Remembering the gums of India
Hyderabad in December is as hot and dry as Adelaide and requires the same kind of drenching. As I bumped around the city in the back of an autorickshaw, my cotton shirt forming a damp membrane between my skin and the cracked vinyl seat, the white wine on my shopping list became a priority. I came to a roadside bottle shop in Jubilee Hills, where the rich inhabit cool, shaded mansions and liquor is sold from shacks. I stood on a concrete step, peering through a metal grating at the wine selection on the shelves within; my purchase was dusted off, secreted in a black plastic bag and passed over. I moved under a nearby tree to stash my bottle and realised, glancing up, that the trunk belonged to a lonely, lofty gum tree stretching out wide boughs of twisting leaves. I reached up to pluck one, pinched it along the seam and cracked it open with the lizard-quick, agile movements of someone who’s done it all her life. As I inhaled the scent of eucalyptus I recalled Proust’s account of involuntary memory before I was engulfed. I tumbled back through the years, over kilometres of land and ocean, until I found myself in the west of Adelaide, walking to school past similar trees; smelling their oil under the scorch of a similar sun, with the southern light pulsing through the streets. That day, I carried a handful of gum leaves back to my flat, where I left them to turn ash-brown and brittle. My life in Hyderabad continued; I didn’t think of Australia or eucalyptus again, though the scent of the oil lingered on my fingertips until evening.
I was slow to realise the presence of gum trees in south India. Among the reasons why I keep leaving Australia is to shake off aspects of my identity—or, as the daughter of a European migrant father, to draw closer to others. Still, during the time I’ve spent travelling, it has never been to my half-homeland Sweden that I felt a pull; it has never been Sweden that I trust to assuage my nostalgia, in the original Greek sense of the word: an ache connected to home. My state of cultural dispossession first took hold during my years in Bangladesh and now in India, where I have come to wonder, from my point of privilege, whether the pain of nostalgia is associated less with the idea of home than the physical return to it. At the moment of each encounter, discovering Indian gum trees causes me no great ache, perhaps because I’m unsure whether I still call Australia home: certainly I don’t associate eucalyptus with my national identity, or regard it as a symbol of what I am missing. While that tall, solitary Hyderabadi gum tree made me feel less of a tall, solitary traveller, remembering Indian gum trees makes me aware of what is gained or mislaid along the fractured path of migration—whether freely undertaken or forced—and what can come about when we unknot our roots. In recollection, distance and movement are laid to waste, as loss is laid to waste. What seeds do we carry around with us, contained in our memories, to cast over fresh ground?
My way of remembering Indian gum trees and relating the wider narratives they evoke suggests I don’t want to seize an answer more than I want to happen upon it; I don’t wish to disabuse myself just yet. Often I regard the workings of memory in the same way that Salman Rushdie in Shame describes roots: not as devices to ‘explain why we become attached to our birthplaces’, but as ‘conservative myth[s], designed to keep us in places’ (1981, 90). At other times I recall my own description of memory as ‘a beast’ that ‘lives at the heart / and bites its keeper / from the inside’. The most useful acts of remembrance, however, do not bind but summon; make no demands but help us regard our subjects with detachment as we move along memory’s meandering paths, refining their indignity and turbulence. My recollections of Indian gum trees prompt discussions of history, aesthetics, environment and culture relating to the country that nurtures them, as well as my own suspension, allowing me to chart the drift from there to here and back again.
It was Rahas who took me to see Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace. After breakfast at his family home we caught the bus towards Mysore and stopped at Kalasipalyam, one of the sites of Old Bangalore. Apart from glimpsing swatches of vivid green outside the windows, few details of the journey remain in my mind: I was distracted by Rahas’s hand holding mine beneath my scarf, by the intoxication of his proximity. At the bus stand I stood waiting in the shade as Rahas negotiated with an autorickshaw driver to take us the rest of the way; when we arrived at the palace gates, we descended deeper into shadow. The path we followed inside was impeccably straight, leading us over threads of green and gold lawn to the arched entrance. The grass was strewn with flowerbeds and clusters of trees—some slender young gums—and shaded figures who’d paid the entry fee not to pick the bones of history but to retreat from the parched, dusty roads outside.
