The Great Banyan Tree

January 10th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, India 2 Comments »


I love December in Calcutta. It is a cool, pleasant month that I associate with childhood memories of picnics, and visits to the horticultural gardens or the zoo without fear of broiling in the hot, tropical sun.

It had been many years since I had spent a winter in Calcutta; in fact, ever since the children can remember we have always visited Calcutta in the hot, humid monsoon months of July or August, or during the beginning heat of April, seasons when outdoor activity is limited by the sun. Our visit this last December to Calcutta seemed like a bonus, a chance to show my husband and my children facets of my beloved city that they had never seen before.

Bamboo grove, Botanical Gardens, CalcuttaSo, one morning, we piled into the car and drove off to the Botanics, as the Gardens are locally called.

The Gardens are quiet and well maintained; herons and kingfishers flash white and blue along lily-covered ponds and pukurs, and groves of palms and bamboo line the long, straight paths. We walk along the river path - a wire fence separates the Gardens from the river.

The Hooghly here is very wide, deep and placid; a soft haze blurs the harsh lines of the factories and warehouses on its far bank.

We stop to photograph a cormorant sunning itself on a dead branch in the middle of a pond, but our camera is not powerful enough to capture the bird in its full glory.

Giant Amazon lily, Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

We walk on and stop in amazement at the sight of the giant Amazonian lilies - the lily pads cover the pond like giant trays and seem big enough and strong enough to support Vipasha, though, of course, we discourage her from all such experimentation!

We keep walking - the sun is high in the sky now, and the children are beginning to feel hot and uncomfortable.

We haven’t yet seen the glory of the Gardens, its most famous sight, the Great Banyan Tree. 

We follow the signs for the banyan tree, and get hopelessly lost. At last, after more walking, and clever deciphering of some rather confusing and complicated signage, we see the Great Banyan Tree ahead of us.

the Great Banyan Tree, viewed from a distance,  Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

The first sight of the tree is impressive, a sight not to be forgotten. From a distance, it looks like a small forest, and it is hard to believe that what we are looking at could be a single tree.

the Great Banyan Tree,trunks and aerial roots, Botanical Gardens, Calcutta

The children are sceptical and disbelieving;  but as we come closer we see the aerial roots, the hundreds of trunks, and the intertwining branches of the great tree.

We walk with reverence into that strange forest of roots and trunks.  I understand now why banyan trees are said to be the favoured haunts of ghosts and goblins, of vetaal and pishach.

A sign gives the following information about the tree in English, Hindi and Bengali:

the Great Banyan Tree,trunks and aerial roots, Botanical Gardens, CalcuttaThe Great Banyan Tree draws more visitors to the garden than its exotic collection of plants from five continents, the plant houses, or the special gardens of bamboos, palms, succulents etc. Botanically known as  Ficus Benghalensis L., and belonging to the family Moraceae, the tree is a native of India. The fruit is like a small fig but is not edible and is red when ripe. This tree is over 250 years old and in spread it is the largest known in India, perhaps in Asia. There is no clear history of the tree as to the time of planting etc but it is mentioned in some travel books of the nineteenth century. It was damaged by two great cyclones, 1864 and 1867, when some of its main branches were broken exposing it to the attack of a hard fungus. With its large number of aerial roots which grow from the branches and run vertically to the ground and look like so many trunks, the Great Banyan looks more like a forest than an individual tree. Interestingly enough, the tree now lives in perfect vigour without its main trunk, which decayed and had to be removed in 1925. The circumference of the original trunk at 1.7 m from the ground was 15.7 m. The area occupied by the tree is about 14428.44 sq.m. The present crown of the tree has a circumference of 450m. and the highest branch rises to 24.5 m. It has at present 2880 aerial roots reaching down to the ground.

The sign is dated 21.02. 2005.

It is difficult to find the words to describe the Great Banyan adequately. So let me not write any more, but hope instead that all those who read this will one day be able to see this marvellous tree for themselves.

