During a discussion about a new project on environment, someone shared a few online pictures of nature reclaiming its space from man. They included some shocking images of trees and shrubs growing through abandoned cycle, cars, ship and railway line. Most of them are interesting and amusing. It might feel unnatural initially to see a cycle embedded in a tree trunk. A moment later, it feels silly to call ‘nature’ unnatural.
The image that moved me the most was of tree roots growing through a pavement. It’s less dramatic but more impactful for me. I have seen similar growth in Mumbai many times before and I used to be fascinated with the natural pattern of tree roots. That image felt much more real than the almost unbelievable surreal images of man-made vehicles buried in a jungle of dense trees. It was closer home. In an inconceivable moment, it was easy to simultaneously see the joy of growing life and the agony of life fettered in chains. The growth of these roots finding their way through the pavement is an example of the struggle for survival. Life finds a way.
When I saw a whole bunch of these pictures last week, something changed for me. I kept thinking about a tree I used to see almost every day on my way to work last year. The roots of this tree are spread over a huge wall like a network of veins in a human body… a grotesque yet incredibly beautiful piece of art created by the forces of nature. Now wherever I go in Mumbai, I see more trees with roots sprawling over pavements, roads, fences and buildings. That’s all I see now every time I step out of my home. It’s beautiful and gloomy at the same time.
There are so many of these trees all over Mumbai trying to find their space in the sun. I could easily imagine a forest covering this land a thousand years back that was gradually cut down to make space for traders, capitalists and warring kings. The trees then were happy and healthy. They lived as a community. Now they are restricted and separated. They are alive but slaved. I felt like we took away their home. The spreading roots aren’t a form of revenge; they are attempts to get little more sunlight and space required for survival.
I found this tree growing through the boundary wall of an old building near my home yesterday.
My head is spinning with multiple questions. Is Mumbai even a fit place for humans? Is the environment of Mumbai meant only for a jungle to survive? The city is a port and significant for traders. We grabbed the land, its resources and started to flourish. But in the process, did we create an ecological imbalance we were not supposed to? Do these stifling trees exist in other urban settlements across the world? Is this something to be worried about anyway? May be that’s just how its supposed to be. Perhaps this is the harmony of jungle and city. Perhaps this is the best way for us to coexist. As a city dweller, I want the roads, buildings, railways and other infrastructure. But it bothers me to see the trees being tortured. We took their home. And now they are trying to take it back in an attempt to fight for survival. I wonder what the trees are feeling.
I have never studied biology after school and have no knowledge of the environment. I don’t know much about the trees of Mumbai and the ecological implications of human’s treatment of trees in urban areas. I don’t have answers today. But I can’t get the images out of my mind. Trees and the ever-growing roots are now my latest theme for art. I am fascinated by the patterns of tree roots and the conflict of our coexistence.
While I try to learn more about ecology, I took some time off to paint.
Dusk in a jungle (my imagination of the land of Mumbai just before humans took over… healthy and happy trees soaking in the sunlight)
Roots bleeding through the walls (trees trying to breathe in a city with ever growing concrete and cloud of smoke)
Last leaf (Is this how the future looks? Burnt dry tree retaining semblance of leaves only through our imagination)