Reading Tree Memories by
By Salil | Issue No.2 Journeys | |

Tree Memories

Damodar Mauzo

(As told to José Lourenço and Salil Chaturvedi; translated from Konkani by José Lourenço)

Damodar Mauzo (Bhai), at his house in Majorda.

Can you see that chikoo tree there?

I would climb that tree and pluck ripe chikoos. Once you climb the chikoo tree, you can climb onto the roof tiles from the tree. I have even read books up there! As a child, my people wouldn’t let me read, they would force me to study, do my lessons. So I would read novels sitting on the roof, by climbing up the tree. That tree was very close to us.

If you just hop across the branch you can place your feet on the roof. So this chikoo has always been part of my life. I never felt it was a tree. I felt it was like an extension of my life body. Just like our bed, our room, our kitchen … that’s our tree. But to talk to a tree, that never struck me. But I occasionally saw our workers talking to the tree or my mother…my mother loved trees very much, she grew a large vegetable garden … unfortunately though I wanted to, I could not grow many trees …but we have quite a few … if any tree is not there, I go and get it.

The big one here is Chafo, Champa in Hindi. That yellow-coloured chafo, I don’t know what they call it in English, in Konkani it is called naagchafo or some call it sonchafo which is Marathi. The tall tree gets small yellow flowers called naagchafim. You get them in Margao, near Pimpalpedd, the women stand with puddi or plaited flowers, it has a nice fragrance. We didn’t have that until recently. I got that and planted it. Now we have Mango, Chafo, Jackfruit, Breadfruit, Cashew … in our orchard.

I will tell you of the earliest memory of my childhood. On the way to our school there was a jagom tree. Boys would climb up and pluck jagoms. I would go to a private class to study. It was the house of Domingo Laurente, who was teaching us Portuguese, to improve our language. In the evening I would go to his house while in the mornings to the aula, the Portuguese primary school. Some boys had climbed up the tree. I too wanted to climb up. There was a branch at about two meters height. Below that there was only the trunk, no branches. I straddled the tree trunk and climbed up and sat on that branch. I was scared to climb any higher, I had no confidence. A chikoo tree is friendly, close to home; I was used to the chikoo. I was not used to the jagom tree. So I was half way up on the tree and all the boys collected the jagoms and gave me. I could not pluck them, I was afraid to stretch out. When we were finished, I could not climb down. All the other boys were climbing down and jumping off. I was scared to jump down that two metre drop. I was about eight years old. Then my older cousin helped me climb onto his shoulders and jump down. That is one experience I cannot forget. Even later the boys would tease me about it ― that I know how to climb up, but don’t know how to get down.

There are many other memories of trees. There was a banyan tree in the backyard. Its roots would hang down. We would tie up two roots in a knot and that became our swing. There are many memories like that. We have played a lot with trees. There’s a bibo tree back there. I liked to go and look at the bibo tree, but my folks at home would always scare me – “Don’t go near the bibo tree, your skin will break, you will get scabs”. The bibo tree is very warm (it radiates heat), if you go near it your skin gets rashes and sores. So we were told not to play near the tree. The bibo was always there, yet I was keeping away from him. I would look at the birds sitting on the bibo and think –“Arre, if birds can sit on its branches, why can’t I go near it?” And that appeared in my story ‘Moronn Yena Mhunnun’. So as a five-six year old boy, I was scared of the bibo.

There was an old-style toilet behind our house (a raised platform of two steps with toilet holes in the floor with footrests on either side). It was built well, but there was always a fear that a child could fall through the gap. So children were not allowed there until they grew to a certain age. Until then we would go behind the house in the open. We would sit under the trees, play…

There was a mango tree in our  porsum, the kitchen garden. It grew tall, but wasn’t bearing any mangoes. Then I recall, I think it was on a New Moon night, my mother took me to the washroom near the well, and made me take off all my clothes, completely naked. I was 7 to 8 years old. She placed a stick in my hand and told me – ‘Go and hit that mango tree four times and tell it that if it doesn’t give mangoes next year, it will be cut down.’ So I went to the tree and hit it with the stick 4-5 times.  There was the belief that if the tree does not listen to requests, then it had to be threatened. That was the first time I realised we could talk to the trees … tell them, force them, threaten them … that too has appeared in my story ‘Ambo Mhugelo’. Many people liked that story, but unfortunately that book is out of print, it wasn’t translated either. All these memories eventually emerge in the stories.

Some tree memories rise to my mind very strongly. We had a small property near the convent. There was a coconut tree there. It was abnormal … a coconut tree is usually just one trunk, isn’t it? This tree had a branch at about 2 metres height. So it had two crowns, but one root. That coconut tree was really odd. Then one day Chandrakant Keni stopped his car and stepped out to admire the tree. A coconut tree is usually just one trunk, isn’t it? This tree had a branch at about 2 metres height. So it had two crowns, but one root. That’s when I realised this was like a miracle. You don’t see such trees. It is rare, I don’t know, there may be such trees elsewhere. But Chandrakant Keni noted this tree and mentioned it (to others) many times later, turning to me saying, ‘It’s true, isn’t it?’

