The glorious sheesham that bore the testimony of time, felled | Photos by the writer
The glorious sheesham that bore the testimony of time, felled | Photos by the writer

The sheesham across the road turned 25 this past monsoon. From the tiny sapling sown into the wasteland that was once the upcoming housing society, to a full-grown Don Juan on the road, the fast-growing Dalbergia sissoo (known commonly as North Indian Rosewood) had a macho bearing, commanding the landscape around it. I often thought there was an arrogance to its demeanour that spelt indestructibility ­— a poise and aura both dignified and proud, emanating a vibe that said: Catch (read ‘cut me’) me if you can. Over the years, it had rooted itself well, into the hearts and minds of the family which had watched it mature though they never could or would claim ownership rights of a tree that grew in public space — the green belt beyond the boundary wall.

The sheer awe of a miracle working its way skywards had been phenomenal, when all that the human contribution to its growth had amounted to was an occasional spray of water in the summer months. During winters it had stood with its branches bare. For a full quarter century, it had offered its services as the official harbinger of spring when the first tiny green leaves blossomed. And in summer months it greened with a radiance and sublimity that put to shame all the fancy new breeds of imported trees planted by the newly rich as they built marble and granite palaces around it. And yes, since the sheesham tree is ‘out of fashion’, there are scarcely half a dozen of the species in the sprawling housing society. Nobody plants them anymore.

One day the builders moved in and began digging up the soil. The growth of the structure was impressive, a dream house designed by one of the foremost and, I am told, most expensive architects in town. We kept our fingers crossed, hoping that the sheesham would be allowed to live — for it stood not in the way of the main building but in line with their boundary wall. The architect would presumably have drawn the lines around the sheesham if it was considered the ideal natural beauty spot, or an ideal cover for a patio. It’s a two-kanal plot so the rooms would be moved around. We knew of another house in another phase of the housing society that had embraced the tree within its boundary wall … good architectural and environmental acumen. So everybody around waited, fingers crossed, hearts beating, praying for the tree. The foreign -educated young son who appears to be putting much-loving effort into the construction of the house all along had one stock answer to queries about the welfare of the sheesham — “Let’s hope for the best.”

For some it may have been just a tree but its majestic glory had witnessed a generation’s memories being born

So we had hoped, till one evening the neem tree neighbouring the sheesham was felled — berries and leaves et al. A sign of things to come surely, but still we hoped. Two weeks passed and the builder’s team moved in and piled up the bricks and mortar around the sheesham, followed by steel rods for the roof, cement bags and sand hills, a sure recipe to suffocate a living being. Then one day they began trimming the branches and then all that remained of the grand old man was a rotund trunk. Surely it would sprout anew, come spring. Alas there was to be no spring this year, neither for us, nor for the pedestrians who would of yore pause to rest under the branches of the sheesham. And most tragically of all, none for the birds and bees that had twittered in its embrace for a quarter of a century.

A man sits under the shade of the sheesham
A man sits under the shade of the sheesham

Yesterday they hacked the trunk down, letting it sprawl on the tarmac, like a proud falcon shot down by a poacher. The swan song of the sheesham had been sung. Tomorrow the garden waste collection team of the housing society will come to dispense with the mortal remains. At a personal level, it will also cart away 25 years of memories of those whose lives were woven within the fabric of the tree and its shade — of the three boys’ wedding parties held under the sheesham; of the touching scenes when the sheesham had seen seven pretty girls being given away to wedded bliss and of the one funeral of a family head.

The sad remains of what was once a grand old man
The sad remains of what was once a grand old man

It’s the end of a story, too, because now no birds will sing here. No tired, thirsty passerby will find a spot to take his midday meal under the branches. The harsh sun rays will peer through the depleting ozone layer to scorch the grass that once was. The world will be the poorer by one oxygen-producing green-oasis, but richer by a palatial house white-washed by the future dreams of the people who looked the other way as the grand old man was felled and hacked to pieces. May they prosper, for this ode matters not. After all, it was only a tree. Meanwhile a peer of the sheesham of DHA Lahore, a 200-year-old fungus-infested Bramley apple tree in a cottage garden in Southwell is being acquired by the University of Nottingham in the hope of prolonging its life.

The author is a freelance writer, and independent writing consultant at Translator

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 5th, 2017