Sniffing out Jackfruit Stories

February 11, 2017 / Deepak Srinivasan

” How and why would urban cultures connect to the natural world, in this time and age of uber-urbanism, heightened technology and elevated living standards?”, I wondered to myself as Neralu 2017 tree walks began this weekend for schools and young audiences. I was at the Lalbagh walk led by T.S Srinivasa, a naturalist, and a group of High School girls from RV public school. “What kind of a true relationship can young people build with trees at a time like this?”

Srinivasa began with some questions and comments about Lalbagh and its history.

“58 years old!”, replied a confident student and another just as confident said, “300!”, on being asked how old Lalbagh really was.

“Hyder Ali”, said another tentatively, responding to a  “Who laid out these Lalbaghs?” question.

Whether you like it or not, the outdoors teach you that everything is integrated. You may choose to focus only on the botanical but historic content and the geography will creep in. Then there’s belief, myth, culture, maybe math, some physics and more. One can hardly walk through a bunch of trees in Lalbagh without being overwhelmed in a good way by the journeys tree conversations take. As we walked, there were occasions to stop, pause, look and know a bit more about trees and their stories

As we ambled and rambled through the lawns, Lalbagh was at once, the visualisation of a general-turned-ruler Hyder’s Islamic idea of Jannat , the British idea of leisure gardens, and German Krumbigiel’s Botanical showcase. Along with these stories, it was a modern Bangalorean runners’ park as much as a picnic spot for tourists. Our interactions created many sets of narratives that allowed one to remember, associate and recreate a new experience of Lalbagh.

Through conversations and challenges, the school students encountered information on different registers that I was curious about their take-home. Towards the end of the session as we sat in a circle, prodding the youngsters to remember a moment from the walk that stood out.

Amidst aggressive goading by their warden to give apt answers, shy and reticent, they said,

” …the camphor tree and how camphor was made then…but it is made with chemicals now..”

” Trumpet flowers…yellow…bell shaped..”

” …the bodhi tree, aralimaraa where the Buddha sat, and Shiva’s favourite, the bilva maraa …”

” …the kumkum berry tree that was used to make red Kumkuma dye…”

” The large elephant foot leaf from the tree…” (a Bahunia species vine climber)

Many other moments didn’t stand out. The tallest Cooke pine,  the coniferous collection, the Tabebuias for their

avenue and exotic geographies or Lalbagh’s overall history didn’t impress upon them. However, the was a popular tree in their memory and it was the jackfruit.

” Are trees dumb?” Srinivasa had asked them standing under a jackfruit canopy as he went on to share why jackfruit trees grew their prickly fruit on their barks.

” Bears, red bark, Buddhist monks, mrudangam, musical instruments!”  they choired, rembering many of Jackfruit’s stories.

Images! I thought. Stories that create images!  The stories about jackfruit trees had been relatable and created relevant cultural images that these students could appreciate.  From being able to detect the pollinator, a bear’s need to reach fruit (hence evolving to grow fruit on their bark), to going back in time when Safforn robes were first created by Buddha’s followers (long before being co-opted by Hinduism) by boiling cloth with jackfruit bark, to connecting musical instruments they knew to the Jackfruit’s bark-  these stories had created some impact. So much so that at a full-grown Fishtail palm tree, students were thumping the bark with their palms trying to hear it’s melody!

What do we thirst for in our urban cultures? We’re thirsting to relate to stories long forgotten, as we try to make sense of our short, but highly active human story on earth. As we develop afar from nature and lose relationships, we’re thirsting to find the lost moments in our story. Schools seem to have become anything but storytellers, though our young yearn for someone to weave stories for them.

Trees may be standing silently but their stories prove that they are anything but dumb. We might need new urban storytellers to team up with trees, who are our story-bearers. Can we retell stories of trees that weave together like a recast tapestry, which is relevant to our lives?

Let’s try.