Though the jackfruit tree was the one that played a major role in our life as children, there were other trees too that I remember from our grandparents’ home.
The ashoka tree – and by this I mean the real ashoka tree, not the ‘imposter’ that goes by the name False Ashoka. Imagine my surprise when some north-Indian friends insisted the ornamental tree Polyalthia longifolia or Devadaar as it is know in India, is the real deal! No way! Saraca asoca is THE ashoka tree, but they had apparently not even heard of it! Did they think Sita in the epic Ramayana sat beneath the non-existent shade of a false ashoka tree, in a grove of more of those false ashoka trees? Use your brain people. To sit beneath a tree it needs to have a canopy, not grow straight up like a pillar.
Anyway, coming back to the ashoka tree I started off with before I got sidetracked, it stood right outside the window of what my grandparents referred to as thekke muri which means the southern room, named so because it was at the southern side of the house. It was where the grandparents slept. But one couldn’t call it their room. Everyone was in and out of it all the time. During the day grandfather spent most of his time in his study called for some reason as the ‘Institute’ and grandmother, …all over the property. The room though was where they slept. Privacy was something unknown and unheard of those days. No one had a room of their own as such, a place to sleep may be, a place to keep their things probably – with no guarantee that someone else would not poke their nose into it – but nothing like a whole room which no one else could enter without permission. You bet I hated it. But I have infamously digressed.
Our ashoka tree wasn’t too tall, and had lovely foliage. We could easily reach the heavy bunches of yellow-orange flowers (they later turn red before wilting). There would be ants scurrying up and down the tree, the pale brown kind, also the black ones, at least half a centimetre or more in size. The flowers being edible, the tree would find us children reaching out for them to nibble on and being bitten by one or more of the annoyed ants. Our tree, get lost you pesky kids. But we persisted. What is an ant bite or two when you could nibble on some flowers?
The flowers of the ashoka tree was used to make oil, which we had to apply on our hair. I have left behind my days of applying dollops of oil to my hair and falling sick. But the fragrance of the oil thus prepared still lingers in my memory. The flowers generally figure in many medicinal preparations. Perhaps that’s why the tree found its way to the courtyard of kings of yore. By the way did you know ashoka literally means ‘sorrow-less’?
One of my memories associated with the tree is linked to grandfather. He was a learned man and had his teaching moments when he imparted bite-sized pieces of knowledge to us. I for one always hung on to every word of his, in fact all of us did, such was his presence and command. Nevermind that in later years I found his authoritarian approach not to my liking, especially when it infringed on my rights to cut my hair.
Anyway, back to my memory. My cousin came walking around the back of the house in a light pink skirt with a green top to match, and seeing us gathered around grandfather, gravitated towards us. He saw her and out of the blue asked her why she was sweeping the courtyard at this time of the day. She was confused, so where we. We looked at him to be enlightened further. It was her too long skirt that he meant, it was sweeping the ground as she walked. Grandfather could be funny at times. He has left us and so has the tree. When I found the tree missing on one of my later visits, it was as if some part of my early life was over.
© Shail Mohan 2020