There is only one word on the lips of those afflicted by COVID-19 across India: oxygen. It is also the subject matter of deliberations from the Supreme Court of India to the ‘People’s Court’ in election-bound states, from the bar of law to the spiritual bars in every nook and cranny of India. If Pran was India’s most awarded ‘lead actor in the negative role’ – as yesterday’s “villains” are known in today’s terminology – the pran vayu or oxygen fits that role today. Why is only 18 per cent of the atmosphere composed of oxygen? Why do we need the inert nitrogen occupying 68 per cent of space? The debate is as inflammable and as explosive as oxygen.
Let us go back to the textbooks. Plants take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. That is air purification. We breathe in oxygen and give out carbon dioxide: that is blood purification. Everything undergoes shuddhikaran with oxygen and we avoid discussing the pradhushan or pollution of the air that we do by just being alive and breathing. We plant trees to clean up the air for us. We, however, do not go to sleep near plants because plants take in oxygen and give out carbon dioxide while we snore at night. Fortunately, there are exceptions.
My father failed his First Year of BSc (Bachelor of Science) in St Xavier’s College, Bombay, during the ‘Quit India’ movement and shifted to Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English literature. However, he had a keen sense of observation, an inclination towards research and a tendency for DIY or Do It Yourself. If he had lived, he would have celebrated his 101st birthday today instead of leaving that task for his children and grandchildren to do. I have picked a few skills like growing plants, writing, and celebrating life from him. He knew that tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) plants were net oxygen producers at night and that it was the reason why the Tulsi vrindavan and Tulsichem laginn were part of the Indian tradition and rituals. Today, we discuss oxygen concentrator machines, which do not work if there is a power failure. The nurseries are in business selling Tulsi plants before the wedding season begins each year.
Officers of the East India Company in Bengal in the early 18th century had noticed that the businessmen from the Hindi heartland (later the United Provinces and now Uttar Pradesh) slept in groups for fear of robbers. Those with keener observation realised that they slept under a particular species. They called it the ‘Baniya Tree’, what else? Since it was first identified in Bengal, it was botanically named Ficus benghalensis. Between the ‘baniya’ and his ‘banian’ (vest), the tree came to be known as the Banyan tree. “What?” you may ask, and you would not be wrong. The tree is known as vatt, vadd or vodd in the vernacular. The reason why the baniyas slept under the Banyan tree was that they felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep. You guessed right: the Banyan tree is also a net oxygen producer at night. Respect for these plants is now growing with the students of Urban Gardening and they are presenting the information in webinars. Everyone can benefit from a breath of fresh air that is rich