No 150 - 1997
The coconut tree shoots up tall and straight, with a cluster of emerald green fruit under a crown of finely tapered, swordlike, double-bladed leaves.
I can see myself standing in the flat, wet ricefields of my Kerala ancestral village. I can feel the dark vertebrae of the coconut tree straighten in my own spine, as memory bubbles buzz in my head. Up there, the leaves become steel fan blades. A helicopter lifts me from the soft wet-lands, the lazy backwaters, whirring eyes looking and remembering.
They assemble below me to be judged. Tamarind tree, mango tree, jackfruit tree. Flesh tree, juice tree, untouchable. We give the trees caste names to keep them apart. Flesh, with thick armour, warrior tree, battalion brown, warrior. Trader, sweet, bargaining with tongues, juice which can be squeezed and dried and stored. Spiky, untouchable, jackfruit.
I used to have many dreams, fantasies, even flights into space as an astronaut piloting a coconut tree. Until Keshavan taught me to climb it. Keshavan, the boatman’s son, low caste, untouchable, my constant daytime companion, flight steward, co-adventurer, whenever I came back home to Kerala.
Of course, I never told my father I climbed the coconut tree with him that was peasant territory.
Keshavan was about a foot smaller than me to be my equal. He was quickfooted, lithe, black, straight as a rod. A small head. Narrow forehead. This made him a little taller than me. He climbed the coconut tree folding his feet together, soles touching, toes spread, with a coconut fibre ring around his ankles. Holding the trunk with his hands he frog-hopped up the trunk, and the coconut tree no longer seemed to have its head in the sky, talking to the clouds. It seemed to lie flat on the ground.
I rose above the other trees. I could hear them shout.
Tamarind tree: “You won’t go far. I am the flesh you need. I am bitter sweet. Without me food cannot be preserved. On my branches cheetahs hide, and leap. They only leap at virgins. I fruit in the driest season. I camouflage in green. Inside me, a black nut. Hard. Ruthless. Cold. As my flesh is warm.”
Mango tree: “Sweet me. I store the sun. I make juice of its gold. Everyone needs me on their tongue. If you bargain with me I turn sour. If you pluck me when I’m still young I get bitter. I graft well. Robber birds peck me. I escape them by falling, and my seed grows. I grow in groves. I preserve myself well in dark, cold storage cellars. Best in tea-chests.”
Jackfruit tree: “I know I’m ugly. Like a hedgehog. I persevere. I stay head bowed as long as I can. I work inside myself. My sap protects me. You need oil on your palms to touch me. My fruit stands in rows. I cook raw. I am best eaten ripe. I smell like sperm. My nuts roast like meat.”
So, the coconut tree said to itself, shall I answer them? And thunder answered, “Yes, now, teach them, educate them, and keep them in their places. They have to serve man. You must serve god.”
Coconut tree asked thunder: “And what I speak, will it be written?”
Thunder replied: “On your own leaves when they are dried by the sun, with lightning tips. Speak, your words will dance in the air long after they have served their purpose.”
Coconut tree came down to earth. Hovered a little above ground.
It said: “I am like the earth itself, nor round, nor square. I was made to fly in space, rocket shaped. Yet, I was not launched. I have as many layers as the earth itself. Outside, I am green, and yellow, change with the seasons. Then comes fibre, protective armour, woven into a shield, impenetrable and yet so pliable it can be twisted into rope, rope to hang yourself, to pull dead wood, to make baskets better than cane, to anchor boats or tie around an elephant’s foot. Then I am shell. To burn, to make cups for drinking, to be painted or carved into masks. Then comes my flesh, the nut, wet and white, so many layers, drenched with oil, firm yet flaky, multi-purpose food for both humans and animals, flesh silky soft at birth and growing generous with age. And, then again, inside the flesh, or covered by the flesh, the sound of my milk, oceans sweet and everfresh, cool. I do not grow from seed. I am planted whole. Horoscopes are written on my leaves. Houses are built with my stalk. When I am old I am used to bind the telegraph wires. I am rolled between bride and bridegroom at weddings. No one climbs me except the untouchables. Yet, I am the Brahmin of all trees. I can be used for oil, animal feed, in temple worship, to slake thirst, cooking, building huts and burning the dead. I have three eyes, one more than given to man.
My first fantasy about the coconut tree was that with the use of Brahmin mantras I had planted one that grew no higher than my father. So that the coconuts were within reach of my hands. And I didn’t have to watch my friend Keshavan disappear above my head in a whirlpool of leaves, and then feel the fruit drop like boulders in a landslide all around me. Nor then would I need to lie to my father that I had not tried to climb the coconut tree. And Keshavan and I would have more time for swimming in the river and boating.
I had an exhilarating dream a bad year when there was no rain. My uncles sulked and brooded. My aunts hid the best titbits, fried banana, and jackfruit, even coffee, and sugar, said the cows were dry. There simply wasn’t enough for us to eat. One morning there was a bitter quarrel, about which children should get some milk. I slipped away with Keshavan into the parched fields.
As I walked with my head bowed down, I dreamed a powerful dream. “You see, Keshava, you see the rains don’t fall because the skies need cleaning. There is a blockage up there.”
“Blockage in the sky?” he laughed.
“Cobwebs,” I said.
“There are cobwebs in your head,” he taunted.