Rahas and I followed the square of the palace with the other tourists, gravely studying displays of relics and sketches, making out the narratives of war told through murals, marvelling at the teak walls and pillars complicated by painted floral motifs faded with age and reminding us both of William Morris’s gloomy, sensuous designs. On our turn about the palace’s severe corners we met a tout who launched into a linguistically muddled account of Tipu Sultan’s life, a recitation inadvertently underlined by the rhythm of a slam poem. Only certain phrases rang clear—I know that one of Tipu Sultan’s wives committed suicide, but the circumstances were lost to me. The woman swiftly pocketed her tip and vanished before I could ask for a repeat performance. Rahas kissed me in the palace’s deserted inner chamber. We spoke in whispers there, not because of others nearby but because we felt—or I did—that we were too intimate, too close to one another for more deliberate speech.
Tipu Sultan was known as the Tiger of Mysore for his relentless opposition to British colonial rule in southern India. Although, as with all tigers, the myths surrounding Tipu Sultan are expansive, I have calculated one more—that the magnificent ruler of Mysore would have been keenly aware of the connection between the movement of people and the surge of power and greed as British colonial troops, supported by the forces of Hyderabad, impinged on his kingdom. During his lifetime from 1750 until his death in battle with the British in 1799, Tipu Sultan demonstrated a progressive acumen that involved introducing the seeds of the eucalyptus to his domain, the modern state of Karnataka, and to his country.
He is one of the most discussed and divisive historic leaders of India, and his reputation is striped by royal and human nature; arrogance and discernment, but what appears solid enough is his standing as an educated and enlightened ruler, keen in his pursuit of world knowledge. Tipu Sultan was a student of different languages—notably Urdu, Kannada and Persian—boasted an impressive palace library and was so involved in his kingdom’s administration that he undertook the writing of state instructions in his own hand (Fernandes 1991). Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, Tipu Sultan corresponded with Napoleon Bonaparte and called upon this alliance in his fight against the British in 1797 (Brittlebank 2003). Although he was rumoured to be tyrannical and harsh with Christian and Hindu prisoners, the devoutly Muslim Tipu Sultan was secular in his administration of Hindu-dominant Karnataka, even ordering the restoration of temples damaged during war (Mahmood 2002). Sources claim that this secularism extended to a personal philosophy akin to Sufism, which embraces all faiths as one (Mahmood 2002).
Tipu Sultan’s administrative innovations included the establishment of Mysore’s iron, steel, ship-building, silk and import-export industries (Fernandes 1991); his encourage-ment of the kingdom’s agricultural progress accords with the interest in botany he inherited from his father, Hyder Ali. In 1760, during his rule, Hyder Ali devoted an area of a little under 20 hectares in what is now known as the city of Bangalore to the cultivation of exotic species of flora. Tipu Sultan introduced many new species from Turkey, Afghanistan, Persia and Mauritius as well as Australia (Rehman 2009), ordering the importation of 16 varieties of eucalyptus seeds, including E. camaldulensis, E. citriodora, E. crebra, E. major, E. intermedia, E. polyanthemos, E. robusta, E. tereticornis, E. tessellaris, a hybrid of E. robusta and E. tereticornis and a hybrid of E. botryoides and E. tereticornis (Palanna 1996). The seeds were planted in Tipu Sultan’s palace garden at Nandi Hills in 1790, just as foreign forces gathered to threaten the land he strove to cultivate.
There is an image that endures in my mind of Tipu Sultan taking solace in his garden, overseeing the planting of seeds, perhaps even bending to grasp the earth while contemplating the spread of colonisation across India. What has lasted is the legacy of the Indian gum tree as just one articulation of Tipu Sultan’s open embrace of culture—a detail that has neither faded in archival memory nor been laid at the feet of the European colonials. Late that afternoon, leaving the Summer Palace with Rahas to continue our journey to Mysore, I am certain it must have occurred to me that the handclasp of history is really the only one that endures.
I heard tales of the gum tree forests in the highlands of Tamil Nadu from Alex as we sat at his spotless dining table in Goa, absorbing peg after peg of golden rum into our twilight conversation. Although Alex describes rum as his mistress, she is not a lover he is careless with: he plans his evenings, prepares his dinner, so that no element disrupts his joyful hazy journey to bed, where he sleeps in preparation to start the same long, meditative day the next morning. Alex’s second love is the house he built on top of a lazy hill near the town of Kotagiri in the Nilgiris District. He misses its walls when he is not within them, but most of all, he misses the embrace of the quiet wind and the chill of the air outside. ‘Oi, Hummel,’ he announced, meeting my eyes through the exhalation of a Navy Cut cigarette, ‘you should come and see my house one day.’ He went on to tell me, as he had more than a few times before, that the term ‘Nilgiris’ translates to ‘Blue Hills’ and owes its name to the cobalt-tinted haze the eucalyptus trees create at distant viewing.