I remember another tree, it is no longer there now … while going to Vasco via Cortalim, near Chicalim, it started out straight and then spiralled round and round several times and then went straight again. So the middle part of the tree looked like a spring, like a corkscrew. I had never seen such a tree before. Whenever I passed that way, I would stop and look at it, I enjoyed looking at it. I looked forward to seeing it.

In the stories of other Konkani writers you may find mention of the peepal tree. But in my stories you will find not the peepal tree, but the banyan tree. There will be the banyan tree, the mango tree, coconut trees, but the peepal tree will not be there. Because I did not see the peepal tree around as I was growing up.

My most popular story was ‘Bhurgim Mhugelim Tim’ (These are my Children). Let me tell you how I got the seed of the story: I was in hospital. I had suffered my first heart attack. I was 47 or 48 then. I was in the ICU, then they shifted me to the room. The doctor had told me not to talk too much. My wife would sit by my side. In a few days a friend came to see me―Amancio. He was in the Irrigation Department.“Today I saw such a thing…” he began telling me. My wife told him to talk, for me to be quiet. “I had gone to a village with a land acquisition notice,” he continued. “Assucena’s Mai, a village woman has grown coconut trees there, and she says don’t cut the trees, they are my children, she says!” He just told me this much. I called out to my wife and said, Shaila, take some paper and pen, and write what I say. ‘Assuscena’s mother says don’t cut the trees, these are my children she says, just write this much,’ I told her. And I forgot all about this. After some time I went home. As I was under medication and all that, one doesn’t remember everything. After I came home, I recovered. Then one day as I was sorting out all the receipts and prescriptions and bills, I found this piece of paper. “Assuscena’s mother … says don’t cut the trees, these are my children, she says”. I asked my wife, what is this written here? She said you have written this. I said this handwriting is yours. She tried to recall, and then told me of the visitor at the hospital and I immediately remembered it. I tell you, generally when I get an idea for a story, I write it down quickly or I forget it. It doesn’t appeal to me later. But the moment my wife told me about this, the idea appealed to me so much that I quickly wrote out the story within the next two days. The concept of the story – to grow trees in the names of children – didn’t feel new to me, but for my readers it was something new. Sometimes if a child was born after many years, they would plant a tree after that child, or if some good person died, they would grow a tree in his name. I had seen this, it was deeply rooted in my mind, and suddenly it came out … the rest is built up, of course …

Oh yes, in front of our house there were three Shankar trees … Gulmohur … across the road now. As a road had to be built we had donated the strip of land. Oh, the way we played with those trees! The seeds, the flowers, the leaves, the pods, we would use those elongated pods as swords to fight. We would take out the dried, oval-shaped seeds and play with them. Those trees were very close to us.

Every time we would pass that painn, there was a plant, it had tiny red flowers and black seeds, we called them kavllya dolle, crow’s eyes. We had a Gunji tree too, which is lost. You don’t see Gunji trees now. At our entrance there was a NigddoNirgunddi . We had all these trees … bullock carts would ply along this route … the cart drivers would jump out of the cart, cut off a short straight branch, strip its leaves and use it as cane on the bulls … it was flexible and the end of the stick would land with a smart ‘chimm…’! I still recall the smell of the Nigddo’s leaves. Now the Nigddo is gone! If I see it anywhere I still pluck a few leaves and crush them and smell them. I have another bad habit. When I go for a walk I pluck a few leaves and smell them and feel I have gone to my childhood. Whenever I see a familiar tree or leaf I do that, and keep smelling it until the scent fades away, then squeeze it with my finger to release more of the scent. As a creative writer, I never felt trees to be different entity or were outsiders, they are always inside us.

When my father died, I was twelve years old. He loved growing trees. He grew all these trees, the Chikoo, two kinds of Jackfruit – kapo and rosall. When we took over the land behind the house, I planted a hundred coconut saplings, bought from Benaulim. Many told me to plant Kerala trees, but I felt our Benaulim trees are the best. Around thirty of them grew to trees. Some of the trees were struck by mudoll, a kind of pest, a reddish black worm ‘rotto’ that eats up the coconut tree from the inside. The stem of the tree gets hollowed out and when the rotto reaches the top of the tree, the tree sheds the crown and the tree dies.. This began to happen very often. The trees would grow well, and then die. Then someone advised me – they won’t die if you grow banana trees there. I asked why banana? He said mudoll won’t attack if you have banana trees. So I bought some 20-25 banana trees and planted them all over. Then as they grew I removed the new banana shoots and spread them around. Now there are a hundred banana trees. And yes, if there are banana trees, the mudoll does not attack! It’s true! I had recently been to Sudhir Kakkar’s place. Katha is also interested in plants. She was apprehensive about her young coconut trees dying. I told her to plant banana trees. She was surprised …

Sometimes I envy … I have a friend Agostinho who loves trees a lot.  He used to work at a bank. When the voluntary retirement scheme was announced, he took it up and became a full time farmer. He loves Konkani and the village folk culture very much. He drinks pez – rice gruel – from an earthen vessel, he doesn’t like tea or soft drinks, He must be in his sixties now. He once told me, when stray cattle cross the road we get irritated, but it is they who should get irritated because WE are trespassing! Because the fields belong to them. These bandhs between the fields were THEIR roads, YOU have occupied their paths. You tar the paths and claim them to be yours! So don’t be angry with them. Accept that these are the cattle’s paths and give them first preference. This approach of the elder people towards animals and trees is very important.

