Prophets of the Palms

Ratna Raman Delhi

Prophets are mostly tuned in to their environment. The Buddha  attained salvation under a  shady Bodhi tree and generations after, loyal monks carried replicas of the Bodhi tree in pots, venerating it as the tree of salvation. Arguably, the art of bonsai growing was an offshoot of such extensively cultivated devotion. Yet, once in a while, leaders of the life spiritual do direct their deep disapproval at specific trees.

There is a species of fig that Christ supposedly cursed with centuries of sterility because, when he rested under it and sought fruit, the unfortunate tree had none to offer.  Closer home, Kabir’s doha on the date palm is disturbingly dismissive:

Bada hua to kya hua jaise ped khajoor

Panthi ko chaya nahi, phal lage ati duur. (It is useless to come of age if your attributes are like those of the full grown date palm which despite its height, provides no shade to the wayfarer and has inaccessible fruit.)

This diatribe on the khajoor while damning the hapless tree is intended to propel self-centred humans towards larger social concerns. Yet, to make an example of either the ficus tree or the date palm can only be a logical fallacy. The ficus provides food across species in season. The date palm uses resources very sparingly and the nutrition-packed date fruit has been sustaining desert civilisations since time immemorial.

Since the finest and juiciest dates in the world grow in the Middle East, and often on dwarf trees, Kabir’s homily was possibly directed at the Indian date palm which bears rather ordinary fruit in comparison to its more exotic, succulent cousins of Central Asia and the Middle East.

Kabir’s pithy homily notwithstanding, Indians use the date in a variety of ways. The dried date fruit (chuaara) is used to flavour hot milk on cold winter evenings. Hot milk with dates and chopped nuts forms the proverbial sone pe suhaga at traditional weddings in North India. Dates are used in chutneys, pickles, pancakes, holiges, Indian breads and cakes. The most delicious product India crafts out of dates iskhajoori gur and West Bengal is the primary melting pot for its production.

Called date jaggery in English, khajoori gur (khejur-er gur in Bengali) tastes fabulous both as a standalone food and in a variety of milk combinations such as sandesh, payash and nutan gur laddoos. In Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park market, thisjaggerycan be found a little after Diwali and until the arrival of spring. This limited supply disappears off the shelves much in the manner of contraband.

The coconut and the palmfruit (nongu), other exotic fruit of the palm, find little mention possibly because Kabir never set eyes on these variations of the palm which inhabit the coastal regions of South India.   Both varieties have never had any roots in Uttar Pradesh in the Hindi heartland, which marked the ambit of Kabir’s journeys. The palmfruit is a refreshing fruit and is eaten along the coastal cities of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra, but the palm par exemplum is the coconut, without doubt the most significant green on the planet.

We could claim the coconut as one of our very own considering the extensive use of every part of this palm: fruit, husk, shell, leaves and trunk by people in India. Truth be told, the coconut palm is the eternal voyager among the botanical species. It has been navigating the seas from coast to coast and setting roots in salubrious sandy soil.

Coconut palms probably grew first along the Malay coast before they plunged into lives of adventure all along the Indian and Pacific Ocean. An extraordinary natural programming allowed the coconut to seek out areas of high humidity and temperatures that ranged between 20-26 degrees celsius. Fairly eclectic and easy going, the coconut palm lives in places of its own choosing although its fruit has played a formidable role in the history of civilisation.

Human desire to drink coconut water and eat succulent coconut pulp   was the catalytic factor that propelled us out of the stone age into the inventive age of iron, thereby furthering the progress of the human race. Only when stone age man forged implements of iron could he approximate to the conquest of the coconut. Only then did the spherical world symbolised by the coconut move closer to his grasp.

We learnt about elaneer or tender coconut water, when we travelled from the northern plains to parts of South India. Heaps of tender green coconuts stockpiled under shady trees were a common sight along innumerable city and town roads. We would stop, hot and thirsty, beside a mound of green coconuts and order elaneer. The man serving coconuts lopped off the top, creating an aperture with his scythe. A straw was popped in and a freshly unpackaged deliciously cool beverage was handed over.

Once in a while the green coconut would also have coconut flesh. The scythe would then slash out spatula- like wedges from the green shell which were very efficient in scraping out the soft quivering coconut meat. The wedges did double duty as spoons while we greedily savoured the delicious quivering white cream, yet to solidify into ceremonial whiteness.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012