It took two hours to reach 94, Agamashi Lane in Old Dhaka from Mohammadpur where we were to encounter a bonsai forest. As usual, the Dhaka traffic was horrible and the humid day in Ashar was as gloomy as many sullen faces around us waiting eternally on the road not knowing when they would reach their destination.
Old Dhaka, known for its narrow lanes, decaying grey structures sharing space with unplanned new buildings, busy pedestrians, screaming vendors and endless humdrum, seems too unlikely a setting for a touch of greenery. We are still being wooed.
And, finally, to our great astonishment, a glimpse of greenery greeted us. At Mohammad Anisul Haque's house, we encountered a collection of bonsais. They have been nurtured with great affection by this person at the very heart of Old Dhaka.
Anisul Haque, the bonsai artist, lead us into a typical house of the old part of the city through a passage crossing an adjacent drain at the entrance and a small shoe factory smelling of chemicals and tannery.
The dark semi-spiral staircase took us to the roof of a three-storey house.
There, around 500 bonsais between six months to 50 years of age were living in harmony taking up almost the entire space.
Three adjoining roofs of this house and another small one above the garret connected through a metal stairs are full of different kinds of bonsais.
Among many art forms, bonsai art is a popular one for many reasons. It is actually a 'tray planting' process where miniature trees mimic the shape, size and essence of a full grown tree with the touch of artists' hands and years of devotion.
As we reached the roof, the artist of this huge bonsai forest, we saw Anisul, general secretary of Bangladesh Bonsai Society, became busy fixing a tray of tree, cleaning the leaves of another and examining if everything was alright.
The main parts are of the left and right sided roof, which looks like a forest of bonsais. Middle one carries a few trees as Anisul's family doesn't own this place.
"The owners of this portion say nothing about it. They allow me to grow them here,'' says Anisul.
The main attractions of this forest are the bonsais of a bunch of sundaris (Heritiera Fomes) of about 10-16 inches, and geoya (Excoecaria Agallocha), two world-famous trees from our own mangrove forest Sundarbans and one 20 years old hijal (Barringtonia Acutangula). Charming flowers of Geoya will catch one's eye instantly.
Growing and tending of bonsai takes a lot of patience, labour and time. China is considered to be the origin of this art form.
Following the Buddhist principles, a tree normally represents heaven, earth, humanity through its shape. This is to represent the everlasting connection between nature and human beings.
Anisul Hoque was a student of Botany at Kobi Nazrul Government College. This idea dawned on him while reading a magazine.
"My very first attempt to make a bonsai was a failure as I didn't know the exact process. Instead of using wire I covered the tree with a net. The unavailability of training or knowledge were overbearing back then," said this artist, smilingly.
To make a bonsai some particular steps are followed by the artists according to Anisul.
"After picking a small bark or root or plant, it is set on a big pot, which is also called 'training pot'with soil. Then it's the artist's choice which style s/he would choose – informal upright, slanting, Multi-trunk, forest, landscape. Then the design is complete by days and years long trimming, wiring etc.
"Some are made by grafting and budding, some from the small branches," explains Anisul.
Prices of bonsais can vary from Tk5,000 to Tk2,00,000 depending on age and style.
The right side of Anisul's roof is separated with a thin metal gate. There are several kinds of ficus there, some on the training pot, yet to be groomed, some fully grown with twisted body, barks and aerial roots.
Pointing at a full-grown boichi (Flacour Tiaindica) of about 14-inches in height, Anisul said, "This is a male one. It won't hold any fruit. That's a female one (pointing at another)."
It was 1985, when artist and photographer Anisul started working with bonsais. Late Mrs. Emy Islam, former president of Bangladesh Bonsai Society, started to give this work an institutional formation through that organisation consisting of 100 members now, among whom there are artists from two generations.
Recently, Anisul was invited in the 15th Asia- Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibition (ASPAC-2019) to represent Bangladesh Bonsai Society.
"It was such an honour for me, since I was the first Bangladeshi whom Ho Chi Minh, a famous Vietnamese bonsai master, recommended. It was a wonderful experience," said Anisul.
"Now, there are 75 species here on my roof. In our country, the common tendency is to work with our own kind of banyan trees. I, for change, have tried to work on other varieties and got satisfying results working with trees like arjun (Terminalia Arjuna), kamini (Murraya Paniculata), tetul (Tamarindus Indica), tomal (Diospyros Cordifolia), boichi (Flacourtia Indica).
The left portion of the roof was fully occupied by several kinds of full-grown bonsai. A full-grown tree of around 20-inch-high pakur (Ficus Religiosa) welcomed us with two spreading halves extending like two hands towards us. It is twisted and its grey bark carries the symbol of its age of 60 years.
Behind this pakur,beautiful red-ochre leaves of 25-year-old cocoloba sea grape were peeping through other trees. There are two of them, one we already encountered at the right side of the entrance.
Throughout our conversation, Anisul remained busy working on potted bonsai, trying to remove it from the container.
Anisul's vast collection came from different sources. Most of the roots or plants were collected by him while simply walking on the streets, some he received as gifts from the organisation members.
He made a piece of landscape on a cement tray with a six-year-old Chinese elm resembling an ancient banyan tree.
With nine premna trees, each of about 10 inches in height, Anisul made a landscape on another tray. He placed rocks and mosses at the feet of the soil to give it a realistic touch.
Among the boichi (Flacourtia Indica), sal tree (Shorea Robusta), juyee (Jasminum Auriculatum), a full grown tamarind (Tamarindus Indica) with its branches and fresh green leaves was standing magnificently.
Bangladesh Bonsai Society holds workshop for the interested people to provide training to those who are willing to pursue bonsai-making.
"Anyone interested can contact me anytime through our Facebook page – Bangladesh Bonsai Society. I shall go to his/her place and show the whole process," said this enthusiastic artist.
Another information from Anisul while paring company with that green island that brought some peace in our mind, "A bulbuli (bulbul) bird laid eggs on my hijal tree some days back. She made a small nest with the leaves also. A magpie robin has also started to visit time to time."
With a feeling of freshness and longing for revisiting that green, miniature forest, we stepped out into the chaos outside.