As a child, I imagined I was the receiver of Nature’s secrets. I would sit for hours beside dirt-covered roots, bearing witness to the emotions rampaging through my green kingdom: the oorppam’s love talk with the sun-struck splendor of the kumbi tree growing nearby; the winter cherry’s envy of the sinuous hibiscus as it grew taller and more resplendent; the sadness of wilting jasmine leaves; the terror of a young cardamom tree as it felt the gnawing of caterpillars on its delicate leafy veins; a slender vine chortling its way up another tree; the determined vigor of a periwinkle; and leaves bidding goodbye as they fell crackling to the earth’s floor.
My father, a math teacher at St. Thomas Higher Secondary School, was visibly elated at my absorption and even encouraged it. I would notice him observing me as I dug up sickly looking shrubs with my stubby nails, inspected mud-encrusted roots for damage before re-planting, picked up drooping stalks to tie them to stronger limbed branches, or watered and moved the wet mud to aerate the soil. He waited patiently, indulgently, when I stopped to admire a new bud that burst through its tight shell at night. He consoled me when I burst into tears at the sight of a purple Bauhinia orchid plant crushed by the weight of a careless foot. I overheard him remark to my mother that he noticed plants reacting to me, shifting subtly, very slightly, in recognition as I walked by.
When I turned eight, my father planted three Ashoka saplings. These three, he told me, were reminders of my three siblings who had died during childbirth. He charged me with the responsibility of taking care of the trees.
I fell to the task eagerly. Measuring their height, width, and the number of leaves that appeared in close symmetry as they grew. I observed the orderly arrangement of leaves, the nodes from which pairs of leaves appeared, the even distribution of nodules along a branch, the slow thickening of stems, and the texture of the soil from which the plants extruded. When blossoms appeared like tubes that opened into four oval lobes with sticklike stamens, half white, half crimson, they looked like petals, but I knew, even as a child, that they weren’t.
And later, when the first cluster of flowers appeared, I was spellbound. I gathered then why the Ashoka tree was called the Sorrowless Tree. There was no room for anything other than joy around its beauty and majesty. Those first flowers were a tender yellow initially, and then changed to orange, and finally to the color of a vibrant flame, illuminating the soul of the tree. The flowers emitted a sweet-smelling fragrance at night, and I often slipped from my bed and bent to the flowers under the glittering gaze of the stars. If I stood close enough, the vibrating wings of bees sent an electric charge through the petals that tingled right in the marrow of my bones.
Stories told about the Ashoka tree were fascinating. It was this tree under which Buddha was born. It was beneath the Ashoka tree that Sita, the wife of Rama, was kept prisoner. It was upon the branch of this tree that Hanuman landed. It was the Ashoka tree that Kama, the god of love, imbued with special meaning. It was a branch of the Ashoka tree that Draupadi placed upon Arjuna’s shoulders when she accepted him for husband. It was the tree that housed a thousand birds, that provided shade for weary travelers, and drove away evil spirits. It was the tree that never died.
Every time my mother raised objections about my unkempt appearance, my father told her to be patient, for I would certainly outgrow this obsession.
When I turned twelve, my father presented me with a copy of Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants. He had once mentioned my fascination to the principal of his school, a London-educated man. As my father was heading home one afternoon, the principal thrust the book into his hands. He told my father that the book was lying unread and unused. “That’s a lonely life for a book,” the principal had said, and retold in my father’s deep voice, the phrase had stuck ever since.
The book put words and meaning to my passion. With my limited exposure to the English language, I struggled through the descriptions as I pored over each of the eighty-two illustrated plates. Some evenings the principal would drop by, and we would read sections and chapters aloud to each other. I became more and more fluent in reading and speaking English.
On my thirteenth birthday, my father bought me The Florist’s Manual, or Hints for the Construction of a Gay Flower Garden, by Maria Elizabeth Jackson, with directions for preventing the depredations of insects. On my fourteenth birthday, he gave me Gray’s Manual of Botany; on my fifteenth birthday, Indian Botany by Daniel Oliver, and when I turned sixteen, a collection of papers and treatises written by Janaki Ammal, a Tellicherry woman who had become a well-known botanist.
I cleared a small patch at the back of the house and planted beans, jackfruit, papaya, and tomatoes. I added rice paddy and wheat, following up with coconut, rubber, tapioca, and then finally pretty flowers and shrubs. I watched, observed, and referred to the books as I investigated births, deaths, and biological differences between the species of weeds, shrubs, roots, vegetables, flowers, and seeds in my garden.
Then, a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday, just as I had begun to fathom the mysterious beauty of fragile roots and the massive trees that they supported, my mother informed me gravely that I had become a woman. I wasn’t sure what that meant. But I was soon to find out.
