Return to the Banyan Tree by Chandra Ganguly

 

There is a two hundred and fifty-year-old Banyan tree outside the Matrimandir in Auroville, India. When this international, intentional city was nothing but red barren hard earth, the Banyan was the only standing tree. The land, once red and empty, is today green and wild. In the middle of it all the Banyan tree still stands, and I, now a visitor to the country, go every year seeking comfort. In my childhood I used to come to ravines like this on class trips. We would fill gunny bags with sand to block the crevices in the land so that the rains in the monsoon could seep into the earth instead of running over it, and then we would plant saplings. Today those saplings are trees and those trees in turn are wild spaces for man and beast.

 

My romance with the Banyan tree, and there are several others in Auroville, is symbolic of the things I missed when I moved to America. I became an immigrant twenty years ago in an arranged marriage that didn’t turn out well. Since then, I have remarried, have had three children, become an American citizen and through further migrations am now a resident in England. All through these travels I have returned to the town where I grew up and to the Banyan tree.

 

Some friends of mine here in the West seem to make do. They make South Indian filter coffee at home, they grind rice and dal and make dosas and idlis, they fry golden brown puris puffed with air, their kitchens are replete with spices as is mine. Migrants seek home in their food, rituals and other practices, but for me trying to make home has been an experience that has roots both in the ground and that hang exposed to the air like those of the Banyan tree.

 

Less than a kilometre from the Banyan in Auroville is the visitors’ centre. During my visits, I rest my head on the gnarled and twisted trunk of the tree seeking a blessing I cannot name. Afterwards I sit under her roots that fall like ropes from the branches above, and I listen to many bird songs. Then I go to the visitors’ centre, and I sit with my childhood friends and family and drink Sarsaparilla juice and eat vegan cakes made with cashews and coconut, and Indian thalis of chapatis and dal and vegetables. We sit under the shade of trees and we make eye contact with the crows who sit beyond the fishing nets that hang from the trees to protect us from their hungry beaks. My heart in those moments is both heavy and light because I am home in the sense that I am content within myself and yet I am also sad because I know that each of my flights from London or America to India and back are also acts against the very world I love so much.

 

I live in the southernmost corner of England today in a village of less than two thousand people, where I am the only Indian woman. My experiences of living in America and England are replete with the privileges these countries have offered me but there have also been the experiences of being the other, of being told to go back to where I belong, of not having a voice because the colour of my body signals that I am an outsider and these have been heavy burdens to bear.

 

When I swim in the warm waters of the Indian ocean outside Pondicherry, I try and stay away from the man who raises his lungi by the shore to defecate in the very waters I am wading in.  When monsoons come and rain water enters my home in Pondicherry, I know it is partly due to the sewers on the road that are choked with plastic bags. I do not turn away from the landfill next to the lotus pond in Auroville. I look deliberately at the bottles and other plastic waste that lie so close to the pink flowers on the green water and I point them all out to my daughters. Somewhere in all this complex opposition of beauty and waste lies something—a meaning? A riddle? Or perhaps even an answer.

 

The Banyan’s botanical name is Ficus benghalensis. Benghalensis contains within it Bengali, my mother tongue, and sometimes the tree is also referred to as the Bengal Fig. It feels like another mystic call to my origins signaling my search over the last two decades for a home. The name Banyan itself comes from the word baniyas, a community of Indian traders who would sit under for it for shade, but this was problematic as it brought to my mind the Indian caste system and all the divisions and inequalities it has created and still does.

 

I was not completely at home when I was growing up in Pondicherry. We had moved there from Kuwait when I was eleven and it was a difficult age to make friends. Auroville was always on the periphery, a place we visited when we wanted to get away from the town. Back then I had paid little attention to the Banyan tree. It was there at the centre of Auroville, but I was no naturalist, and my teenage memories of trees was a seeking of shade and a reprieve from the sun. It was only after I left Pondicherry for work at the age of 24 that it, and by extension Auroville, became in my imagination a home to return to. Much like my grandparents who became refugees during India’s partition, home has become a place I do not live in but return to in memory and body urged by nostalgia and loss.

 

My life as a migrant has been thus complicated with longing and belonging, both intertwined like the trunk and branches of my beloved tree. There is another Banyan I loved in Maui too. In August 2023, fires in Lahaina burnt down significant parts of the town and scorched the tree. My husband used to live in Maui for many years and I have sat under that tree many times. The girls were much younger then and the memory of our outings under that tree is replete with the innocence of their childhood. Now, much older, they are readying to leave the homes we have made, in search of their own place in the world. I imagine them finding that place perhaps not in a particular building or country but under trees that they will love just as I do the Banyan.

 

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Chandra Ganguly is a graduate from the Bennington Writing Seminars and from King’s College London. Her doctoral thesis was on the influence of mythological Indian goddesses on women and also her own migrations in the West. Her work has been published in Narrative Magazine, BuzzFeed and Arrowsmith Press. Chandra is working on a series exploring nature, writing, and the self, and publishes on Sub-stack here.

1 Comment

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Robert Meyerreply
July 9, 2024 at 7:08 pm

I also sat with my wife in the shade of the Banyan tree in Lahaina. The tree is damaged and my wife has passed. I still treasure the memory.

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