Watching a rerun of the movie series ‘The Lord of the Rings’ where the ‘Ents’ (living tree-like beings) help the Hobbits destroy the evil wizard’s lair, I was transported back in time to a house, which was nothing short of a young boy’s paradise. What made the place incomparable (from my young point of view) was the number and variety of trees that grew in the compound.
Our favourite were the Guavas. So popular were they that we (much to the annoyance of our parents) did not allow their fruit to reach maturity. Armed with an ample quantity of black salt, we would scramble up and down branches picking green unripe guavas unmindful of advice that they would give us a ‘tummy ache’. It is perhaps the lingering pleasure of that experience that we often surprise fruit sellers by demanding this particular item in its rock hard, green and unripe condition.
There was an old fig tree growing next to the rear wall of our detached kitchen. Somehow this specimen had chosen to spread in the horizontal plane, compensating the anomaly by providing us with the sweetest purple coloured figs of an extraordinary large size. It was the reachable branches of this tree that once prompted me to seek haven from an irate grandparent, who was hunting me armed with his cane for a misdemeanour in his library. Fear of retribution caused me to sit silently hidden by the large sized foliage, until darkness approached and the search turned into concern. It was our German Shepherd Delilah, who when inducted into the search party gave me away by standing under the bough I was on and barking excitedly. Needless to say that the tree (or perhaps sound strategy) saved my derriere from a good spanking.
The two great Pipal trees in the compound had trunks with huge girths and limbs that reached high into the sky. They were like teeming cities sheltering an amazing population of insects, animals and birds. They provided meat for the pot, as their fruit attracted both the migratory ‘tiliar’ and the now rare ‘harial’ or the green pigeon. Large honeycombs kept us supplied with honey and just as the first monsoon appeared on the horizon, graciously offered their thick limbs for setting up the seasonal ‘swing’.
Then there was the ‘ambaltaas’ aka Golden Shower or in botanical terms – the Cassia Fistula. We had a line of these lining one side of our lawn and would often sit under their pendulous yellow flowers hanging above us like a canopy. The long seed pods of this tree provided us with revenue because of their medicinal value. A local ‘hakim’ would arrive just as the pods were ripening and harvest them for a reasonable sum of money that we distributed equally amongst our ‘mali’ and his helpers.
In a remote corner of the compound, stood the ‘goolar’ - a member of the wild fig family with fruit growing in clusters straight from the wooden trunk. I found this species growing in the Margalla Hills and have discovered it to be a favourite with monkeys and hornbills. The ripe fruit of the tree in our yard had a fascinating characteristic. It was home to tiny winged insects, which took wing the moment the fruit was split open. How these creatures found their way in and survived without air was a mystery, but legend had it that anyone, who ate a ripe ‘goolar’ (along with the insects) would never suffer from weak eye sight. In our case however, the raw fruit in its green hard form was crushed and spiced into mouthwatering ‘shaami kebabs’. We often offered these to guests, who were very surprised, when told that their main ingredient was ‘a wild fig’ and not minced meat.
The pair of ‘sohanjna’ trees were out of bounds for climbing purposes because of their weak limb structure. We discovered this the hard way, when one of our playmates fell down (along with the limb), but luckily suffered no injuries as his fall was broken by the large compost pit under the tree. My mother cooked ‘sohanjna’ flowers and pickled the long snake like seed pods. Both these items were a great favourite in the family. I still ask friends living in the south to send me these flowers, which are cooked by my older sibling exactly as my late mother made them.
Living in a large city like Lahore and having an abundant variety of trees around the house was a gift that we were grateful for. Ours’s was however not an isolated case, for much of the old houses outside the walled city enjoyed the same ambience. Regretfully, callous commercialiszation has gradually destroyed the very element that gave Lahore its alternate name. From the “City of Gardens”, the place of my birth has now become a ‘Concrete Jungle’.
The writer is a historian.