I have a story ‘Miguelichim Ghorchim’ (Miguel’s Kin), which was translated into English and won the Katha award. One day I was sitting in the house doing something. Just then as I looked out the window, I saw a boy climbing up one of my coconut trees. The boy was young, about 14-15 years old. I got angry with the boy, I thought he was plucking coconuts. I ran to him. On seeing me he got so nervous, he began to jump down. I shouted to him, ‘Don’t jump, climb down slowly!’ He clambered down, scraped himself a bit. I scolded him – ‘You are a school going boy, don’t you feel ashamed to steal coconuts?’‘Sorry sir,’ he said. ‘What sorry?’ I said, ‘have they taught you this at home?’‘No, not to steal coconuts,’ he said, ‘A cuckoo has hatched eggs at the top, I wanted to take the chicks.’ When I looked up I saw the tree had no crown. The tree had died, but when a tree dies, in the hollow of its top, a cuckoo makes a nest and lays its eggs there. Then it dawned on me that the boy was picking up the hatchlings. Then I said, ‘Look, I will take you to my house and lock you up in a cage. Then think of how your father and mother will feel.’ He got nervous. ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘these cuckoo chicks must grow up, learn to fly, and then the joy that we will get when we see them flying around, that joy you will not see in a cage.’ With this dose of scolding I sent him off. But that prompted me to write the story Miguel’s Kin. That is how the trees and incidents related to trees have inspired me to write.

Those gulmohur trees were cut down as they were obstructing the road. I felt very sorry when they were cut. During the summer when everything is dry, at that time the red cover of the gulmohur is so pleasant to look at, you look at it and you feel happy.

Salil, you are a poet, you will understand me better. A cuckoo often calls out to me. Whenever the cuckoo coos… there’s a mango tree near the house, I always sit here to write where a table is placed. When I sit there, the cuckoo coos and I would always feel she loves me. She calls me ‘Ghovou’ … ghov means husband. So when she says ‘ghovou…’ I feel she is calling to me and saying, what’s the matter, why are you sitting quietly, write something! And even now, when the cuckoo calls, I begin to write. The call of the cuckoo prompts me to take up the pen. Of course, there should be something in the mind, then it comes out. I collect so many seeds for my stories, and they are somewhere in the subconscious, but when the cuckoo gives a call I get inspired to write. Only thing, the table should be ready for me, and paper, at that time. Most of the time there are account books on my table, and books I am reading. If you see my table you will be shocked, I am so disorganised. Unless I clear everything I don’t feel like writing. So sometimes I clear all the books and put them aside. I finish the story and then I put them back into disorder!

One afternoon, I had returned from college on summer vacation. It was the month of May, very hot. I heard the sound of the cuckoo. Suddenly the heat was so intense, even the breeze was hot, I immediately took up the pen, I didn’t know what I would write, I had nothing in mind, just started – “It’s a hot day, the month of Vaishakh has just ended, there is no rain…” If you have read the story you will come to know, the entire first para is about the dryness, no rain … a snake appeared in my thought. The snake is crawling on the sand. The sand is very hot. I went on, I did not know how it was going to end, I had not thought of anything, and the snake becomes the protagonist of the story. It goes on and on, she has her young ones, also crawling by her side. When they are trying to climb up the bandh, the young ones cannot climb and die. The snake cries, what is the use of my life, why should I live! All the trees are dead, except for one Bibo (the Bibo of my childhood appeared there). The bibo talks with the snake – No, you should not let yourself die. All my fellow trees have died. But I live, waiting for death to to come. Until death come to you, it’s your duty to live. The snake says – There’s no water, my mate is dead, my children are dead, all the people have gone. The tree says, go in that direction, you will find a lake there. She agrees and starts moving off. The tree says wait, will you oblige me? What do you want, asks the snake. Please climb over my body, says the tree, it has been so many days no birds, nobody has come my way. Just crawl over my trunk and branches. So the snake climbs up the tree and moves all over the branches and the crown and leaves and come down. She says goodbye and goes her way. This watersnake and the tree – this dialogue took the story to a different level. This relationship between animals and trees, man and trees has always inspired me. I never felt trees were doing something out of the way, because they were always insiders, inside us.

Damodar Mauzo is a short story writer, novelist, columnist and screenplay writer and has been writing in Konkani for over three decades. He has two novels, four collections of short stories and three books for young adults to his credit. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Karmelin. He is also the recipient of Katha Award for Creative Fiction 1998, the Best Dialogues Award at the Goa State Film Festival 1997.

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