Jagadish Chandra Bose’s house, Mayapuri, Darjeeling

I have come here to learn a foreign language –
plants must have a mother tongue?
To the aborigines, the words for tree and house were the same.
And so this mountain house of Jagadish Chandra Bose.

It is easy to turn this into a folk tale,
to see the scientist reincarnated as a tree.
Like the seven brothers Champa?
But they were tortured; not Bose.
It is difficult to imagine a history of trees
without man in it. Man as tree, Tree as tale.

At Lloyd’s Botanical Garden in Darjeeling,
I look for immigrants, plants who travelled well,
those that might have been Bose’s muse –
‘Plants are living things’, the thought now textbook aphorism.
On my way uphill is the sacrifice of grass, the silence of soil.
Sometimes a different time zone – flowers are late risers.

I think of myths –
the forgetfulness of scientists,
jackfruit children, like Jamini Roy’s ‘mother and child’,
gechho bhoot, ghosts of Bengali trees,
the absent-mindedness of seasonal plants . . .

Do these conifers remember Bose?
Or the moss on walls, the punishment for waiting?

In Bose’s sparse living room, the window is a mirror.
Cleanliness has done it great violence,
the grass is now green only on the other side.
Not a pot or vase in the wooden house.
I choke on my surprise – a crematorium grows inside me.

Botany is only a history of the personality of plants.


Shakti Chattopadhyay’s house, Baharu, South 24 Parganas

‘Are you General or Scheduled Caste?’
This is a question put to a betel nut tree in Baharu.
Shakti Chattopadhyay might have asked that question,
but would he inscribe it on the tree trunk like an insecure lover,
making the bark a government census roll?

Instead of Shakti’s green room, I see red –
the soil’s blood congealed into the orange flowers of Krishnachura,
the tree a leech sucking the earth’s haemoglobin.
The fields in Baharu are a morgue every morning;
the sweeper deposits flower corpses in the earth’s mass coffin.
Near Shakti’s old house, the leaves move like flags,
like a bad mood, against the direction of thought.

Shakti knew the xenophobia caused by trees
in human spaces – beds, buses, bathrooms.
I suddenly spot trees that look suicidal,
those that Shakti might have scolded.
‘Does the garden know every plant in it?’
he asked in that famous poem, you remember?

As I board the bus, I think of life insurance policies
that the drunken poet might have bought for these trees.
Later, in the parks, I only see decapitated shrubs,
green Kanishkas standing on bulldozed grass.

Every tree is a folk tale.
Only some shed their morals like leaves.


Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya

Here you can come without brushing your teeth –
the Buddha and the fig tree have never needed toothbrushes.

The myths that surround places are like ambulance sirens –
patients, pilgrims and tourists are all the same.

One comes to trees to escape the pornography of waiting.
There must be something about sitting under a tree,
in the bandaged conflation between shade and shadow.
Other men chose exile in the forest, vanwas
Rama, the five Pandava brothers, their wives.
Only Siddhartha came to a solitary tree, to escape desire.
A forest is a hiding place, where men compete with trees.
So Gautama stopped walking and closed his eyes.
The uselessness of eyes, of legs, of combs, of words –
all this the Buddha learned from this tree.

Today, only bombs are living Buddhas.
When one went off in Gaya, everyone ran,
everyone except the trees.
For death also demands walking.

Now, after the fret of flowering,
I only seek the tree’s heart.
Guns are seedless fruits,
the gardens full of traitor trees.
Now I am free.
Only I know that the tree is Buddha.
And that the Buddha was a tree.


Cover image courtesy of Danny Englander

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