Returning from school a few days later, I was confronted by a scene of total carnage. All three of my Ashokas had been destroyed, hacked to bits, reduced to stumps. The branches and trunks lay scattered, waiting to be gathered and discarded, like common debris. My mother had hired a field worker to cut them down.
It felt like a hurricane had ripped through my body, slinging its debris at me. A thousand needles stabbed at my throat as I stared at the slaughter that day. A tortured whimper left my throat, snaking through and closing the airway to my lungs. I opened and closed my mouth, gasping for air. I recall that feeling of panic as though it had happened yesterday.
My mother, seeing my distress, came over and ran her hand consolingly over my hair. “Your obsession was unseemly, Leela,” she said in explanation. “I blame your father for encouraging you. Women like us don’t have the luxury for such indulgences. No man will want a woman obsessed with mud and leaves. You must ready yourself to become a wife. Don’t look so heartbroken, my child. I know it’s a disappointment, but we all must endure disappointments in life, don’t we, molé? That is what growing up means. They were mere trees, after all.”
At that moment, pity for my mother swamped me. I wanted to explain that the Ashokas had been more than mere trees; they’d been my soulmates. I met my mother’s eyes and tried to say the words aloud, but not a sound emerged.
From that day on, words lived in my throat but never found their way out. My tongue became dry, and sentences remained trapped within the maze of nerves, flesh, blood, and tissue.
My frantic parents consulted doctors in Kochi, Trivandrum, and even took the express train to Madras. The physicians and experts were puzzled by my muteness. There was no physical evidence for this strange loss of speech.
My mother was convinced that I was punishing her for cutting down the Ashoka trees and often beseeched me to speak, but I found myself unable to move my jaw to utter a single word, even in consolation. I watched the worry lines deepen on my father’s face. I observed how anguish and remorse caused a tremble to my mother’s hands. And even when I felt the words hovering at the edge of my throat, waiting for the signal to be given, I was unable to oblige. The impulse to try gradually faded. Eventually, the house and its people settled around my silence.
“When I was a young girl, I dreamed of a daughter just like you,” Saara’s mother, Lissy, told her. “Beautiful and strong,” and her voice was whisper-soft and magic-sweet. Then she sat down on a chair, gathered Saara onto her lap, held her close to her chest, and sang a song Saara had heard her sing often. It was a song about a woman who went to meet her fisherman lover wearing hope in her eyes, love on her lips, and passion in her hair. When that lover didn't come home one evening, the woman waited at the shore. In that village, the song went, just as the boats came back home with the day's catch, the woman can often be spotted staring out at the distant horizon.
When Lissy disappeared, Saara asked her uncle Jochan to take her to the water's edge in Kochi. She waited by the rocks as the sun poured itself into the wide-mouthed, deep-throated sea.
And then, when Lissy’s body washed ashore, a few days later, it was taken to Kovaloor on a cart and placed in the middle of Jochan’s courtyard. Saara was not permitted to see her mother’s body till it was all dressed up and placed in a coffin decorated with one lighted candle and a crucifix. The parish priest, Father Xavier, offered prayers for Lissy. Saara thought the dead person in the coffin bore no resemblance to her mother.
Saara Eapen’s eleventh birthday came and went without notice or mention a week later.
William S. Lambert had once owned all the books in the library at Kovaloor. His inscription was there on the first page of many of them, a leisurely scrawl that took up the breadth of the page. The library was the size of a tiny room that could fit only eight people at a time. Sivan had heard the story of William Lambert’s daughter from Renji, the librarian.
Henrietta Lambert, according to Renji, had golden hair, eyes the color of storm clouds, and skin like the inside of a pearl shell. She lived with her father after her mother divorced William, declaring that the hot weather of India was not suitable for properly brought up women. Henrietta’s mother had subsequently married a viscount or some sort of lord. The girl had grown up in Kovaloor and fallen in love with Russool, a boy in her class. Knowing that consent was futile, the two of them had eloped. William Lambert commissioned the British army stationed in Ernakulam to find the couple.
Henrietta and Russool were in Madras when they’d been discovered. Russool had been charged with kidnapping a British minor and sentenced to fifteen years in an Australian prison. Henrietta cried and wept, pleading with her father to have her lover released. He refused, and in desperation, Henrietta cut her hair, stole some money, and ran away. Dressed as a boy, she boarded a steamer bound for Australia. But the steamer never made it to land, capsizing in the rough waters of the Indian Ocean.
In grief and sorrow, William S. Lambert packed up his belongings and departed for England, giving up his collection of precious books to the town with the condition that a librarian be appointed for the books. Renji was that custodian caretaker, reimbursed by the Henrietta Lambert grant that William had set up ten years ago. “The books add volume and character to Kovaloor,” Renji once told Sivan when he’d wanted to check out a book, as though Sivan would be sullying the character of the town with his grubby fingers.