The origin of the name Nilgiris, as Alex explains it, allows a comparison with the Blue Mountains near Sydney. Like their Australian counterparts, the Nilgiris, a range of green, temperate hills claimed by the British in 1789, offered colonials relief from the dust and heat of the Indian plains as well as an evocative reminder of the scenery of home (Beattie 2012). The Nilgiris also became, from 1843, a significant site for eucalyptus growth. The species’ ability to drain moisture from the land was highly commended, as was its hygienic qualities: eucalyptus oil was lauded for deterring malaria-carrying mosquitoes and combating potentially fatal miasmas, such as the mysterious ‘Sind sore’ and ‘Delhi boil’ (Palanna 1996, 40), of which the colonials were so fearful. In particular, the E. globulus, or blue gum, was hailed as a wonder tree by Ferdinand von Mueller, the state botanist for Victoria in 1853–96, and Joseph Maiden, director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens and Herbarium in 1896–1924, both of whom promoted the distribution of eucalyptus to the Nilgiris and other locations throughout the British Empire (Morrison 2004).
During the 1850s, gum trees were enthusiastically planted by private individuals, the military, officials of the East India Company, and foresters and landowners who established plantations for firewood, sleepers and fuel for the expanding railway network in India (Morrison 2004). Between the 1860s and 1880s, foresters cultivated around 1000 acres of gum tree plantations in the sympathetic climate and soil of the Nilgiris (Bennett 2010), a fruitful exercise compared to the struggling plantations in West Bengal, areas surrounding Mumbai and the foothills of the Himalayas (Bennett 2010). Another reason for the flourishing of gum trees in the Nilgiris, and a further connection between eucalyptus’ old and new lands, was the practice of tribal groups including the Toda, Kota, Kurumba and Badaga, who, like many Australian Aboriginal language groups, ‘burnt off’ areas with deliberately lit fires to make land manageable and to propagate new growth (Sharrad 2007).
In the 1880s, Dietrich Brandis, India’s first inspector general of forests, noted that the thriving eucalyptus, which grow approximately four times as fast as teak trees, had drastically ‘altered the appearance of the country’ (in Palanna 1996, 80). In 1908 colonial settlers began to complain that the tall blue gums were spoiling the view (Sharrad 2007, 38), an aesthetic objection that also reflected changes in India’s political and social landscapes.
After months of his most jocular persuasion, I visited Alex at his house near Kotagiri, travelling from Bangalore on a bus that took much longer than the predicted eight hours to reach its destination. I was already burnt out by the city and felt immediate relief at the gentler climate, the air rolling freshly over tea plantations, and at seeing an old friend who dissolved all my pretences with one strong hug. During my visit, Alex patiently drove me from town to town so I could prowl around old colonial mansions, converted into overpriced hotels by the Taj Group. At my request, he pulled the jeep over so I could take snapshots of the gum trees that lined the winding hill roads. The compositions appealed to me: I watched the treetops swaying against the cloud-marbled sky, convinced I was close to somewhere familiar.
After travelling from Goa to meet Rahas in Bangalore, I took a room at the Empire Hotel in Shivajinagar, a neighbourhood west of the city centre, separated from MG Road by a cut of greenery. My room faced this park land, although my direct view was of the asphalt chaos that lay in between. The room was irregular in shape, bland of wall, overcrowded with furniture and draped in synthetic fabrics in the grand tradition of cheap hotels. On the third floor, it was also stuffy in the heat, even with a ceiling fan rapidly churning the air; the attached bathroom was less stifling, mainly due to the stately old gum tree that stood just outside. I arranged the louvre window so I could gaze at the tree while I brushed my hair. Rahas lay on the bed, shifting across the coverlet snagged with static, to watch me through the doorway. ‘I like this room,’ he told me, ‘because it has you in it.’ The sight of the gum tree, broken up by the opaque panes of glass, made me careless to the crash and surge of the city traffic. I almost drifted away from India, though not in the direction of Australia—the shift was to a location deeper in rather than farther away. I couldn’t sense the fragrance of the eucalyptus through the salt of the water running from the tap, the pallid floral of the hotel soap and the scent of Rahas’s skin on mine.
