I have a friend with whom I argue a lot. No, that seems as if I am the one who does the arguing all the time. Half the time it is he who says something ridiculous, and then we start arguing!
There is one topic that we keep coming back to argue upon. I have stayed in one city all my life — in Delhi, the capital of India. He from childhood has lived in many places — cities as well as small towns across India.
Is that reason enough to argue? You would not ask this if you knew us! Once, we saw a huge bull on a busy road in Delhi near my house. In the midst of blaring traffic the animal stood, unconcerned. I noticed its huge horns. They arched out powerfully, their tips pointed as if they had been put through a sharpener.
What grand horns! I exclaimed. “Nonsense, this is nothing,” boasted my friend. He said, “You should see the bulls in the rural areas that I have been to. You will forget these horns.”
I glared at him. Then I told him, surely there were grander bulls in other parts of the country, and I would want to see them all. If I had been a little wicked I would have told him the bulls in rural India were nothing compared to the bulls in a region of the US where he has never been!
But the information that there were better bulls in other places did not stop me from feeling awe at the statuesque power of this bull. They were two different things. It is important to know about different places and how people live. In fact it is necessary to do so. At the same time, to feel pleasure or awe at something before your eyes is to constantly discover the world.
I believe at heart all of us are explorers. Most of us may not sail around the world, or scale the highest peak. But we certainly keep discovering small things about people and places around us. That’s what prevents us from getting bored. A friend’s new haircut, the mystery of a bud blossoming to flower, the leaves turning russet in autumn, the days turning shorter in winter, a baby curious about everything it sees around it.
But let me come back to the story of the bull. I had stopped noticing cattle on Delhi streets a long time ago. They were traffic stoppers and nothing more.
That day, I don’t know why, but I noticed the bull. The power that rippled in its flanks, the way it majestically stood, told me where the description ‘animal strength’ had come from. For all I see these days are pet dogs and strays, and noisy pigeons. Before dogs and pigeons we humans seem large, superior beings. That reality changed when faced with a bull!
Much later, sitting at home it struck me that our houses were built upon village land. The ancestors of the bull I saw must have roamed the area fearlessly then. Now they have lost that green expanse they were used to.
I also decided to visit “bull country” that my friend talked about, sometime. It would be a new experience to see the bull comfortable in its habitat, not as a displaced animal or a nuisance.
Bulls apart, the other argument I keenly remember is the one over a tree. In spring time Delhi is a riot of colours. One tree especially paints the town red – literally! This is the silk cotton tree or semal as it is commonly called in north India. Tall, bare tree without much hint of leaf, but with a vibrant canopy of red flowers. Soft, fleshy flowers that fall with a gentle plop on unsuspecting passersby. A couple of such trees together make for a cozy red blanket. There are several of these trees in my locality.
How beautiful these trees are, I once exclaimed to my friend. “That’s nothing,” he again boasted. (You have guessed right, he boasts a lot.) He said, “You should see the palash trees in the hills of Madhya Pradesh. Imagine hill after hill red as if on fire. No wonder the tree is called the flame of the forest.”
I pictured that landscape in my mind. What a scene! But then I looked out of my balcony and saw the semal tree flowering bravely in a concrete jungle that is our housing locality. I realised once more that it was wrong to compare these two things. To see the flame of the forest in its natural habitat would be great. No question. Yet, to see a semal tree standing in a drab, grey locality surrounded by the haze of pollution was no less of a miracle.
To get a whiff of nature in a landscape from which we have taken away much of the greens and reds and yellows of trees and flowers is like a lifeline.
In spring my idea of happiness is the red of the semal tree, the bright crimson of the bougainvillea or the small anonymous flower on the roadside.
At the height of summer my burning eyes find relief in the yellow clouds of amaltas blossoms, the red of the gulmohur, or the deep green of the mango tree laden with lush delights. Every night, the moon brings with it a wonder that the fluorescent lamps on the streets can’t spoil. But for these daily miracles, my world would be a flat, cold grey slab of concrete on which nothing ever grows.
In most congested cities of the world, pollution has created a new disorder. It dries up the moisture in the eyes, making them itchy and raw. I’ll say something more. You can’t get dryer eyes than looking without actually ‘seeing’ the world around. For what do we do in our waking hours but use our eyes?
So I will definitely go and see the hills aflame with the flame of the forest, but I will continue to be grateful to the brave semal tree and the local bull for bringing colour to my life.