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Book review: Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli

Review by Naomi Racz

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit India to attend a friend’s wedding. The two day Indian wedding, with its unique clothing, food, and music, was certainly an experience I’ll never forget. I’d long wanted to visit India because I love Indian food, a love that was instilled in me from an early age by my mum, who learnt to cook Indian food from my grandfather, who in turn learnt to cook Indian food from a young Indian man whom my great-grandmother took on as a lodger. I also grew up in Manchester, which at the time was well known for its curry mile in the neighbourhood of Rusholme, so birthdays and family get-togethers were always marked with a trip to our favourite curry house.

I grew up on the North Indian-inspired style of Indian food, but while living in Amsterdam, I discovered and fell in love with South Indian cuisine. I was therefore doubly excited to be visiting Chennai on my first trip to India.

During our time in the city, my husband and I stayed in a hotel that had a rooftop terrace with a bar that we took advantage of after hot days exploring the city. From the terrace we watched the city disappear into darkness as vibrant sunsets and lightning storms lit up the sky. The terrace also afforded the opportunity to note something that isn’t immediately obvious from the ground: just how green the city of Chennai is.

Sunset over Chennai. Image by Spencer Cappallo.

I wasn’t too surprised then to learn about the upcoming publication of Cities and Canopies by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, a professor and a senior lecturer, respectively, at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. I’m not sure what most people’s mental image of an Indian city is, but for me, the enduring image is of a green city awash with the yellows, oranges, and purples of an urban sunset. I only wish I’d had the chance to read Nagendra and Mundoli’s book before my visit to Chennai. I would certainly have been inspired to pay more attention to the street trees at ground level and even to attempt to identify them.

Although not exhaustive—it’s certainly not intended to be a guidebook—Cities and Canopies covers 10 different species of Indian street trees. Some are long time native, others, like the palm, have been introduced more recently—an interesting tidbit: the popularity of palms in Indian cities was inspired by Indian IT workers returning from the USA, who associated the plants with progress and luxury. The tree chapters alternate with chapters exploring wider themes around urban trees, such as the way in which trees communicate, the role of trees in religion, the great native vs exotic debate, and the loss of urban groves.

While packed with a wealth of information, what I enjoyed most about Cities and Canopies is the glimpses it provides into Indian culture, society, and ecology, as it relates to urban street trees. There are references throughout to stories from Hindu texts and the role of trees in religious practices, such as the custom of “marrying” trees. They mention the fact that city trees are threatened by grazing goats and cattle—not something that you tend to see in cities in the west. A chapter on the animals found in street trees refers to the unpleasant experience of having a snake dropping onto one’s head from a tree. While the authors reminisce about childhood afternoons spent in a mango tree in their grandmother’s backyard, eating the unripe fruit with salt and chilli powder. Cities and Canopies also bought several Indian English terms to my attention, such as khichri, which is a dish made of lentils and rice but which can also refer to an ensemble, and crore, which denotes ten million.

While aimed at an Indian audience, there is a lot here for non-Indian readers to enjoy. If you’re interested in trees, particularly urban trees, and Indian culture, then I would recommend Cities and Canopies as a great place to start.

Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli is published by Penguin India. 

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