Each book that Sivan borrowed from the library was carefully and painstakingly noted in the ledger with the name of the author, the title, the publication date, the borrower's name, date borrowed, and the relative condition of the book.
Sivan had counted 76 books in the library, but he suspected Renji hid some in a private drawer.
Sivan was allowed to borrow one book at a time. He tried persuading Renji to allow him to check out more books, given that he was one of only a handful who borrowed from the library regularly. But Renji's heavy eyebrows had drawn together in warning.
Teacher Marykutty, a history teacher at St. Anthony’s school, and Saara Eapen, a girl about a year younger than Sivan, whom he’d seen being driven around in a Morris Minor, had frequent ledger entries in their names just above or below his.
He once heard Teacher Marykutty argue with Renji about policing the books. She called him the Anglophile of Kovaloor, to which he’d laughed. “Is that an insult, Marykutty?”
“Sitting there guarding your books, as though it’s a real job. What will happen to you when the British leave, taking their books with them?” Marykutty asked, her face tight with disapproval.
“When the British leave, this country will fall into chaos. With Hindus and Muslims fighting each other, India will crumble like dust beneath your shoes.”
“We’ve lived for centuries before the British, and we’ll continue much the same,” Marykutty retorted, departing in a swish of clothes and a cloud of anger.
Sivan picked up The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck after reading the book’s inscription: “To my beloved daughter, Henrietta,” written in blue ink and a tidy hand.
From Appalone Punnoose
Viyyur Jail, India
Dated 12 February, 1944
Dear Mr. George Bernard Shaw,
I have read your works with great avidity. The messages in Man and Superman and Major Barbara are shattering in their immensity. I am born to India, a Syrian Catholic, and carry the name Appalone Punnoose. I am from Cochin, a green, verdant kingdom on the Malabar coast.
I have the distinction of having seen the insides of eight prisons in my motherland (and by no means is this a unique feat, for many of my comrades have seen this many and more), and I'm not ashamed to admit that each incarceration has made me more determined to pursue my goals, which, to my mind, loosely align with yours. India is an oppressed nation, and the only hope for its continuance and prosperity is through the ideals of equitable resource distribution.
"Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty." Your own words said by Undershaft, a character you created in your play Major Barbara, and never have I come across a more illuminating sentence. But what is poverty? The poverty that you know and I know are likely chasms apart, though each no less dismal.
Two years ago, I witnessed India's confusing poverty. In my travels to meet our national and regional leaders, I saw a series of images that are grafted indelibly on my brain. A beggar in Bengal, blind, with stumps at his knees, crawling along on the footpath near Esplanade, laughing with his girl companion at the toots of a car horn, a few short squeaks and a loud one, over and over again, sounding like the background rhythm of life as it sped by. A thirteen-year-old widow in Benares impassively staring out at her white-clad world, standing amid others like herself, husbandless, at the banks of our holiest river, the Ganges, a churning, roiling mass of people, corpses, and animals. An elephant mahout in Assam living in a leaky hut propped up with broken palm-leaf umbrellas as he lovingly runs his hands down the trunk of his elephant. A rice farmer in Bengal looking upward at the sky, hoping for the rain that never comes. The long lines outside a ration store in Bombay, the door shuttered and barred. An old woman sitting with her legs outstretched and her neck bowed, sleeping the sleep of the exhausted on Platform Number 3 at Madras Central Station.
The average debt of an agricultural family in Bengal in 1930 was Rupees 165, and the average yearly income about Rupees 110. So there we have it, the endless cycle of illiberty.
But why do I write to you of these? "Ought! Ought! Ought! Ought! Ought! Are you going to spend your life saying ought, like the rest of our moralists? Turn your oughts into shalls, man." Your words again. Prison has turned me into an ought moralist, and I can do naught about the injustices that I see. And let's not forget that I'm in prison for my shalls.
I used to be a landowner, having inherited the lands of my forefathers. I witnessed and perhaps contributed to the alienation of peasants from the process of production and hence from our society. I believe in mass organization, mass persuasion, mass education, and mass revolution. The only idealism that can dispel ignorance from the human realm is mass ideology. The only ray of light that can give a splinter of hope to the working squadrons is if they learn to understand the benefits of co-operative movements.
The colonial weather has turned unseasonal in India, and in contemplating the public personalities of the day, you are one of the few in the pantheon of visionaries who believes, as I do, that human nature, morality, spirituality, and economic movement have not dented the greed of governments and rulers.
I send this to you in the knowledge that your convictions and my convictions, while not exact replicas, still bear the substance of similarity, enough to render me to end this missive conveying much respect and regard.
Your most obliged fellow socialist