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‘Knives to grind…’

June 23rd, 2008 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, Children's Literature, India, London, Mumbai No Comments »


Memory, how it works, and  why it works the way it does, is a mystery that no one has solved yet. Why do we remember some people and not others? How is it that we can recall some events with complete clarity and some events not at all? Colours, textures, even the smells of certain moments stay with us forever -  consciously, so that we can recall them at will, or subconsciously, so that a sudden trigger brings flooding into our minds, people, places and events we thought we had forgotten.

This morning, as I pottered around the house, fixing breakfast for the children, hanging out the washing, making a cup of tea for myself, I thought, suddenly and for no apparent reason at all, of the old guava-seller who used to be a regular feature of my winter holidays.

The old man would turn up on our doorstep, a basket of green and yellow guavas balanced on his head. To my seven-year-old eyes, he looked really really old, though perhaps he wasn’t much older than sixty at the time. He would be dressed in a dusty, white dhoti and kurta; he had wispy grey hair and untidy whiskers, and wore a pair of round spectacles with lenses so thick that they seemed opaque. He would cut the fruit into quarters, and sprinkle it with a black masala that gave off a sharp, pungent, but oh! such a delicious smell. If it turned out that the guava was a deep pink inside, and sweet, I would be delighted - for that was my favourite kind of guava. If the guava turned out to be ordinary, boring white inside, then my mother would admonish him, and insist that next time, he must bring the pink ones.

Steam-of-consciousness style, this memory triggered off thoughts and more memories of the other, itinerant pedlars who would come to our door or call their wares on the streets of my childhood. There was the potter, balancing an amazing number of earthern pots on his head, pots that would keep our drinking water cool in the hot summer months and flavour it with the taste and smell of clay. There was the knife-grinder, who would carry off all the kitchen knives to be sharpened, and return them an hour later, their edges gleaming. And the balloonwala, with his bright yellow, pink, blue and orange balloons bobbing along behind him. He would call to the children, Pied-Piper fashion, by blowing on a shrill, squeaky whistle, and when enough of us had gathered round, delight us with the strange four-legged beasts he fashioned out of thin, tube-like balloons that he bent and twisted as he pleased without them popping.

But my favourite was the kalaiwala, the man who came to ‘galvanise’ the kitchen pots and karahis. With a puff of his bellows and a sizzle and a hiss, he would turn the old, beaten, copper vessels, into shining silver ones. It was the closest thing to alchemy that I have seen.

Though I no longer see the kalaiwala, or hear the whirring of the knifegrinder’s wheel that often, I know that should I need them, I will still be able to find them, in a corner of some busy market, or down a narrow lane or gully in the older parts of India’s megacities where the past continues to exist quite regardless of the present.

Some vendors and their trades continue to flourish even into the modern way of life. The vegetable-vendor, the flower-seller, the milkman, the bread-wala, and the green coconut-seller continued to be regular visitors to my flat in Mumbai many years later. With a small child and a household to run, I was deeply grateful for the service and convenience these vendors provided.

When I moved to London, I moved fully prepared to face a life quite empty of such luxuries. ‘You’ll miss this service in London,’ friends had warned. ‘Nobody brings anything to your front door there.’

They were wrong - I get fresh milk delivered to my doorstep every day, and groceries as often as I like.

And, along with the convenient, I also get the exotic - the knifegrinder (yes, here too!) who asks ‘Need anything sharpened, luv?’; the fishmonger who offers me fresh fish and goes away shaking his head at my incomprehensible, vegetarian ways; and strangest of all, a few weeks ago, a smartly-dressed, middle-aged woman selling - manure!

Yes, manure. For my garden. At £2.50 a bag, knocked down from £6.50, an offer I should not refuse. When I do refuse, she points out that it will help to break up the clay in my garden, and ‘besides, all your neighbours ‘ave bought some.’ When I still hesitate, she hands me her business card. ‘A’right then,’ she says, ‘that’s me number there. Ring me if yer change yer mind. Anyway, I’ll be back in the autumn.’