Indian gum trees have had severe ecological, socioeconomic and political impact on the land to which they were introduced. In twentieth-century India, there was initial support for the eucalyptus among foresters and scientists: the drought, climatic and coppicing tolerance of the species, as well as its fast growth, suggested its suitability for renewing degraded forests and barren lands and for providing an inexpensive, renewable source of fuel for an increasing population. From 1960 to 1980, however, the negative effects of the eucalyptus became apparent. Gum trees were found to consume large quantities of water, which reduced soil quality and increased soil erosion, lower the water levels of tube wells and rivers and, by dominating the plantation canopy, to deprive indigenous flora and agricultural crops of sunlight, inhibiting their growth (Devi 1983). In addition, the eucalyptus hindered plantation undergrowth, discouraged the cohabitation of wildlife and insects vital to pollination, and provided insufficient wind resistance and shade in arid areas (Saravanan 2007).
Connected to this depletion of the land, the gum tree has become a symbol of India’s social struggle: the benefits the species has brought to landowners and construction and pulpwood industries contrast with the detrimental effects it has had on subsistence farmers, agricultural labourers and forest-reliant tribal groups. The development of eucalyptus plantations at the expense of traditional land use has caused unemployment among the latter groups—in the case of women’s domestic agricultural practice, plantations have caused a decline in productivity (Shiva 1988) and loss of food and shelter derived from indigenous tree species and restricted access to land (Shiva 1991). The gum tree has become an object for resistance among activist groups such as Chipko, a national movement working to preserve and rehabilitate forests and protect public ecological interests from exploitation by the forestry industry (Shiva 1991).
Several large protests have directly targeted the gum tree, including a movement in the Tumkur district of Karnataka, during which mainly female activists uprooted eucalyptus seedlings at a nearby nursery and replaced them with native tamarind and mango seeds (Shiva 1988). While India’s National Forest Policy of 1988 restricts the mass planting of introduced species without a closely monitored trial (Palanna 1996), there remains an ecological unease surrounding the eucalyptus in India—as if the land and the people tending it are, in the present, still forming their memories of its intrusion.
The gum tree outside the Empire Hotel in Shivajinagar had grown, undisturbed and unyielding to circumstance, for years, whereas Rahas had to leave our room, and then India, for Britain; I returned to Australia about two weeks later. The last time we kissed was on St Mark’s Road on the night of Rahas’s departure, far from the consoling shelter of the Empire’s eucalyptus. Our connection to each other proved, over distance, just as tenuous.
I am ghosting the edges of Bangalore, haunted by my memories of it. Once I was at peace here, with just a tinge of melancholy; now the melancholy is full-blown and extravagant. I’m living in the flat of a friend of a friend near Baiyappanahalli station, the eastern terminus of the partially constructed Bangalore metro. I don’t go into town much and not just because MG Road is the pulse point of my memories—owing to a past, brief lifetime in Melbourne, I prefer the trendy inner-city suburb of Indiranagar, two stops west. The area around Baiyappanahalli, recently built up to cradle Bangalore’s swelling professional population, retains some of its rural elements. A lively flock of goats is left to wander around a deserted block; black and white cows tethered to the side of the road scratch their heads against tree trunks; the trees themselves remain, along with roads of red earth, patches of green growth too lush to call ‘scrub’, and allotments for growing fresh vegetables. Belts of eucalyptus trees grow behind walled-off areas belonging to the Karnataka Power Transmission Corpora-tion and unnamed military test zones.
Riding the metro affords me a view of rooftops and treetops. Somewhere between Halsuru station and Indiranagar, a close-growing line of gum trees asserts its presence by scratching against the side of the train. Bangalore has fickle weather. Sometimes the sun is as bright and clear as topaz and the sky is swollen with blue—then, in the next instant, the blue will fade and rain will fall thickly from bruised-looking clouds. I notice the gum trees more when it rains: as the train vibrates down its rails, the creamy trunks and silver-toned leaves pitch gracefully against the overcast sky, noticeably familiar. Gum trees seem to suit every mood of Bangalore and every mood of my own. They fill a view, or just my view, as one of the few metro riders without a smartphone to distract from the pictures moving past the generous windows. The sight of the trees reassures me, but there’s no nostalgia in my recognition—rather, there is solidarity, a shared sense of survival. The sight of the trees reminds me of the boundlessness of space beyond my head and the many paths departing from the route I am currently travelling.
The gum tree diaspora in India signifies not only the imposition of colonial forces, but also the absorption of the eucalyptus species into a new cultural identity. During its years of growth in India, the gum tree has shed its Australian iconicity to become a literal and figurative feature of an environment removed from its country of origin (Sharrad 2007). The presence of eucalyptus in India challenges innate ideas of identity, encouraging anything but rootedness: as a recognisable component of the Indian landscape, the gum tree disrupts the essentialism of the Hindutva national movement and its stronghold ‘constructions of the Indian national space’ (Sharrad 2007, 44).
