We saw many middle-aged banyan trees in our youth in Dhaka City. Great many history-making upheavals and rebellions started from under those trees. The dusty ground under those banyan trees was fondly called 'Bot-tola' in Bangla. No wonder, Bot-tola has such a prominent place in the annals of our liberation struggle.
Our Bot-tola survived the colonial era and the ruthless reign of Pakistan; but not the blundering administration of our own military rulers. In the late 1970s those trees were felled one after another. It was a monstrous massacre.
After that carnage the only eminent Bot-tola left in the city was one famed for our Bangla New Year celebration in Ramna Garden. Though we lovingly call the site 'Bot-tola,' the tree over there is not a Bot; but an Ashath with little claim at the dignity of a Bot. I am yet to see an Ashath to attain the splendour of an imposing Bot!
In the recent past I did come across a few new Bot trees in the city. But those upstarts were far too young to attain the charm, grandeur and significance of our bygone Bot. I gave up the prospect of discovering in our neighbourhood a Bot that I would like to visit again and again. I thought I would never see a lovely banyan tree in or around the city. But I was wrong, very wrong!
Suddenly a banyan of great beauty and power showed up on one of my wanderings. It is a magnificent tree, apparently, with no history to worry about. It stands not in the city; but not too far from it either. It is standing by Sector 21 of the upcoming Purbachal Residential Area and waiting to be discovered. In the village named Heernal, the area around the tree is called 'Bot-tola'.
I have paid my respect to the tree several times already; and it certainly is worth many more. I think it is middle-aged for a banyan. It has the girth, grip and coverage of a mature banyan. The main trunk has probably been on the mound for a few centuries, and shows some signs of age. Over the centuries it probably watched the floodplain between Sitolakkha and Balu rivers get silted and recede southwards.
At the same time, much of the tree has the youthful enthusiasm and potency to grow and drive fresh limbs into the earth. Many of its rootlets are startlingly tender and keenly seeking the soil underneath. It is eager to grow vigorously and cover new ground to the sunny south.
While looking at the elegant limbs of the banyan I thought of poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer. This American poet joined the First World War and was killed as a young soldier. He did not live long enough to write many poems. People remember him by a single poem in which he wrote:
I think I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree,
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray,
Alfred felt that no poem contrived by a man can hold a candle to the spontaneity, evenness and elegance of a tree the nature has created. He closed his little poem with the following lament.
Poems are written by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I guess in Alfred's time mighty trees dominated the cityscape and the citizenry had the time and temperament to look at them. It did not take long before all that changed across-the-board. Soon the cities were overtaken by automobiles, malls and billboards. That is why poet Ogden Nash wrote the following parody of Alfred's poem a few decades later.
I think I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.
I wish Alfred had seen our magnificent banyan trees and written a poem on Bot-tola.
'Bot-tolar lekhok' is an intriguing expression in Bangla. It literally means an author whose work is sold under banyan trees. Metaphorically it points a finger at a writer of trash. It is a relic of the time when for shopping the commoners came to Bot-tola and the elite went to the malls. Now the mall has the trash of every category and Bot-tola is all but empty. Now we are a horde of 'Shopping-mall lekhok'.
When people leave Bot-tola alone, it transforms into a hub of untold non-human undertakings. Squirrels run up and down its trunk and fat branches all the while only they know why. A great variety of birds come for a variety of reasons. For vegetarians the banyan is a veritable food court. Here the fruit-guzzlers like Yellow-footed Green Pigeon also always find enough. The leaf-eaters like Rose-ringed Parakeet come to devour the sheathed buds.
Banyan serves sumptuous dishes to the flesh eaters too. The insectivores like the Chestnut-tailed Starling come here for the bugs pulled in by the aroma of ripening fruit. Secretive birds like Orange-headed Thrush tramp the ground below to feed on the worms wiggling through the fallen fruits.
Banyan is a home, hostel and playground for many other creatures. Playful birds like Black-hooded Oriole come in pairs to play hide-and-seek in the foliage. Amorous skulkers like Asian Koel come to broadcast its cooing calls from its evergreen canopy. Nocturnal hunters like Spotted Owlet sleep in the maze of descendant roots. Nervous migrants like Olive-backed Pipit fly off the ground onto the reclining branches as the sly mongoose come sniffing and snorting.
We will probably never see a city as expansive, intricate, affluent and obliging as a banyan tree. Which city of the world can even be compared favourably with the beauty and bounty of this tree! No city can ever dream of being as benevolent and accommodative to its residents and visitors as the banyan tree.
I invite you to come and enjoy this prodigious banyan just outside our city before the city crawls eastwards along with its malls and billboards to diminish or demolish it in a few years' time.