The Life and Times of a Banyan Tree

Compared to the luxury villas to be found in his neighbourhood, my old friend Keshraj has been living in a relatively modest house for the past 27 years on the North Coast. But with its two bedrooms, a kitchen-diner and a bathroom, it’s a comfortable home for him and his wife. However the jewel in the crown is the small veranda that opens out onto the turquoise lagoon a couple of hundred yards away and the Coin-de-Mire rising out of the deep blue waters beyond.

Before he remarried, friends used to tell him “You’ve got Paradise here; all you need is an Eve to render it complete,” much to his amusement. But he is laughing no more at our suggestion. In his new wife, he has found himself a loving partner, a good friend, a warm caring companion. Naturally a fiery character, he has become a much calmer person now than I have known him close up during the past 52 years.

The Banyan Tree

The grassed over garden boasts, among other things, several colourful shrubs, a carri Poulet and an assortment of spices such as coriander, thyme, parsley, shallots and the ubiquitous ti-piment. The piece-de-resistance, however, is the huge banyan tree which has a circumference of 30 feet, with a canopy that spreads across 60 feet in diameter.

I sort of had an idea that the banyan is a member of the fig family. However I owe it to Google that the origin of the name emanates from the Gujarati language meaning “grocer and trader.” In the olden days the village Panchayat and Hindu merchants used to conduct business under the cooling shade of this magnificent tree. Eventually the word became a synonym for the merchants and the tree under which they bought and sold their wares.

As with all Tarzan trees, Keshraj’s banyan throws down a lot of prop-roots. If not for the annual pruning, it would end up anchoring itself in the road and block the way to the public beach; and eventually take over the entire green lawn.

Several species of birds come to nest on the ample tree. So sitting under its shade can prove a hazardous business at certain times of the day, if you see what I mean! But ah, the coolness that one feels makes one forget any potential risk from any mal-élevé budgie. Even so, during the fruiting season when a mass of our feathered friends descends to feast on the bright orange fruits, it is best to avoid having one’s meal in the garden.

Blossoming Banyan

Older people used to say, if we want to encourage trees to give plentiful of fruits, we must talk to them. Now imagine your neighbour spotting you muttering away to your plants and trees. Isn’t it highly probable that they would think you had gone round the bend and dial 999. And before you knew what’s going on, you would be visited by men in white coats, put in a straitjacket and whisked away towards Beau-Bassin’s Brown Sequard Psychiatric Hospital.

Yet the advice from the old folks was not in vain. I know from personal experience with the rose bushes in our garden. One of my daily routines is to tend to them — watering, pruning, cutting dead flowers, getting rid of yellowing or lice-infested leaves. Whilst I don’t quite do a Prince Charles and talk to them, I have the habit of singing to myself whilst attending to my chores. The rose bushes seem to love this! As a result of which they flourish and reward me with lush, dark-green leaves and large fragrant flowers. Should I feel unwell and not go out to see to them for any length of time, they “jete zarmes” which results in straggly branches, dull leaves and smaller blooms.

So it has been with Keshraj’s banyan. When he built the house all those 27 years ago, it was a completely bare patch of land with just this one lonesome, straggly banyan with a single trunk measuring no more than five feet in circumference. With just a few sickly leaves on its thin branches, it looked as if it would shrivel and die anytime soon. But with the passing years, with human company and care, it has grown aerial prop-roots that have matured into woody trunks and increased its girth seven-fold. Ditto for the canopy which not only has expanded manifold but is laden with large lustrous green leaves. Making this a spot fit for any budding Buddha in search of Enlightenment.

 The Grottoes

Some people get confused about Keshraj’s religion sometimes. Because at the south end of his garden, there is a Grotto housing a statue of the Virgin Mary whilst the north end is graced by the traditional Mahabir-Swami. This can all be credited to his previous wife. Like many Hindu women in Mauritius, she used to go to pray at Pere Laval, the local Chapel as well as the Shivala.

When they first moved in, she swore she used to see a lady dressed in white roam around the garden at night. As a result she used to get very restless and agitated and could not sleep easy. So for a multi-believer like her, the answer was simple. In order to protect herself, Keshraj and their home, she had these grottoes built and consecrated by the appropriate priests. After that the lady in white simply went away and calm returned. I am still not very sure about it, but my understanding of these things does not stretch very far. So I give them the benefit of the doubt.

Monthly Visit

At Keshraj’s, Sushil and I are treated like “zenfants lacaze.” So we tend to invite ourselves to a monthly visit and spend half a day at his place, starting with a light lunch watered down by a can of Phoenix. This is later followed by tea and cakes in the afternoon and coffee in the evening. Usually we have a paddle in the briny water but, if the tide is out, we just take a lazy stroll along the beach. We do not normally hit the road back home before dusk.

But it was not always like that because, in order to avoid the rush hour traffic in Port-Louis, we used to leave at 3 pm. Once, having got back home at 4.30 pm, we were having a cup of coffee on the terrace when Sushil remarked, “We must be absolute fools… to leave a beautiful place by the sea and come here to sit surrounded by concrete.” As nice as our neighbourhood may be, it is true that it is filled with row after row of concrete houses with small gardens. Nothing like the open sea and the green fields at Keshraj.

Since that remark by Sushil, we never, ever leave before 7pm. No sane person would!


* Published in print edition on 6 July 2018

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