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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Neem: Woman, Tree, City

A neem tree

t's that time of the year when my dead grandmother's words return to the table every afternoon: There must be neem begoon for lunch. Spring is a time of bitterness on the lunch plate in Bengal: bitter gourd, drumsticks, often cooked together into a shukto with other seasonal vegetables. Spring, with its energy for encouraging all kinds of life, is a time of disease: bitterness is expected to drive that away. How the combination of brinjals and neem leaves emerged into a dish that was meant to be a pill is a study that food historians will hopefully bring to us one day.

Dola Mitra writes here about Rabindranath Tagore's neem eating habits:

"He was probably teaching Browning," educationist Pramathanath Bishi, a contemporary of the Nobel laureate, wrote in his journal. Someone brought the poet a drink in a glass pitcher. It was a green-gold liquid that looked so inviting Bishi couldn't take his eyes off as the poet sipped it.

"Would you like some?" Tagore asked him, smiling mischievously. Who wouldn't? Alas! It turned out to be a bitter concoction: the juice from crushed neem leaves mixed with a dash of honey to make it palatable.

The neem tree I planted three years ago is now taller than the tallest man I know. On its head grows the finest curls of tender neem leaves. Our gardener, coaxed by everyone in the family, plucks a handful of these leaves every few days. He mutters a rhyme of penance for this act and asks for forgiveness from the neem tree. He suffers from a speech disorder, and so I do not get his prayer. Later, as we share a meal of the appetiser, neem begoon, and rice, he explains to me, in his own cryptic way, that he was praying to avoid being turned into a ghost who lives on a neem tree.

here is a handsome collection of rhymes, poems and stories about the neem tree in Bangla. One of the earliest that comes to a Bengali child is a rhyme by Sukumar Ray in his Aabol Tabol: "Mashi go Mashi, pachhey hashi/Neem gachhetey hochhey sheem". A child tells his aunt that he feels like laughing — hyacinth beans are now growing on a neem tree. Ray is, of course, playing on the neem-sheem rhyme, but it is an image that draws a child's interest to the fruit of the neem tree. Obsessed about the goodness of neem leaves, we ignore its fruit. Unlike the clever birds, who know the bitter sweet taste of its flesh.

My favourite neem tree story is by Banaphool. It has the tone of a prose poem.

Some peeled off the bark and boiled it.

Some plucked the leaves to grind them.

Some fried them in scalding oil.

To be used for skin problems.

Surefire cure for leprosy.

Some even munched on its tender leaves.

Raw.

Or, fried with eggplants.

Very good for the liver.

Many snapped off its twigs to clean their teeth with.

Doctors extolled its virtues.

Experts were pleased if it sprouted next to your home.

'It acts as a good filter, don't chop it down,' they said.

No one did. But no one took care of it either.

Garbage gathered all around.

.... A different person came up to it one day.

He gazed, enraptured, at the tree. He didn't peel off the bark, didn't pluck its leaves, didn't snap its twigs. ....

'How beautiful these leaves are,' he said. '... How pretty these clumps of flowers — a constellation of stars has descended from the blue skies to this green space ...'

Having gazed to his heart's content, he left.

He was a man in search of a muse, not medicine.

The neem tree wanted to run away with him. But it couldn't. Its roots had dug too deep into the earth. ...

In that house, the housewife, so adept at domestic chores, was in the same situation. ("The Tree", What Really Happened, Translated by Arunava Sinha.)

The writer does not give us the name of the tree until the very end, but this short story begins with a catalogue of its medicinal uses, and the reader can guess its name from its characteristics. So when the last line arrives, in which the housewife is likened to a tree, there is surprise and there is sadness — a woman without a name, a "housewife", like the neem, is of some use or the other to everyone in her family, but that is what it is. She is no one's muse. She doesn't have a lover.

It was of all these, particularly the neem-woman equivalence, that I was reminded when I read Abhay K.'s poem about the neem trees of Delhi:

Under my ubiquitous shade

lie scattered cities of Delhi.

Delhi and I are one and the same.

My yellow-green fruits

delicious when ripe,

bitter when raw;

only the wise know the difference. ('Neem', The Seduction of Delhi)

Abhay K.'s collection of poems is an ode to Delhi, his "palimpsest city", and the poems record the lives of its famous men and monuments, and fortunately, also its trees. There is the jamun that "paints Delhi's tongues purple", but neem is the tree that is Delhi, says the poet: "Delhi and I are one and the same".

What is it about the neem that makes it an exhausted housewife and a capital city all at once?

 
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