THE WAY IT WAS: Wretched common things —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

No one can cease to be amazed looking at Amaltas in bloom. How can it be in such ease, bear burning heat in peace? It is equally amazing to discover uncommon virtues in wretched, uncommon things, be it men or common trees

May is the season of Amaltas, which remain in bloom till end of June. This year because of the stormy weather, the dangling clusters of their flowers have withered before their usual time. Amaltas were at their best when the temperatures were unexpectedly touching 43 degrees centigrade. They love hot weather — hotter the better. Like most of us they don’t long for the cold Monsoon breeze. They are totally at peace with themselves and their habitat, like the poor farmers who need to cut wheat sitting on their haunches in the sizzling sun.

In the old days there were not very many Amaltas trees in the city. In recent years some good person — God bless him for it — has gone about planting them all over town. The result is the annual invasion of gold and yellow in the early summer months. Almost every part of the city is now populated with them. In some areas rows and rows of them line the streets. Even in the browner parts they make their cheerful presence known by leaning over an old brick wall, surprising the commuters at a dusty road-turning, peering from behind a group of mulberries or flaunting their colour in “katchi abbadies”.

Amaltas is bit of a show off. It can afford to be. There is no other tree with such abundant inflorescent flowers. Gull-e-More are far too few to compete. The Gull-e-Nishtar are too restrained. Before the sixties, Gull-e-Nishtar, also called Kesu and Flame of the Forest, added considerable colour to Davis Road where they formed an elegant avenue leading from the Mall to the Simla Hill. Most of them have died of old age, the remaining have been cut down to provide parking space for commercial buildings.

The other trees that bloom annually in Lahore are the Kachnal and the Sumbal. The Kachnal gives gorgeous blossoms that have a striking resemblance with orchids, which are so highly prized and are now grown at great cost in our country. If you know how to cook, Kachnal buds with mutton and a handful of peas makes a delicious dish. Unfortunately in a home with taste for subtle flavours, the Kachnal tree is seldom allowed to blossom. It must be remembered that the white Kachnal flowers taste better than the pink or the light mauve ones.

Sumbal flowers, on the other hand, are fleshy and can weigh up to a quarter of a pound. That is why one never sees people resting under a Sumbal tree. The flower is truly proportionate to the awesome size of the Sumbal but can easily knock out a person if he were hit on the head.

Culinary etiquette and good manners require that I must acknowledge another plant. It is an unobtrusive tree and bears rather sickly looking clusters of small white flowers that make excellent “saag”. It is a trifle bitter in taste, but so are the “karelas”. My mother calls it “bata” but when the flowering is over it begins to bear bunches of thin long pods called “rawaan de phallian”. Mostly these thin long pods are pickled but I hear in some places they are also picked and eaten. The Bata tree also provides a supplement for ginger, or “adrak”. In the Saraiki belt of southern Punjab and northern Sindh its cuttings are planted in fields. Once the cuttings have sprouted and grown into young plants they are ready for harvest. The plants are pulled out of the ground for the succulent roots that have a sharp pungent taste, similar to ginger. It is not amazing that a common tree should be able to provide us with clusters of white blossoms for “saag”, “phalians” for “achaar” and roots to flavour our food and yet the Bata tree lives in relative obscurity while people rave about upper class imported plants that have to be raised like poodles.

It seems that even plants have classes. Those that are local and common, and can grow easily without much fuss are kept out of the gardens designed by our landscape architects. The Dharaik and Bukain, that bear such lovely small blue flowers with an incredible sweet fragrance, are considered only good for providing shade in the summer to animals and the poor working types. The Shisham, the Kikar, the Beri or Shareen are too common to be allowed into a garden. If they trespass the gardeners know what is to be done to them. I can understand if some residents do not like to have a Beri in their compound since it invites urchins to throw stones when it is in fruit. But the Shareen is a different matter. It bears fluffy flowers that exude a heady scent in the Monsoon season. It is at its best on a hot, damp evening.

Common trees cannot be found in posh localities but in villages and, like stray dogs and beggars on road sides, the dry dusty strip between metalled roads and private property They are always at peace with themselves, bearing their lifelong trials with mystic forbearance and fortitude. Cyclists and pedestrians cut off their greenest twigs for “muswaks” used for cleaning teeth and massaging gums. The “Sukh Chan” tree “muswaks” are in great demand but the thick “waan ke muswaks” are the bristles of the modern toothbrush. The Kikar, an ascetic among trees, never complains when it is stripped of its bark to provide “dandasa” for the village maidens to freshen their breath and add a touch of reddish hue to their gums and lips. The more inventive and resourceful ones use its bark to blend their brew. They say if you are looking for “thara” proceed to the village that has Kikars freshly denuded of its bark. This may not be true any longer because times have changed and men have become devious and you never know from where they have procured their bark.

No one can cease to be amazed looking at Amaltas in bloom. How can it be in such ease, bear burning heat in peace? It is equally amazing to discover uncommon virtues in wretched, uncommon things, be it men or common trees.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist