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One Seed, One Tree! DB’s Johnny Appleseed

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Ahead of Earth Day, Suren Safaya sits down with Elizabeth Kerr to discuss the fruit trees he grows across from his apartment and much else besides.

PHOTOS BY Richard Gordon – www.richardgordonphotography.com

Along rambling chat with Suren Safaya ends with a beer on a park bench on the east side of Discovery Bay. After a circuitous, leisurely walk around Peninsula Garden and past the 60-odd trees he’s planted over the last six years, Suren plonks down on the bench and pontificates on his post-semi-retirement second career as an LED lighting specialist. “I’m not earning a living from it,” says the former IT pro. “It’s purely for my own interest and to help out somehow. And it keeps my grey cells engaged.” Eventually Suren’s wife, Soshima, shows up with the aforementioned beer, a fruity San Pellegrino soda for him. Suren looks low-key aggrieved, but takes it and has a sip after he gets A Look, maybe the same one he got when he started growing fruit trees in their flat years ago – from seeds. Not flower market or garden centre seeds; seeds from whole fruit. Once the avocado, mango, pomegranate, lemon, lime, sufeda, tamarind and date plants started looking like something from The Last of Us, Soshima decided enough was enough. “My wife told me either I leave the apartment or the plants leave. Uh oh,” Suren says with his hallmark gentle chuckle. “It was quite a jungle in there.” Sure is why DB now has fruit trees.

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

Born in Kashmir and educated in Kolkata, Suren and Soshima, an educator, relocated to Beijing in 1983, where he was assigned by Unisys for a United Nations development programme to implement a mainframe for the government. A student of electronics and telecommunications, with a master’s in computer science, Suren is an original gangster tech guy, working in tech industries before there were tech industries. He will tell you things about your iPhone you didn’t even know existed.

After eight years in Beijing, the couple and their two children landed in Hong Kong. That was 40 years ago, and 31 of those have been spent in DB. Suren left Unisys in 2005 to work as a consultant to the HKSAR Government on its IT and to “chill.”

As it turns out, Suren hasn’t done much chilling. His penchant for keeping busy led him to helping out DB’s former onboard dwellers with solar light options, as well as LED options for his neighbours who were having trouble making a green solution work. “OK, I’ll have a go,” he recalls. “That’s how I got into the LED lighting business.”

A ham radio hobby also keeps him engaged, but at heart Suren’s a scientist, which is the main reason he started a jungle on his windowsill. His inner urban farmer was always there.

“I always loved to put a seed in a pot and watch it grow. I just got curious as to what might happen,” he explains of his Peninsula Garden experiment. “There’s a fruit in India, kala jamun, that I used to eat all the time as a kid. It’s deep purple, oval, a long seed – and it turns your tongue black. The last time I was in Pune I saw some and ate them all. I saved the seeds, brought them back, and put them in a pot at home. All 13 grew.”

Though he was focused on work when the potting journey started, eventually the time for a deep dive beyond what we all learn in Grade 10 biology cropped up. Suren casts his memory back for a second, recalling the moment it came to choose academic streams in school.

“There was an agriculture stream, but I wanted to do science. My advisor told my mum I’d be better suited to agriculture. In hindsight he knew something I didn’t.”

FRUITS OF HIS LABOURS

Luckily for Suren he happened to be on the Peninsula Village Owners Committee, and so he had an advantage when he pitched the idea to plant some fruit trees around the village in 2014. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, he made an argument for the plantings and the committee went for it.

Suren did some research into what would be an invasive species and what wouldn’t, and what might have been here before the Second World War razed everything to the ground. “Most of the trees you see in Hong Kong are secondary trees. They were imported from Australia after the war. There were local trees but nothing that grew to any level. Some work – like guava and jackfruit – some don’t. I made sure to bring stuff from along the same latitude to give them a head start.”

He’s also an occasional tour guide to DB’s flora (WhatsApp him on 9020 3729). A little girl trying her best to pull a branch off one of his kala jamun trees led to a chat with her mother about not pulling branches off, and the mother organising a garden tour. Ideally, Suren will be able to label every tree so everyone has a chance to become more knowledgeable about them.

In the time he’s been planting in DB (some saplings went off to new developments like Chianti), there have been successes and failures – excitable dogs, rain, typhoons – but mostly successes. If you see a tree with green protective lattice around it, it’s probably Suren’s work.

Right now, his pomegranate bushes are flowering, and the tucked away lime trees give off a vibrant, intoxicatingly sweet scent when the leaves are rubbed. And even though some residents have wondered who would “own” the fruit once trees bore them, Suren believes most people are thrilled just to have them there.

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PASTURES NEW

In the coming months and years, Suren’s going to have to rely on the kindness of local gardeners to nurture what he’s started. With grown kids – son Sameer, a hydrologist in the Netherlands and Smriti, a geologist who just completed her PhD in Citizen Science in the UK – and considering Soshima retired from the Canadian International School a few years ago, the couple has decided it’s time to travel again. From a new homebase in Pune, they can flit around the globe, and Suren can continue the next phase of his work. Smart man Suren, but clearly confused about the concept of retirement.

He’s working with a group of scientists researching the light spectrum’s influence on seed growth, and how to use LED to replicate it and speed up growth to make seed modification quicker, technically AI-assisted speed-breeding agro-tech. Don’t start him on GMOs and the anti-science movement that seems to be sweeping the globe, the unfounded illness fears and push back on all the good that GMOs do, like disease prevention, insect resistance and fortification to work in a world where climate change will impact food supply. Shady seed suppliers that bankrupt farmers are not a science issue.

Suren has no idea where this research might lead, if anywhere, but in true scientific fashion, that’s not necessarily the point. “There’s a greater good at play,” he says. “That [anti-science fear] is a good point and maybe if I work at that level one day I’ll address it, but for now I’m happy just doing the science.”

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