“You peasant idiot, what do you know? You live in a thatched hut, thatched with coconut leaves, not like me, in a strong old house of stone and brick and a slate roof, dark and cool. You have never seen cobwebs.”
“That’s true,” he said, slipping quickly into a deferential tone, “there are no cobwebs in our hut. On top, swami,” he said, respectfully recognising my Brahmin caste, “On top we have dried crackling leaves. Through that, we get rain and sun. No cobwebs.”
I loved Keshavan too much to let him wallow in his peasant deprivation of cobwebs. “You get cool breeze. But, in our house there are cobwebs in the dark corners of the ceiling, spiders, beetles, and bed bugs, too.”
So I told Keshavan my most hair-raising coconut dream. I told him that I had put all the trees together, end to end, and tied them with rope to make a pole that reached the skies. At the end of the pole I had made a huge, round brush, with cloth, not just bristles, and with this I was going to clean the skies of all its cobwebs so that the rain could come bursting through.
Keshavan was full of admiration. “You can do that?”
“Yes, Keshava, I can do it. I am a Brahmin and my mantras are powerful.”
“One day, swami, will you teach me those mantras, so that I can do it, too. I will make it rain whenever our people want it.”
“You peasant fool, you son of a pig, I cannot teach you,” I said sadly.
“Because, you dung-head, because you will make it rain all the time, that’s why. You have water in your head.”
His eyes lit up. “Yes, swami, you are right. You are wise because you are a Brahmin.”
That day I walked with my head down, not lifting it even when I heard the occasional bus coming, or when the dust filled my nose, eyes and ears. About half a mile from the school to which I was headed, where the road climbs up to town, I saw, at the foot of the hill on which the town stands, dozens of barebodied men working. I put my school bag around my neck, instead of swinging it in my hand. Dead coconut trees were being carried and being laid flat on each side of the road, like pipes, at regular distances, measured by a clerk with a tape. In between these poles of dead wood, there were small rolls of wire, almost like coconuts covered with silver polish.
I could hear the clerk shout, the men replying, “hi, ho”, lifting the coconut poles and digging them into the sides of the road. I forgot about Keshavan by my side. I knew what was going on. They were putting up the first telegraph poles so that we could receive and send BIG messages to the world.
I ran all the way up the hill to school. Keshavan dropped back to watch.
My English teacher saw me running and seemed surprised because, being the best student in his class, perhaps in the whole of Kerala State, I usually strolled in with casual, even impertinent, laziness.
“What’s this? Swami is in a hurry today.” The “swami” was sarcastic. I was his pupil. He was my teacher. A teacher doesn’t address his pupil as swami. It was what we call, sugar-caning, beating with sweetness. It didn’t break my confidence.
“I have decided,” I said, “I have decided today to be a writer.”
“A writer?” He looked at me as if I was an outcaste. “Well, of course, my boy, you are the best English student we have ever had, or will ever have.” Then, poking a knife-finger in my face, “But, swami, what kind of writer, eh? That’s the important thing. A writer of lies, a writer without any purpose, or a good Brahmin writer, truthful, a writer of some responsibility. What kind of writer? A dirty writer?”
My English teacher was always worrying about my dirty writing, because he had once caught me out, immersed in the big dictionary in the school library, and copying into a small notebook, dirty words, like, arse, bum, bugger, coitus, copulation, fornication, penis, vagina. He tore my notebook into shreds. He talked to me for hours about a Brahmin’s duty towards the goddess of learning, Saraswathi. Then he made me write an essay, to purify myself, he said, ‘The sacred word is the sacred thread”.
“So,” he said with a cruel glint in his eye, “A dirty writer? To bring disgrace to your ancestors, family, gods, your...your...” When he got angry he stammered. He shook and slapped his chest. Finally, he beat his forehead with his palms, and brought it out, “Your English teacher?”
I really liked the English teacher, although he was the ugliest teacher we had. He had a wonderful voice, and when he spoke it could thunder, rain butterflies, sound like the sea, make me want to dance, sneak into my bones, send shivers down my spine, make my hair stand on end, and more.
So I answered, cool, no longer breathless, “No, sir.” I looked him in the eye. In my confidence, I knew, would lie his own salvation. Master, pupil. Teacher, student. Bound by the word. “No, sir, I will write words for the coconut tree to carry.”
“Words for the coconut tree to carry?” For all his cunning, cruelty, he had never raised his hand. He stepped back, measuring the distance between us, raised his right hand. It remained raised like that, for a minute. Then the school bell rang. He dropped it, remembering his own responsibility, I suppose. He smacked his own forehead, hard, and went into class, me following him.
In my dream, Keshavan, I knew what I was saying.
I will write words, to send you from those big cities, from Bombay, and across the seas, from the cities of the West, the cities where they mint these coins of words called English, I will write in telegrams, boatman’s son, I will write words to dance on telegraph wires that stretch from coconut tree to coconut tree, to drop at your feet.
I dreamed that we were flying in the helicopter coconut tree together.
I dreamed that when the helicopter came down to earth and the dust flew all around us, he was as white as coconut kernel and me as brown as its shell and that between us there was the gurgling noise of sweet water.
Victor Anant comes from Kerala and now divides his time between London, Galicia and Karachi. He has worked for the UN in Africa and New York. Journalist and novelist, his latest book is Sacred Crow (Penguin Books). He is currently writing A Passport to Paddington?
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