The Death and Rebirth of a Neem Tree

May 17, 2013

Neem is not a tree that I’m particularly fond of. As I’ve doubtless mentioned before, I like me some bright, colourful flowering trees. All these fruit trees and these beneficial herbal, pesticide type trees are for these crazy environmentalist fellows like Amit.

The trouble is, when we went to the nursery to get some trees, they didn’t have any of the jacaranda, laburnum, or gulmohar that I wanted. All they had was neem, which Amit wanted. So we got neem. And of course, Amit not being one to do things in halves (or even in ones) we got two.

We planted these saplings in the front of our lawn, where they could roast in bright sunlight for most of the day. The plan was to shift them to the pavement outside the gate when they grew up a little (and then my laburnum would get pride of place in the garden). As so often happens, things didn’t go quite according to plan.

While they were building our house, the workmen had used the front part of what is now our lawn to mix cement. They were supposed to clean the site thoroughly when they laid the lawn and planted the grass. But, several months on, we saw that grass did not flourish in the front part of the lawn and whenever we scraped the surface with a view to planting something – even when we planted our neem saplings – we uncovered not rich brown or black earth, but hard, dry, white cement in either a powder, or in solid blocks and slabs.

There was only one thing to do. We told the contractor – in great anger, I might mention – to rip up the front part of the lawn, grass and all, and to excavate down to below the layer of cement, and then to lay fresh soil and plant the grass afresh.

You really must be careful what you ask for. One sunny Saturday morning, when Amit had taken Tara out for her table class and I was trying to get a handle on the mountains of housework (as usual), they attacked the lawn with an army of able bodied men and women and an armory of spades and pick-axes. By the time I realized what was going on, grass, both lush and dried, had been uprooted along with… the two neem saplings!

I did a stupid thing – I frantically called Amit and waited for him to come rushing home and take over. Well, actually, I did tell them to cease and desist before that, and it had the effect of slowing them down for a moment and leaving my two bougs unharmed, but… I didn’t have the heart to go down and hunt for my two neem trees. I should have, but I didn’t. I thought they would have just cut them off at the base, and I really didn’t want to see that.

The thing is, I’m not terribly fond of neem, and I have no compunction about swatting and killing repugnant creatures like cockroaches with my chappals, but I really hate to see a plant being wantonly destroyed. And after all, this was my plant. It wasn’t a creature I had wanted, but having agreed to have it in my home, I was the one who had planted it, not very tenderly but all the same. I had dug the pits myself, had laid the saplings in them, covered them up, and after that, for weeks on end, I was the one who was responsible for watering them, or ensuring that they were watered. I was the one who inspected them – sometimes twice a day – for signs of health. I had, oddly enough, been thrilled at the way one of them had just sprung up, doubling in height and in the footprint of its leaves under my rather surprised eyes. The other sapling, though it grew and stayed green, remained puny by comparison. I watered it as well, a little more if anything, but it was clearly the runt of the litter.

Anyway, Amit came home and glowered at the army and shouted at them till they stopped, looking mutinous. Then we got an interpreter and started to communicate with them. They seemed quite bemused with our concern over the neem trees. You told us to rip it all up, so what’s the problem?

Well, we found the neem saplings chucked somewhere at the back of the lawn. The runt of the litter still had its root ball intact, so I left it till later. The bigger one, though… its roots were completely exposed! I quickly threw some earth into a plastic pot and thrust the plant into it, but I wasn’t optimistic. I don’t know much about plants or gardening – a few months ago, I didn’t know anything, and I haven’t really progressed much since then – but I do know that the main root of a plant should not be exposed to air. It’s supposed to be in the ground, at all times.

Well, one of the army that had butchered our lawn, was commandeered to dig a hole for the permanent resting place of the neem. He was a grizzled old man and he seemed, at this point, to have a bit of genuine concern for the doomed tree – though he clearly also thought that our level of concern was way over the top. I don’t blame him – from his perspective, he’s right. It is only a tree, and a pretty small little thing, too. It cost only 30 bucks, we could always get another one. I could see all that, but still. It was our baby after all, even if it was just a tree.

Anyway, we put the tree into its final resting place, me, Amit and the grizzly old man sweating it out in the sun. It looked pretty clear to me that the tree was not going to survive. It was already beginning to droop. Amit and I kept checking on it the rest of the day and the rest of the army kept laughing at us, but what do they know? By the evening, the contractor had actually sent someone over who rigged up a tripod-style barrier around it. When we left for our trip to Delhi several days later, the tree looked all but dead.

The runt of the litter, meanwhile, had been planted in the back garden. That, by all means, cannot be its final resting place – a neem grows to be too big to be kept in that cluttered space – but we kept it there just for the time being. It perked up by the end of the day and soon it was growing faster than it had in its former bed of cement, looking happy enough in its new home.

As far as the big brother neem tree goes, we came back expecting to find nothing more than a dried up twig, and that’s pretty much what we did find. But for one thing. On the dried up twig that was the main trunk, a few dried-up-twig-like branches still had droopy green leaves. And there was one particular dried-up-twig-like branch with a few dried up brown leaves hanging from it that had, most unexpectedly, an almost-invisible cluster of tiny green leaves emerging from the tip of it.

It lives! How can it be!

It’s a far cry from its former picture of health and glory, but it’s not fully dead yet. And that’s just amazing. I like that – that’s persistence for you. I still don’t really like neem trees, mind you. But I’ll look at them with a bit more respect from now on.

The little neem – this one wasn’t doing so well on a foundation of cement, but now that its surrounded by compost, rubbish, and iron rods, it’s flourishing. Still, its big brother, in its prime, looked even larger, healthier, and more vigorous.
And this is what the poor fellow looks like now. No health, no vigour, and it’s in a cage that’s too small for it, but it’s not dead yet.

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