‘Under the Breadfruit Tree’ – Fascinating Reading

Book Review

Who has not enjoyed some precious moments of peace and rest under the shade of a tree in the family compound, in the public park or on the roadside? The kings and emperors of ancient India gave much importance to the planting of trees along roadsides for the sake of the weary traveller.

It is said that trees are eternal friends of travellers. Did not great poets like Wordsworth, Keats and Rabindranath Tagore find exquisite delight and sublimity under the shades of trees? Did not Gautam Siddhartha become Buddha the Great when he attained Nirvana under the great peepal tree at Bodh Gaya? In fact he was born under a peepal tree in Lumbini, now in Nepal. Buddha also adored the vast stretches of mango groves and bamboo forests of the Bihar region where he used to halt on his numerous wanderings.

Trees nourish and nurture the soul of man. Alas, nowadays man is bent upon downing every tree he can lay hands on, whether in his own backyard to place cement everywhere or clear and destroy the vast forests of the globe. This has led governments around the world to create ministries of the Environment and to enact regulations so as to ward off resulting catastrophic climate changes.

We are happy that there are still fellow citizens who, inspired by the hours spent under the shade of trees, have penned down their reminiscences. Under the Breadfruit Tree is a beautiful anthology of free verse of Balwantsing Nobutsing’s happy moments of boyhood. A thick volume of 563 pages, published by Star Publications, New Delhi, Under the Breadfruit Tree reveals the innermost mental escapades of Balwant Nobutsing revealed in beautiful poetic flights on a variety of subjects.

Nobutsing spent his boyhood days at Camp d’Anirudth in Bel Ombre Savanne District in the south of the country. According to Nobutsing, the breadfruit tree which inspired him to poetic musings is quite old and could have been planted either by slaves or Indian girmitias. He says that whenever he felt somewhat insecure, he would hug it, an act that would bring him much solace.

But other trees too have over the years marked their presence in Balwantsing’s heart: The litchi tree at Rivière des Anguilles, where his parents moved to from Bel Ombre while he was in his youth, the mimosa tree in his university years in India, and in his more mature years, the Bois de Natte Tree of the Grand Bassin region. The breadfruit tree if still alive, must be hiding a number of the young Nobutsing’s youthful secrets.

It was while in Form V at Mauritius College, Curepipe, that he first tried his hand at poetry writing. Mr Nobutsing studied for BA and MA at Banaras Hindu University where he met his charming wife Susmita whose family are from Arrah, in Bihar. He has been supervisor at the Private Secondary Schools Authority operating under the Ministry of Education and Scientific Research from 1977 to 2004 till he retired.

Nobutsing writes both prose and poetry in Hindi, Bhojpuri and English and some of his Hindi works include Pushpanjali. Rambirich is a collection of short stories in Hindi and Bhojpuri. He is also working on a novel in Hindi. I am amazed at the range of topics in his anthology of poetry Under the Breadfruit Tree. It contains some 213 poems, separated under eight chapters such as Culture and Traditions, Mother and the Child, Love, Seasons which include animals, birds, insects, flowers, plants, trees and vegetation, Time and Mortality, People and Patriotism.

Girmitias Changed Names

But what is most revealing in the book is his introductory note on his ancestry. It furnishes authentic information of some of the origins of our girmitias and their adventurous spirits. Indeed, as the scholar and high officer of the British government in India George Grierson noted: They responded to the recruiters willingly, it was said “from a spirit of adventure.”

We have heard stories of how girmitias changed their names to be able to be eligible for recruitment at the time of the indentureship from India to the plantation colonies. I personally know of several families in Mauritius whose ancestors had recourse to this practice. But I cannot write about them without their consent.

However, Balwantsing Nobutsing makes a clean statement about it. He says in his book that his ancestor’s (dada’s) name was Rambharuth Pandey and he came to Mauritius at the age of 23, on 9th August 1898 from Rewtipur (UP) of the Presidency of Oudh, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. His story is quite interesting. He did not come as an indentured or girmitia, but as a deck passenger on board the Wardha.

As the colonisers wanted strong, hardworking labour and not priests, Pandey changed his name to Rambharuthsing while boarding the ship. On his arrival, he was recruited for work at Bel Ombre Sugar Estate. On the estate he registered himself as Rambharuthsing Nobutsing, taking on the name of the arkatia or recruiting agent- Nobutsing! Fascinating revelation. As the descendants of the girmitias become more vocal and affirmative about their background, we have on record more articulate history about indentured immigration.

Many oral traditions practised at the time of the author’s childhood as well as other nostalgic slices from his life and oral history are arresting and exquisitely written in verse forms.

Under The Breadfruit Tree makes fascinating reading and is available at the Nalanda Bookshop.


* Published in print edition on 3 April  2015

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