The People Tree


All over Bombay, everywhere you look, you see mango trees laden with fruit, fruit that go abegging for grubby little hands to pelt stones and knock them down. Just a few years ago, the gulel, an invention who’s solitary purpose is to bring down mangoes and an occasional Goliath, used to be a prized possession. And the warrior who wielded it well, won the undying allegiance of all neighbourhood kids. The hierarchy was set in stone. The marksman who would shoot down the mangoes and the next in line would grab the mangoes and run just as the mali came brandishing a stout stick. Then at a predetermined secret hideout, the person in charge of bringing the namak and lal mirch combo would triumphantly whip out the tiny crumpled potli, which also had to be smuggled with great ingenuity from under the mother’s nose. And lulled into a sense of well-being by the plaintive notes of that winged harbinger of summer, the koel, one experienced sublime magic. The eye-wateringly sour taste of the stolen fruit, organic before the term was coined, unwashed, co-mingling with the astringency of the sap running down from the nub of the stalk, dipped in the pungency of the salt mix. Is there a more vivid image of indolent summer afternoons when the holidays seemed to go on and on?

Have our tastes become so altered by quinoa and kale and avocado that the sight of summer’s first maangai/kairi no longer transports us? Summer holidays now no more than a month and filled with foreign vacations, activity classes to spark, *rollingmyeyes*, imagination and creativity and parents who can only dole out ‘quality time’, the kids no longer seem to care for mangoes. Growing up in BARC’s sprawling, verdant Anushaktinagar colony, we would denude every single tree of its fruit before the mangoes were even a couple of cms in size. Eventually, the trees figured us out and they would put out flowers and fruits in none but the topmost, farthest from the ground branches, that not even the most daring of monkeys would attempt. Now one sees mangoes, hanging so low, one could just reach up and pluck them. And yet, no one does. It got me wondering, this phenomenon of tree after tree laden with the most luscious fruit and no one even sparing them a glance and what that would mean to the trees. Do they, the trees, feel sad that no one exclaims over their fruit?

A chance mention by an all-knowing friend of the use of Shalabhanjikas in Indian decorative art started me thinking of the sentience of trees and the interconnectedness of all life on our planet. Like the Dryads and the Orieads of the ancient Celts and Druids, Shalabhanjikas are tree spirits or guardians. Shala-bhanjika literally means the maiden who breaks off a branch. These impossibly full-figured ladies were usually etched into brackets, draped languidly around a tree, in the thrice-broken tribhanga pose, holding a flowering branch; the most famous of these can be found at the Sanchi Stupa. It is likely that they symbolised the fecundity of the earth. But it is also said that if a maiden were to kick the tree, and/or break off a branch it would lead to the flowering of the tree.

I recalled a story my mother told me of an Ari Nellikkai tree that had stood in the backyard of her childhood home. For years the tree stood without flowering or fruiting. A fully grown, healthy tree, but no other signs of life. Then the kids of the house heard about this ritual where the tree could be shamed into fruiting. So they armed themselves with brooms and sticks and they all ran a ring around the tree beating it and spitting at it, yelling rude names, generally the way one would shame another human. And as things are, the kids forgot about the incident, but apparently the tree hadn’t. That year for the first time, the tree put forth a bumper crop of gooseberries. “We got tired of eating it and making jams and pickles and finally giving away by the bagfuls, but the tree just wouldn’t stop producing fruit”, Amma paused. The very next year, the tree just withered away and died and had to be chopped down. I asked my mother if the tree died because of the shaming, she answered sadly, “Probably”.

I am easily anthropomorphising trees in this essay, because that’s how one grew up in this country. We have always believed in the sentience of trees. Practically every tree found on the subcontinent finds it place in our scriptures and folklore. The Parijatam was brought to earth by Krishna for his Satyabhama; the Bodhi tree held space for the Nirvana of Buddha; the utter belief that the falling branches from a coconut tree would never ever harm a human and finally the Mango tree, whose leaves we string into torans to hang at our doorways, so the breeze wafting through the leaves may sanctify our homes.

Science seems to be coming round to the idea of the intelligence of trees too. In her blogpost, multiple award-winning author and writer specializing on nature and environmental issues, Candice Gaukel Andrews writes,

‘…that plants are smarter than we think. It’s tempting to believe that since plants are rooted in place, they aren’t capable of the complex thought processes that an animal that can run from predators or make its way across town for a cup of coffee is competent enough to achieve.’

‘…Every plant root tip has a tiny region that functions as the locus of electrical signals—the same signals found in human neurons. In essence, every single root apex in a plant’s system can detect and monitor concurrently and continuously at least 15 different chemical and physical parameters. For a plant, a centralized neurological control center (such as a human brain) doesn’t make much sense because a predator—a grazing deer or lawn mower—could easily chop it off. So instead, this decentralized intelligence scattered throughout the roots works as a very effective survival strategy; a plant can persist when even 90 percent of its root tips are clipped.
Not only do plants engage in neuron-like activity and movement, they make mathematical computations, see us and, like animals that act altruistically, show kindness toward their relatives. They are able to recognize themselves and communicate with animals and other plants via alluring airborne fragrances and a diverse repertoire of chemical compounds exuded through their roots.’

You can read more of her postulations here:

The accompanying collage is of the mangoes hanging outside my window at this very moment. I can actually reach out and pluck mangoes for an instant maangai uppu pisiri or a sweet and sour chutney. I never have to buy kairies from the market. This tree was planted by Lad uncle 30-40 years ago. Does the seed remember the act of the man, in this case Lad uncle, who planted the tree, nourished the soil, protected the sapling in in its vulnerable, formative years? I believe the tree does. One winter Lad uncle unexpectedly died in the faraway America, a crushing blow for all of us who knew the affable, large-hearted gentleman. Apparently the tree somehow found out. That year, the otherwise healthy tree in the prime of its years, didn’t fruit. Nor the next. Nor the next. Nor the next. For 4 years the tree stood quiescent in honour of the man who had dreamt of the potential of the tree in the seed. Eventually like all of us, who survive the loss of a loved one and gradually begin to experience a new normal, the tree began flowering and fruiting again. Today, unless the family calls in a professional to harvest the fruit, we are the only direct beneficiaries of the largesse of Lad uncle and his tree. Similarly, the Moringa tree outside of another window was planted by Saldanha aunty, every year, we reap a harvest of Shengas of close to 10 kgs by literally stretching our hands out and plucking the pods. When Kid 1 was suffering from chronic anaemia it is the leaves of this Moringa tree that nourished her back to health.

It is the ultimate act of selfless generosity then, to plant a tree. Also the most extreme act of idealism, to believe in a future that doesn’t yet exist.

2 thoughts on “The People Tree

  1. First of all, please give this mango tree a big hug from me 🙂 And one to the moringa too … he knows how much I love him.
    You know Hema, I’d feel terribly annoyed – I still do, when people serve moringa sambar and rice and place a damn fork and spoon next to the plate not so subtly hinting that I must not with my fingers. The joy of eating a mango with its sticky juice trailing down my hand as I bite into it skin and all is really something else. Like you say, I wonder too about our tastes being kale-red?!

    Liked by 1 person

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