Of course, such exotic visitors are few and far between.

Street vendors and itinerant pedlars had once livened the streets of London much as they had enlivened the streets of my childhood. They disappeared with the coming of the twentieth century.

Fortunately, in London too, the past continues to exist into the present - though in a different format. If one searches for them, the street vendors of London can still be found preserved in miniature books that consist of pictures of the various street-sellers with their cries printed beneath, and a verse describing them. The criers call out such wares as muffins, hot chestnuts, fresh herrings, eels, strawberries, cherries, primroses, matches, and newly-printed ballads. There are also pictures of knifegrinders, milkmaids, and chimney sweeps with their boys.

These books came to be known as the Cries of London. Most of these books were published between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, and many of them were for children.

London Cries are also mentioned in the fifteenth century poem, ‘London Lickpenny’(written perhaps by John Lydgate):

Hot pescodes, one began to cry,
Straberry ripe, and cherryes in the ryse;
One bad me come here and buy some spyce.

The Cries of London are available today - as prints, and posters, online on ebay or with specialist websites, and with rare books sellers.

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‘Tis the night before Christmas

December 24th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in Calcutta, Christmas, India No Comments »


…and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even Alfie, the school hamster, on his annual visit to us over the Christmas holidays. It is very still and very quiet; the only sound is that of the tapping of the keys on my keyboard, and an occasional grunt from the central heating. Outside my window, the streetlamp shines yellow through the thickening fog. There is not a soul in sight, not a man, not a woman, not a child. Not even a cat, not even a fox, not even a bat. Perhaps, if I stay very quiet, I’ll hear the bells on Santa’s reindeer - the thought comes unbidden to my mind, and I have to stop myself from peering hopefully up into the sky.

I don’t celebrate Christmas any more, not since I grew up, not since I moved to London. I do not like the cold and the damp dark of winter, the sunless days, the foggy nights. The frenetic activity that accompanies the ‘silly season’ wears me out, and all I want to do is snuggle into a burrow of blankets and hibernate the winter away, till sun and warmth return once more.

So, why am I checking the sky for Santa, I ask myself?

Because my children do, even though they’re ‘all growed up’? Because I love the sound of sleigh bells? Because I like the idea of an old man in a red suit and white beard flying through the night, with a sackful of toys for the world’s children? Or because I’ve always waited for Santa, ever since I was a child myself, and some things do not change?

Christmas for me was not always so dull. I grew up in Calcutta, a city that celebrates all festivals with great enthusiasm and good cheer. Christmas, I remember, was no exception. The city would break out into a glad frenzy of music and dance and theatre, of late nights and good food, and chocolates and cakes and presents wrapped in pretty red paper. The central circle in New Market would be full of fake Christmas trees of all sizes, covered with tinsel and cottonwool snow. Tiny cottonwool Santas with long beards and floppy red hats would be on sale, to be bought individually or by the box.

The Midnight Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral, or even in my school chapel, would be thronged not only by members of the Christian community, but by Calcuttans belonging to all religious communities. We’d wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same joy that we wished each other ‘Shubho Bijoya’ or ‘Id Mubarak.’

The last time I spent Christmas in Calcutta was twenty years ago. I don’t know if those fake trees and cottonwool Santas are still being sold in New Market, and whether Park Street is still lit up the way it used to be when I was small. I hear though, that the Calcutta spirit is still alive, and that Calcuttans of all shapes, sizes and religious hues still wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with the same glad happiness of my childhood. In a world that is becoming more and more divided by religion every day, it is reassuring to know that the spirit of secularism has not died out entirely.

I know that there is no Santa, no reindeers flying through a starlit sky, and that if I look out of my window again, I will see only swirling fog. But I do know that good wishes there are in plenty - for peace on earth and good will to all.

So - Merry Christmas, everyone!

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