Loading the gum tree with symbolic value requires a certain conscious abandonment. Departing from the fibrous bind of roots is the more fluid idea of a lifeline that connects the place ‘where one’s home is at present’ to ‘one’s native land’ (Jin 2008, 65); the notion that belonging and identity are ascribed to a person rather than adopted. Human beings cannot, any more than trees, definitively denote their own identity: as Edward Said claims, one can be at home in many different cultures while not being of them (1993). At most, a living presence can provide ‘being’ a hospitable space only when ‘it abandons itself to that which claims it’ (Zarader 2003, 111).
The gum tree’s hardy characteristics, suited to Australia’s nutrient-poor and dry conditions, have enabled the species to adjust to similar environments throughout the world (Bennett 2010). Of all the eucalyptus species introduced to India, the most vigorous adaptation has been that of the E. tereticornis (Palanna 1996), otherwise known as the Mysore gum. This domestic reinscription demonstrates both the ecological acclimatisation of an Australian species to India and the advance of a new global space, wherein meanings can be reconsidered and cultures can become interchangeable, hybrid (Hamil 2004). In India, where eucalyptus, or Nilgiris, oil is considered a local resource for export and is used in Ayurvedic remedies as a ‘traditional’ ingredient (Sharrad 2007), this hybridity is penetrating multiple aspects of modern-day culture. The poem ‘Tiger Mask Ritual’ by Chitra Divakaruni is a literary indicator of the gum tree’s integration into the Indian landscape and consciousness:
When you put on the mask the thunder starts.
Through the nostril’s orange you can smell
the far hope of rain. Up in the Nilgiris
glisten of eucalyptus, drip of pine, spiders
tumbling from their silver webs.
The adaptation of the Indian gum tree prompts the remembrance of its heritage and its reconsideration in the present. Eucalyptus seeds were introduced to India at a time when the world was being branded with new boundaries, signifying new power—a time when people were alienated not only from the places they inhabited, but also from their identities and, like their contemporary counter-parts, were compelled, despite differences in culture, class, means and motive, to make sense of their passage. The presence of the eucalyptus is as strong in my experience of India now as it is in my memories of other homes; in the arms of certain lovers; in the stillness of vacated rooms and the streets of once-familiar neighbourhoods, many of which no longer bear their original names or incite that first flush of meaning.
Memories share the qualities of fragments and are seldom as complete in the retelling as they are in the mind of the one who recollects. Tightly coiled, their unravelling takes an instant but the reliving is whole. As one of the last stores of recognition, the pull of memory is a force that is often too strong to resist: one can physically be here, mentally be here, live presently and thrive, but be taken over by the act of remembering, again and again. Beneath outwardly resilient skins, the fibres of a gum tree knit or splinter; their roots flourish or wither. The rings of a trunk that declare a tree’s age also declare that it has no core; a tree’s regeneration affirms its optimism. All bear the marks of remembrance.
Now, in India, I am exploring a small area of the country by discovering what it is I want to know, as well as what I recall. Remembering Indian gum trees has led me to learn more, particularly about history, ecology and culture, and has granted me a deeper understanding of the space I inhabit—despite my awareness that I do not belong to it—and the privilege that allows me to do so. By gathering my memories together, even if they don’t overlap or fit neatly into each other, my present identity can be created and my sense of home reinvented with all the compelling connections and imperfections of nonfiction.
Australian gum trees remain in my mind, as do the gum trees in my present view, as elements belonging to more than one world, one identity. I imagine I am walking to the train station at Ethelton in the western suburbs of Adelaide. The light of dusk is both golden and violet, its harshness diminished. The fronds of plants pushing over garden fences are transformed by the shadows into plumes. I pass a tall gum tree on the corner of Pelham and Carlisle streets. My fingers, nimble and unseeing, reach out to pluck a leaf, gliding along its waxy surface. I compress the leaf into folds before holding it to my nose and inhaling. I have done this before; I do not even have to think about when or how—I feel, I remember. My place is everywhere and, from whatever point of my sojourn, I am left responsive to the pull forwards, and back.
Ha Jin writes that nostalgia deprives characters of their sense of direction (2008). If I pause deliberately, as an actor might, I may realise that the tree I am standing before in Ethelton looks nothing like the eucalyptus I remember in Hyderabad or the tree I last saw in Bangalore, covered in the fine ash of the city—though their scent is the same. I don’t stop to pause. I can hardly tell where my feet are taking me, but it doesn’t trouble me at all.
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