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Interview with Pradip Krishen, Author of the Bestselling Trees of Delhi, Part 1

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Pradip Krishen is the author-photographer of a celebrated new book titled Trees of Delhi – A Field Guide. He also directed the critically acclaimed films Massey Sahib, In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones and Electric Moon. He and his wife Arundhati Roy lives in New Delhi.

[This is the first of the three-part interview series he gave to Mayank Austen Soofi.]

Welcome Mr. Krishen. Your book has received gushing reviews. Author Khushwant Singh conferred upon you the "status of a Brahmin priest of the community of tree-lovers." Another Delhi-based author, Vikram Seth, credits your "deep scholarship and delight in nature." Can it be that I'm sitting in front of Dr. Salim Ali of Trees?

Nooo, I wouldn’t invite any such comparison, you really shouldn’t even speak of us in the same breath. Salim Ali was a very great man, a dedicated scientist with decades of scholarship and fieldwork behind him. I’m just an upstart!

But I’ll tell you something – in my ‘20s and ‘30s I would take Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds with me everywhere, on holiday or visiting some new place. And I remember thinking way back then, “What a fantastic thing to do – to write a book that gives so many people so much pleasure”! Salim Ali set a superb example but it is a very tough act to follow. I’m not in the same league, not at all.

To most visitors, Delhi seems like a polluted, barren concrete jungle. How did you come up with the idea of compiling the trees of a city that receives merely 60 cm of rain each year?

For a city sitting at the edge of the desert, Delhi is quite a remarkable city for the sheer number and diversity of trees it has. When I first started asking the question “What is this tree?”, it was just self-education. I was just practising something I had been doing in the jungle. But it slowly began to dawn on me that this dry, dusty city actually harboured a remarkable number of tree species – 252 species is a very large number. New York, for example, has only something like 130 species. You would expect this number (250 plus) in a rainforest, or in an equatorial town.

So, you see, exploring Delhi and trying to identify all these trees took on the dimensions of a gigantic puzzle, figuring out what was what. Specially the exotic trees, the ones that had arrived from elsewhere, and even more specially, the ones that had ‘failed’ for one reason or the other and were therefore abandoned.

Your publishers Penguin just finished the third printing. Had you imagined that people, and not only from Delhi, would flock to buy a book on trees, a volume priced at 799 rupees (appox. US$18)?

I wasn’t sure, I really couldn’t be sure beforehand that people would want to buy the book. But I suppose I had a hunch, a sense, that there was something exciting and quite a lot of fun beginning to breathe under there. And if we could only translate all those ideas onto the page, then maybe, just maybe, we’d come up with something that would be part-reference book, part-nature guide, part-explore-your-city guide… and then it might work!

But there are so many imponderables, no? And doesn’t every author think (in between bouts of doubt and uncertainty) that they’ve got something wonderful they’re going to unleash on the world? It’s good to remind oneself about the conceits of being an author, and the pitfalls, the big void!

About the price – I’m very proud that we held the priceline where we did. I can’t think of a comparable book with this number of pictures, using this quality of paper and printing, that costs so little. A book like this would ‘normally’ end up priced at something like 2,000 rupees (approx. US$40).

You taught yourself field botany before starting this project aimed at lay readers. How did you address the risks that arise out of an autodidact's amateur exuberance coupled with an effort to reach out to so many people?

Oh, it didn’t start out at all as a writing project. I just ghoosoed (pushed myself) into trees like any really obsessive character would ghooso (pushed) into any subject that caught his fancy! I would go walking in the jungle in Pachmarhi and there are few things I have loved more than scrambling through jungle, swimming in wild pools… and from there it was a small step to getting to know all the lovely wild things you encountered all around. Luckily I had this forester friend living nearby and he became a guide, a gentle, joking, lovely guide, who inculcated an even greater love of the jungle in me. I owe him a lot.

Getting to understand the botany or the jargon or the scientific names, that came quite easily once you were really interested, once you were ‘bitten’. But I suppose the key was being so obsessive. All right, anal… Reaching out to people was of course, key. It helped that I had myself been, so recently, innocent of botanical jargon, and so it was easy to identify with a lay readership.

Leading tree walks in the city was very good training too, because I came up face to face with all the most common problems and confusions that people have about trees and plants. It’s been exciting, being an interpreter of difficult, scientific language and ideas for the ordinary reader. Difficult and exciting. I enjoy the role.

In the book, you astonished your readers by pointing out there are no mango trees in Lutyens' Delhi. Somewhere else you talked about a large jacaranda tree in front of Sonia Gandhi's (India's most powerful politician) residence. You also regretted not being able to see the inside of a Purdah Garden near the Red Fort. (Who knew a "women-only" garden existed in Delhi!) Just how did you manage such extensive research?

You obviously don’t know have many anal friends! No, but seriously, it was simply a matter of getting obsessed, and then staying that way. For a fairly long time. Staying the distance. But then it was also a wonderful way of exploring this city. Any city. So it just grew on me.

You thanked many people for their support during the making of this book, including your maali, Janakidas. What was his contribution?

Janakidas and Naresh, my driver, were my commissariat and I suppose one could say that they were just dragooned into becoming collaborators! It was inevitable, I guess, because so much of my travelling in the city and in the outskirts was tree-oriented, looking for the unusual, the different.

They must have thought of me at first as being completely loopy. ‘"ere he goes again," must have been a thought they had many times, especially in the early years when I was starting out. But Naresh travelled all over the city with me on my photographic expeditions and slowly got drawn into the adventure of it all. Occasionally he would alert me to the presence of a suspiciously unusual tree and I would go take a look… At other times I would use him to alert me about when things happened. “Will you keep an eye out for when that paakad starts new leaves?”

I might say. Naresh started out knowing maybe 15-20 trees in all but can now tell you precisely how Ficus virens and Ficus amplissima differ from each other. He doesn’t know their botanical names, of course, but it became important for me to make sure that when I sent him off to fetch me a particular leaf or fruit he would know exactly what I meant.

Jankidas, well, was drafted in as a less mobile collaborator. When I was photographing individual leaves for the leaf-scheme, for example, I was able to send him off on his bicycle and hope to God he brought me back the right leaf! He usually did.

[In the second part (to be published tomorrow), Mr. Krishen discussed certain historical events that ravaged Delhi’s tree flora.]
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