What’s your earliest tree memory?
I have a stray memory from when I was five or so. My mother had invited some other children to come dressed like Tarzan or Captain Hook. One of my uncles arrived in an imitation leopard skin. All I remember is climbing up a big, spreading tree in the back garden with him and getting photographed. It’s a tree I climbed on to many times because it branched low and was easy to clamber on to, but I had no idea what it was until 50 years later. It turns out, it was a kind of fig tree called Ficus microcarpa. It’s still there.
Your 1985 film Massey Sahib was set in Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh. Its forest trees became the subject of your study around 1995. What is it about this place that is so intriguing?
It was entirely coincidental that I found Pachmarhi as a location for Massey Sahib. I had a minuscule NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) budget for a period film, and I knew we could never afford to create the sets, so we needed to find a small, friendly town that still retained a tiny bazaar with a colonial ambience. I stumbled on Pachmarhi quite by chance. It was perfect.
I didn’t return to Pachmarhi for 10 years after Massey Sahib. And when I did, it was because I needed a place with a nice-looking jungle for Electric Moon. We had a large crew and cast, and living in a wonderful little town like Pachmarhi was great, because actors often have long gaps between shooting dates, and it worked out so much nicer than shooting in a crowded, dusty place like Dehradun, for example. We needed to do quite a lot of shooting outdoors, and Pachmarhi’s lovely broad-leaved forests were just right. This is probably when I started falling in love with its landscapes and jungle.
Back then, what kind of trees characterised Pachmarhi? Over the years, has there been any significant change in its flora?
It took me a little longer to get to know the wild side of Pachmarhi. I bought a tiny plot of land near Pachmarhi in 1993 and while building the house, my architect-friend and I would go for long rambles and swims in the jungle every day. My immediate neighbour was a forester, who began teaching us about plants and trees and we made it our objective to learn how to identify every tree in that jungle within a year. We didn’t quite get there — we got to recognise about 60 or so in one year — but that’s when my real interest in trees began.
It’s not changed very much, still a small town. Pachmarhi represents the southernmost and westernmost outlier of sal forests in India. Stunted, gnarly sal grows on a rocky substrate of Gondwana sandstone. In the darker trap soil, there is mixed deciduous forests — bhirra, beeja, jamun, teak, harra, anjan, some 100 species of trees in all. It’s beautiful, especially when new leaves arrive at this time of the year.
You’ve talked about your ordeal with the vilayati kikar at Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, near Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. Is there a native Indian tree as detrimental to others in its vicinity as the kikar?
It’s when trees are brought into new environments that they become invasive and a nuisance. All our most dangerous invasives are exotic — apart from vilayati kikar, there’s subabool, lantana, eupatorium, parthenium, and up in the lower-western Himalaya there’s Australian wattles and robinia and balsam and so on. While the neem is perfectly well behaved in India, it’s notified as an “invasive alien species” in California and Australia, since it outcompetes native trees in those parts of the world. A country like South Africa has an invasive species list that includes over 200 species of trees and shrubs and lianas. Australian invasives lists are even longer.
Some Indian trees can be more aggressive than others, but it depends on very local factors like moisture regimes and soil conditions. It also depends on change — when moisture seeps into a traditionally dry landscape, a tree that is better adapted to getting its feet wet will slowly invade the moist areas.
But, in general, native trees tend to find a balance that is more or less maintained. It’s only when you introduce a new tree from a new ecology that the problems can begin.
Does our outlook of only seeing trees for material gains, for fruits, wood, stop us from conserving them for what they are — a green cover we desperately need?
It’s true that Indian forestry was founded on a German model of ‘high’ forestry, which dictated that the only trees worth growing were those that were economically useful. This attitude has reached deep down into modern forestry practice too, despite fairly enlightened legislation in the 1980s which sought to overturn this trend. I feel we need a new kind of forest department, with new ways of training, attitude and objectives. The forest department as it is is a relic of colonial times, it struts around the countryside like a powerful feudal lord from an even earlier era.
What did you make of the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017 — which said the forest and tree cover in the country has increased by 1 per cent from 2015?
I don’t trust it. Our surveys and reports do not look at the quality of what has been conserved or increased. In general, we are doing a very poor job of conserving our natural forests. The Himalaya are a mess. The North-East is floundering. The Western Ghats are still good in small patches, but the overall story is worrying.
Was the banyan tree central to the story of your and Arundhati Roy’s unfinished collaboration Bargad/ The Banyan Tree?
The story centred around five students at the Muir Central College (Allahabad) 1921. The tree happened to be the college’s emblem and logo. Of course, the tree has all sorts of resonances and ideas bouncing off its name (“Nothing grows under the Banyan Tree!”) but the story of the 15 hour-long serial had nothing really to do with the tree.
Do you climb trees — is there a favourite?
I have lost strength in my arms, so I can’t climb a tree like I used to. I learnt by hanging on to a branch, walking up the main trunk till I could swing over and get upright again. I don’t climb much anymore but I do like to touch trees, their bark or leaves, get a nice tactile sense. Smell, too. Taste, sometimes, but one has to be a little careful.