2/8/12

On Scaring Trees to Give Fruit

Around six years ago, my parents and I stood in our garden, contemplating the jackfruit tree that had grown to around 20 feet in height but was not showing any sign of giving fruit.

My parents, especially my mother, were connoisseurs of jackfruit - like most Keralites they could taste the fruit and tell you what kind it was, which region it came from and give a potted history of the role it played in Kerala culture. Much like the French taste wine blind and give you ornate descriptions of taste, the Malayali will do the same with jackfruit and bananas. A couple of years ago, I attended a jackfruit festival at the Sahitya Akademi in Thrissur. It was, my father later remarked, a perfect summer afternoon - jackfruit of different varieties laid out to eat on long white tables, jackfruit payasam and halwa and mountains of chips ready to buy. There were saplings for sale (but of course) and a bookstall selling Chomsky, Guevera and Namboodripad. Over speakers mounted in the hall and outside, Communists recited poems about the land, the people, and of course, jackfruit. My mother was appreciative - there was nothing more suitable to listen to while eating jackfruit than a Communist who’d been lubricated by generous glasses of arrack.

But that day in the garden, my parents were expressing their intense disappointment about the tree.

“It’s a failure,” my father shook his head.

“It was planted with so much hope. I gave it so much love - and what does it do? Just climbs towards the moon and does not give us anything.” My mother was inconsolable.

Truth be told, if the tree did give fruit at its top, the only ones who’d get to eat it would be the birds and passengers of passing aircraft.

“We’ll have to scare it.” My father remarked.

“Yes.” My mother replied, still gazing up at the tree.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know, threaten it a bit. Call out to it that we’ll cut it down if it doesn’t give fruit. And then give it a little scratch with a knife to reinforce the threat.”

“That’s such nonsense.” I paused for a bit, “Does it work?”

“Of course it does.”

Some months later, my mother called me up and told me, with satisfaction, that yes, they’d threatened the tree. And, she swore in another call just a few weeks later, the tree was beginning to show signs of giving studded fruit. That summer, we feasted on a 15 kg jackfruit - it was cut up and sent to the neighbours and relatives. My mother made a pot of chakka varattiyathu, which we polished off within a day.

The scaring of the tree, though, turns out to not have been just a Kerala tradition. In his book on following Ibn Battuta’s footsteps, Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, found that al-Qazwini, the Persian physician, also gave it as a tip for persuading obstinate, non-fruit producing palm trees:

“I later came across the same tradition in al-Qazwini’s Wonders of Creation, together with the following useful tip:

If a palm fails to bear fruit, you should take an axe and approach it, saying aloud to another person, ‘I want to cut down this tree because it doesn’t bear fruit.’ Your companion should reply, ‘Don’t do that. It will bear fruit this year.’ Then you must say, ‘No it won’t, it’s good for nothing,’ and give it a couple of light blows with the axe. Your companion must then seize your hand and say, ‘Leave it alone. It’s a good tree. Give it one more chance. If it doesn’t bear fruit this year, then do what you like with it.’ If you follow this procedure, the palm will produce an excellent crop.

The technique, surely the ultimate in talking to plants, is said to work equally well with other fruit trees.”