Life Around Gulmohurs, Bauhinias and Mahoganys

Ahead of Neralu, the tree festival, photographer Vivek Muthuramalingam talks about the trees he grew up around

Published: 05th February 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th February 2015 11:53 PM   |  A+A-


When I was growing up in Rajajinagar, a fairly orthodox neighbourhood in Bengaluru that was home to Tamil Iyers and Lingayats and every kind of vegetarian in between, our family lived in a small one-bedroom flat on the first floor of a greenish-blue building. It overlooked a junction and in the evenings, we would often stand in the long, narrow balcony to catch a bit of breeze and watch people returning from work. 

In summer, we could survey the 5th Main Road with its string of gulmohars and marvel at its resplendent, fiery canopy in bloom. It was amusing to me that some of the tree branches let themselves into balconies and people didn’t seem to care. It was a good time to invade the terraces and pluck as many bright-green gulmohar buds as our pockets could hold. We chose the ones that were large, almost ready to bloom, and then carefully separating each of the sepals wore them as nails extensions. A few of us upturned our eyelids for additional effect and went chasing unsuspecting, and mostly younger kids on the street to scare them to a shriek.

In no time the prank caught on like wildfire and every kid was soon found doing it. It no longer felt exclusive and we looked for something more interesting and ‘important’ to do.

As one climbed down the red-oxide stairs (or slid down the banister) of our house and entered the street, they would first encounter a bauhinia tree (Basavanapada). We left our bicycles chained to its trunk. A small horizontal, waist-level gash on its bark we marked our stumps for an evening game of cricket. In spring, we plucked out the tender, light-green leaves of bauhinia, placed it over the left hand shaped as if holding an imaginary cone, and slammed on it with the other hand to create a loud snapping sound!

My elder brother Lokesh, in spite of all the sibling rivalry between us, taught me a good thing or two. He let me in on the location of a peacock flower tree (Ceasalpinia pulcherrima), on 6th Main Road, whose tender seeds were deemed edible. Together we brought down supple branches of the tree with their beautiful red-orange flowers, and stripped the pods open to munch on the peas. Among other edible things he showed me that the incongruously coloured white and yellow petal of the gulmohar (the ‘standard’ petal), was worth consuming. I remember that it tasted sour and made my face scrunch.

The stamens of the flower came of use as weapons in a miniature game of combat. We interlocked the anthers and tugged on it until one of them fell off. Nobody played fair; they weren’t supposed to. With my brother, I also discovered the intriguing nagalinga pushpam — flowers of the cannonball tree shaped like a thousand headed serpent arching over a lingam — on the 17th Cross in Malleshwaram and brought them home for mom on our way back from the Sadashivanagar swimming pool.

Back in the early 90s, residential buildings were modest and rarely rose above the second floor. And most of them had an open terrace. I spent a lot of time on ours after school, wading in the overhead tank when the water level was knee-deep or less. A frond or two of neighbour Nagaratnamma’s coconut tree always hung over our terrace. I used to pull out the leaflets and fashion wristwatches and snakes out of the blades.

Nagaratnamma loved the coconut trees in her backyard. Every evening, she diligently roped out stainless-steel pots of water from the well (where I often launched the fishes I caught at Sankey Tank) and watered them for at least an hour. Once in a few months, the friendly coconut reaper Krishnappa was called in to bring down the ripe ones and we witnessed the spectacle of his dexterity from our balconies, in awe. We secretly hoped we would be given a few nuts, but that never happened.

Going anywhere near a Neerukai mara (African tulip tree) was best avoided when we wore white. On certain Saturdays after school, I used to journey down to my friend Mallikarjuna’s house at Geleyara Balaga in Nandini Layout, which in those days seemed like the end of the city. Somewhere along the way, near the GD Naidu Hall, my classmates often engaged in duel under a Neerukai mara, spraying each other liquid jets from the gathered buds. It seemed like a whole lot of fun until we noticed stains on our shirts.

Mallikarjuna’s house was surrounded by a dense garden with plenty of flowering plants. I had spotted plenty of sun birds and wagtails there and for the first time saw the intricately-woven nest of a tailor bird.

Towards west, a silhouette of a huge Banyan tree stood at the horizon and we fancied visiting it one day just to check how far — and how big — it really was. So after much deliberation and lies, we embarked on an expedition one Saturday. After many hurdles that included crossing a massive sewer, we eventually trekked our way up till the tree. It turned out to be humongous and  encircled by generous granite katte, but we didn’t have enough time to soak in our conquest. It was getting dark and I had to get back home.

 Shubhakar was our ‘gang’ leader and on his orders we went collecting rain tree pods on the 80 Feet Road (now Dr Rajkumar Road) that weren’t yet crushed under the wheels of passing traffic. On his terrace we would gather to deseed and beat them into a pulp, greasing our palms with castor oil to prevent the mess from sticking. I still remember the acrid smell that our hands would reek of for at least a week afterwards. Once the pulp was of a desirable consistency, we would make new ‘cork’ balls out of them  to play cricket with!

 In our school, sharing the space with the gulmohars was the ‘helicopter tree’, a Mahogany. The seeds spiraled down from the skies and sometimes interrupted prayer sessions in the morning, causing a mild riot of giggles. It was a proud moment when some found a big, unruffled specimen and they simply didn’t miss the opportunity to show it off.  Climbing trees was a favourite after-lunch activity at school. It was a rite of passage that was immensely savoured and can never quite be forgotten.

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