The roads are now full of hawkers crying out over neem leaves. Small, bitter and edging out towards tiny buds. People, too are buying them by the kilo. Neem bunches poke out of bright plastic bags high and mighty, or huddle with curry leaves. For a day in the year, they’re worshipped, ingested, delicately swallowed, bit into, grimaced upon and gracelessly spat out. For a day they live in our collective consciousness before finally they too wilt under the mighty suns gaze, droop crackle, and die as green powdery dust.
I didn’t know the neem trees name in any other language, I never thought to ask, or even thought it had one apart from ‘neem’ . But I don’t know anything, you see. Brought up under a literary landscape of beeches, maples, pines and firs, the neem only existed as a bitter pill to be swallowed in the summers. I didn’t wonder about this when my mother fanned me with copious boughs of neem leaves as I lay delirious under the pox, or when she rolled tender young neem shoots with jaggery, into my underlip (once a year, unfailingly). Or when I sat reading under its cool shadows, behind my grandmothers large house.
Having read scores books in English, I had somehow grown up in their landscape, seeing our trees, naming theirs. I looked in vain for pines and firs, in the sweltering heat and drenching rain, and proclaimed our greenery useless, only fit for shade. How exotic their trees sounded – Rowan and Elk, Apple and Juniper, Sycamores, Firs and Redwoods. How tall and richly green they were, how naked in winter and how blindingly colourful in fall. And ours stayed green always. Never coloured, never bared their selves, only bore pests, harboured insects and grew stunted and filthy.
And I came back to live in a city of trees, in a house made of trees. Paper flowers covered my terrace, branches of tamarind trees fanned me and tall coconut trees rose impossibly above, reaching for the sun. Mango trees bloomed in compounds, making me sneeze and huge neem trees swayed gently, scarily and somewhere a giant switch flipped, and I stepped outside.
I read up, fervently hoping to make up for decades of loss, Mango and Neem, slender Coconut palms and the stately Ashoka, roadside Tamarinds, holy Peepuls and holier Banyans, Bananas, Jambuls and Tabuleias, Jacarandas and Moringas, large Curry leaf trees and Areca nut trees, slender Pepper vines and deadly Oleander. Thorny Rosebushes and wild Berries. Bor and Cashew, Gulmohar, Raintrees and Cotton trees, Jacarandas and Jackfruits.
I’m still woefully illiterate. Now the wide roads on my way home are lined with neem, tomorrow the mangoes will come, small, tart impossibly succulent and in a host of names – for which the English language must once accept defeat. Payris, Bangdas and Hapus, Banganapalli, Mallika and Neelams. Each with its own introduction, its own smell and its own sickly, addictive taste.