cooke’s classic The Flora of the Presidency of Bombay, he scoured the Western Ghats in search of rare wild flowers. And soon he came up with two volumes of Flowers of Sahyadri -- delightful field guides replete with first-rate photographs.
Though largely a self-taught botanist, Ingalhalikar was nudged and encouraged along the way by Professor V D Vartak, Professor S D Mahajan and the venerable Harjit Singh Bal. These erudite scholars willingly shared their knowledge of trees. Professor Mahajan can still be spotted on Parvati hill explaining the inner secrets of the plant world to bleary-eyed schoolchildren.
Trees of Pune is truly a labour of love. Whereas Professor Vartak’s 1964 collation listed 293 species of trees, the present book is far ahead with a count of 482. Some 20 species listed by Vartak seem to have disappeared, some of them gobbled up forever by rampant urbanisation.
The book has interesting nuggets about Pune’s gardens. The Peshwas patronised a number of mango orchards and gardens. They set up Hira Baug, Saras Baug and Peshwe Baug, which, despite concretisation, still shelter some rare trees. Nanasaheb Peshwa performed the thread ceremony of a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) in 1754; that specimen still stands atop Parvati hill.
The British, on the other hand, were mainly interested in botany for its economic benefits. For example, indigo (Indigo tinctoria) fascinated them for it was the source of the indigo dye used in textiles. To beat homesickness, they created replicas of British gardens in Pune. Dr Woodrow -- a British botanist -- even attempted to recreate the famous Kew Gardens at Empress Garden in Pune. The Pune University, whose photograph adorns the back cover of this book, was the British governor’s summer residence. Here, the plan layout of the garden and choice of trees were typically British. A rare specimen of the European olive (Olea europaea) stands resplendent on the front cover.
Many of Pune’s residents have travelled around the world, bringing back and planting seeds and saplings from various countries. Private gardens in Pune have exotic trees from the Himalayas and Africa.
No city in India can compete with Pune’s love for nature. The sheer number of environment clubs, trekkers, bird-watchers and nature lovers put the city in a class of its own. When the city corporation wants to cut trees to widen roads, or sell the hills to politicians, Pune’s concerned citizens rightly make life hell for them!
Apart from Pune University (411 acres), most public parks in Pune are postage-stamp-size. Compared to Shibpore Garden in Kolkata or Buddha Jayanti Park in New Delhi, they are tiny. The wildest and most beautiful areas in Pune have been the preserve of the army -- the College of Military Engineering (4,000 acres) and the National Defence Academy (5,000 acres) -- and they are out of bounds for the general public. Alas, Pune, a major auto hub and the ‘Detroit of India’, an IT and bio-technology centre, the ‘Oxford of the East’ still lacks a botanical garden.
The author is an excellent nature photographer and has contributed scores of photo-essays on trees, wild flowers, birds, insects and butterflies to popular journals both in English and Marathi.
Trees of Pune is essential reading for everyone in Pune; indeed, every school should procure of copy of the field guide. The user-friendly nature of the book allows even young children to identify their neighbourhood trees. A special section is dedicated to Pune’s rare trees, with their precise locations marked on Google Earth. The interactive map, www.idsahyadri.com, will help you get to the trees without any human assistance. For instance, you will be able to identify the 250-year-old baobab tree located on the Pune University campus. When you witness its grandeur you will bow to it in reverence; kids love to hug it. But it will need all of nine children joining and stretching hands to embrace the girth of this grandfather baobab!
(Arvind Gupta is primarily a toy maker but also a tree lover. He lives in Pune)
Open Space, February 2011