I have just returned from a happily satisfying activity i.e. monsoon tree plantation. I am satisfied, since my children and grandchildren, in fact my entire family added, twelve more trees to the millions being planted all over the country. My happiness stems from what I witnessed at the planting site - Pakistan’s young generation doing the right thing and doing it with passion, happily braving suffocating humidity without losing courtesy or humour. It is for this reason that I am dedicating this week’s piece to these young men and women, who are our hope and future leadership.
I am reminded of the time more than five decades ago, when our cities had tree lined streets and shady parks. Then somewhere in the 1980s, commercialisation descended upon us like a plague, replacing trees and turf with concrete structures. One stark example was the city of my birth known far and wide as ‘The City of Gardens’. It was in my lifetime that I saw Lahore turn into a concrete jungle. Pollution covered the sky from horizon to horizon, while temperatures soared to new heights because of reflected heat – all because of wide spread destruction of trees.
Queen’s Road, connecting Charing Cross with Mozang Chungi, epitomized the suburban Lahore of old. Century old ‘pipal’, ‘shisham’ and ‘Shreen’ trees lined the road, along with a variety of their cousins, while old colonial style homes surrounded by large wooded compounds and shady lawns hallmarked the road. Almost all residents owned cars, while some had an additional luxury – horse drawn carriages. There were a total of thirty two bungalows on both sides of this asphalt strip and everyone knew everyone else at some level or another.
Cutting of trees was looked upon as a criminal activity, while every year hundreds of trees were planted inside compounds adding to the already green environment. In our own garden, every tree had some medicinal or culinary value. The two ancient and therefore gigantic ‘Sohanjnas’ bore clusters of white flowers that were cooked into a delicious ‘bhujia’ adorning our lunch menu, while their snake like seed pods made an excellent snack, when fried or pickled. The ‘Ambaltas’ or Cassia Fistula lining our side lawn with its masses of yellow flowers, was a sight for sore eyes and its fruit a potent laxative, while its branches were ideal for honeycombs, which provided us with honey. The ‘goolar’ tree gave us a fig like fruit, which when plucked and processed in the unripe state made mouthwatering ‘shami kebabs’. The ‘neem’ tree helped save our woolies from being eaten, kept our gums healthy and provided us with ripe berries that we ate in large quantities, keeping common diseases at bay and last but not the least the hundred foot tall Eucalyptuses produced leaves that helped clean the air and when crushed helped open up clogged nasal passages. There were plenty of fruit trees too – pink grape fruit, oranges, tangerines, guavas, fig and loquat kept us supplied with all the year round with luscious natural delicacies.
Some months ago I saw a horrible spectacle, as I drove along the old Embassy Road renamed as Ataturk Avenue. I saw the ‘Jaceranda’ trees being cut down one by one. With a sinking heart I realized that I would not be able to enjoy their purple blossoms ever again. I stopped the car and made enquiries, to be told that the road was being made into a double track as envisaged in the original design. What I did not understand was that why had the trees been planted so far from the edge of the road in the first place, when they could have been saved by foresighted placement and later inclusion in the island.
I have still not come to terms with the planting of Paper Mulberry that was imported from Philippines and which over the years became an infestation and source of pollen allergy amongst the residents of the Federal Capital. Were the horticulture experts of the time, when the plantation took place, ignorant of the trees’ proliferation rate and the fact that mass produced an allergen? These experts were either incompetent and if not, then what they did was nothing short of criminal negligence.
My eternal gripe with CDA has been the lack of wisdom and aesthetic sense, when carrying out landscaping projects anywhere in the land. The flora in these projects conflicts with the surroundings instead of complimenting and resonating with it. I can only hope that I do not have to undergo the torture of once again seeing date palms, with the beautiful Margalla Hills in the background.
The writer is a historian.