I remember it well—a mere 400 metre walk on our office campus in Ahmedabad. That day we were walking along the path that all of us took regularly; walking along with us was Professor HY Mohan Ram, a member of our Governing Council, who was there for the Council meeting. As we walked, Professor Mohan Ram talked—gently, softly, but with passion and excitement, pointing out plants that we saw every day, but, as we realised, we never really ‘looked at’.
“Look at this one”, he pointed at a plant, “this is Aduso. Its botanical name is Adhatoda vasika which means ‘that which the goat will not touch’. This is what is used for making medicines for cough and cold.” Going just two steps ahead, “You know the cactus, but did you know that there is not a single native cactus in the whole of Asia and Europe? All cactii are from the New World—Mexico, North America and South America.” ”Look at this magnificent neem tree. Its botanical name Azadirachta indica comes from the Arabic for azad meaning ‘free’ and drakhta meaning ‘tree’. This is thought to be a tree indigenous to India, but there is some doubt if it is originally Indian. It may have originated on the Burma border and come to Bangladesh from there.” “Did you know that Lutyens, when planning the landscaping of Delhi’s roads, planted only native species. Each avenue was planted with one species of fruit tree.” Three steps ahead, we come to the white flower commonly called Chandni. Professor tells us, “Have you noted carefully the arrangement of petals of flowers? Most flower petals are usually in multiples of 3 or 5 (except in the case of the mustard flower).” “Many high school students know this as the shoe flower that they got for dissection in the exams. But why the name shoe flower? Because it is used to polish shoes! Its other name is hibiscus, and is believed to have originated in China.”
Professor HYM had a fascinating story for every step that we took, drawing attention to the tiniest of flowers that we carelessly trampled underfoot, to the towering culms of bamboo. The path that took us 5-7 minutes to traverse became a magical mystery tour that took close to two hours. Through his eyes the blur of vegetation turned into a veritable treasure trove, with each plant glowing with its own special attributes.
Not long after this visit, Meena and I invited Professor HYM to contribute to a collection of tales of ‘Nature Heroes’ that we were putting together. He graciously agreed, and shared with us some of his journey, experiences and inspirations in a piece titled Reflections of a Botanist. He writes “I have not pursued any single course. I have done what interests me and not what is in style. I have a deep interest in Indian classical music and photography.”
He concludes the piece with this, “What enlightenment have I received as a student of plant biology? I wish I could be like a tree: deep-rooted and firmly fixed, bearing a lofty bole and a broad canopy, continuously absorbing, synthesizing and renewing, unmindful of stresses and insults, resilient to changes and perpetually giving.”
In the passing away of Professor HY Mohan Ram the world has lost not only a botanist par excellence, but a much loved and respected teacher, researcher, and writer. For us, the Matriarchs, Professor Mohan Ram will always be remembered as a gentle, unassuming guide with a twinkle in his eyes, and a life-long inspiration whose visits to the Centre were like the Open Sesame to a fascinating world of flora.
A page from my notes on the Walk! (Date 22 August 1998)