Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Our national tree

Let's say that I was born in Kashmir, a little over twenty-eight autumns back. It was the season of fall, my folks tell me, and the countryside was strewn with light hues of crimson. It is that time of the year when the Oriental plane -- Chinar -- looks its best. Stark and naked, it sheds its rusty foliage. The crisp orange leaves cover the beauteous landscape like one continuous Oriental rug. Legend has it that plane is the tree of Hippocrates, under which Hippocrates taught medicine in ancient Greece during the Age of Pericles.

I remember my dad's apple firm had a telex code. It was called Chinar. I used to ask dad in a kid's innocuous bager: 'Why do you have a Chinar symbol for your apple business? Why not an apple tree?' Dad, I recall, said in a reassuring tone, "Chinar is our identity, sonny." Booune, as plane is locally called, has always been the emblem of Kashmir.

Reminds me of the poet-philosopher Sir Mohammad Iqbal – of Kashmiri ancestry -- who in his wistful style waxed eloquent about the valley:

Jis khaak ke zameer me ho aatish-e-chinar
Mumkin nahi ki sarad ho voh khaak-e-arjamand

The land that has in its conscience the spark of Chinar
Thy celestial dust won’t douse yet
[My Translation]

The romance with Chinar that started with the widely respected Iqbal has carried on. The lanky and erudite – liked and hated in equal parts – Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah [Omar Abdullah’s grandpa] called his autobiography ‘Aatish-e-Chinar’. The book bagged the 1988 Sahitya Academy award – India’s most outstanding literary achievement [Some say that Yusuf Teng ghost wrote it]. Even a hugely repulsed bloke in Kashmir like Rushdie couldn’t resist it. He calls a central character in his latest book, Shalimar the Clown, Booune. Sir Salman, of Kashmiri ancestry knows that the significance -- of the odd plane -- cannot be lost even in an era of hatred and intense heartache.

Poets and kings alike have admired the plane tree. The Mughal Emperor Akbar who annexed and visited the valley for the first time in 1579 fondly mentions Chinar in his memoir Akbar Nama. The Char Chinar [four planes] bang in the middle of Srinagar's famed Dal lake is a testament to Mughal fascination for the tree. The Booune leaf is a recurring motif in Kashmir's handicrafts and woodwork.

Booune is found mentioned in the 14th century mystic-poetess-princess Lal Ded’s saintly wakhs (poems). Chinar has been a lonesome witness to the vicissitudes of Kashmir’s fluctuating fortune and its prized possession by rulers of various stripe – cruel and benign: from the Buddhist ruler Asoka the Great, who founded Srinagar in 250 BC to the various Hindu Kings, who followed him. From the mid-12th century Muslim blitzkrieg in Kashmir right upto harsh reign of the 19th century Dogra feudatories, Chinar perhaps remains the sole spectator to happenstance of everything Kashmiri.

In old days the locals used to collect the plane leaves in heaps and transform them into charcoal for use in the Kangris [fire pots that Kashmiris fight the intense winter with]. Not so much now! Not in the time of blowers and braziers. I think the romance is fading. Like everything Kashmiri, the Booune is fast dying. There was a time when every village and hamlet had scores of the graceful huge tree. Less than 19,000 remain now. The systematic ruin of Kashmir seems to have pervaded onto its Chinars.

Az Jehangir Dame Naza Chi Justand
Ba Khahishi Dil Guft
Kashmir Diger Hech

On his deathbed, the 17th century Mughal Emperor of India, Jehangir was asked by his royal courtiers as to what he wished in the hereafter. With a heavy heart and in a feeble, dying voice, the poet-king replied: Nothing but a soul as refreshing as Kashmir.

There are still a very few things in the world as scintillatingly exotic as the crisp rustle of fallen dry Chinar leaves in Kashmir during autumn. You just need to take a stroll around the woody shades of Booune.