Amphan: The Fallen Trees in My Neighbourhood

Over 5,002 trees died in cyclone Amphan.

When my father ventured out the next day to review the wreckage the cyclone left in its wake, leaves, stems, twigs were scattered everywhere. One of the triplet palm trees had been uprooted. The papaya tree was severed. Water was inside the stairwell, the lid of the water tank had taken off in the night and he was in a fix – would any plumber pay a call during the lockdown?

In the midst of this, a flustered man turned up at the door screaming in patronising English, “I have had enough damage to my house. I want the trees cut down.”

My father, prone to blood pressure fluctuations, started sweating immediately. He inspected the neighbour’s house from the roof. One of the tall palm trees had hit against their sun shed repeatedly in the unruly wind and chipped off quite a bit of concrete. Father was guilty. A retired man, what would he do if the man asked for monetary compensation? He immediately called a friend who called another friend and within the week, the two remaining tall palm trees (along with one that hardly touched the neighbour’s house) were down to their stump.

Mother was distressed. The trees had been there since she had moved into the house after marrying my father. The trees were older than her children. It was deja vu. Only a few years ago, the two beautiful mango trees that guarded the house against the unforgiving summer heat were cruelly amputated. The reason? The neighbours complained that the trees shed leaves on their yard.

The trees were like family to her. She had seen her aged mother-in-law use the leaves for decorating the ghot for puja every Thursday. The trees were my childhood. I remember the mango pluckers carrying tall bamboo sticks who called on us every summer for business. I remember young mango thieves on looting sprees. I remember orange pulp oozing from the fruits left half-eaten by birds and bats.

But the neighbours said a bad word or two and my father invested in an asbestos roof to compensate for the absence of shade that the mango trees blessed the neighbourhood with. The garden in the house opposite ours suffered the same fate. The neighbours complained that some branches of the guava tree went over the wall to their side. So they were cut off. But the branches grew back and the neighboured complained again. Now, only a small togor plant sits in their garden plot for the neighbourhood to pluck flowers for their morning puja.

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The once green locality has not a single plot of land empty today. Every house is choked by another building leering over it. The newly-built flats are far from the expensive grand apartment complexes, boasting of parks and green spaces. These flats are suffocatingly small and cramped with steep narrow staircases. Tenants hardly have room to keep potted plants.

Today, our locality hardly has five houses that have big trees. Summers in Kolkata is getting worse and worse every year. This year, we saw yet again how powerful nature can be. Those palm trees were at least 20 years older than the five-year old house it damaged. The trees paid the price for being in a natural disaster. Their shed can be repaired, the water tank’s lid can be replaced. But the hundred lives the trees housed – the home of all the birds, squirrels, bats, ants, insects, fungi, creepers – cannot be compensated. Not in less than a few years at least.

The trees that destroyed human property in the super cyclone were living on colonised lands because we concretised their habitat. While uprooted trees have destroyed roads and buildings and claimed lives, Kolkata lost 5.9 lakh kg of oxygen in the cyclone and one can only imagine what that will do for the climate crisis. Roads are being continually expanded, the Western Ghats are at risk, Assam will expand the coal mines soon, the Sunderbans are drowning.

We utilitarians will go about disregarding the invisible value of a tree growing in our houses, on the roads, in the neighbour’s garden. And when nature fights back, we will oppress nature even more. We will destroy mangrove forests for urban development and that will intensify storms which will topple more trees which, in turn, will make cyclones more frequent. We will continue this self-destructive cycle because we must ensure that our concrete yards is free of leaves.

Srabani is a writer and copyeditor who aspires to turn the tables on the human-centric view of the world.

Featured image credit: Reuters