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Under A Himalayan Palm

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By: Ganesh Saili

‘Why don’t you have a palm tree in your garden?’ asked my friend Shiv, a couple of years my senior at the Mussoorie college who was living at the other end of town.
‘A palm tree?’ I said. ‘Are you crazy? Palm trees grow along the coasts.’
‘Of course! I know they do. But you must get one for your garden. Will you let me plant one if I get it for you?’
And true to his word, he turned up a few days later with this little sapling in a bag.
‘Where did you steal that from?’ I asked warily .
‘Oh!’ he said, ‘It was growing at the bottom of the retaining wall below our home in Shamrock.’
‘Are you sure you didn’t pinch it from Ockbrook next door?’ That was Aunty Maisie’s cottage where she kept a beautiful garden.

‘Could be a descendant of the one growing above her home!’ said he. ‘But this was growing on our land.’
I remember it was the month of April, it was warm but not hot. We planted it, sprinkled some water and it took root to turn into a tall, lanky thirty footer witches’ broom of a tree. You could say those were palmy days. Up to five feet, it did look good but as it aged, it looked unkempt and ugly, giving neither fruit nor shade.

Come to think of it, if you do look around, Himalayan palm trees make an appearance in almost every other house on our hillside, waving their palm-like fronds to the slightest eddies of the breeze.

‘Was it the missionaries who planted them up here?’ wonders publisher Pramod Kapoor looking at the one that has taken root at his home in St Asaph. He asks me: ‘Does it have something to do with Palm Sunday – the one before Easter?’

That one’s named after Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds strewed the path welcoming Him with palm branches and leaves. While the tree itself is associated with the most sublime truths of Christianity. If you talk of ‘palmy days’ or ‘carrying off the palm’ you refer to the good times and a season of rejoicing. Or there’s the erect and slender form of a woman which is compared as ‘Lo, thy stature is like a palm-tree.’ And to bear the palm meant to be the best, perhaps referring to the Roman custom of giving the winner a branch of the tree.

Meanwhile all around me, our love for concrete has put paid to the beautiful gardens that we, as children, saw around every home. As early as 1894 this hill station supplied flower seeds ‘from every province in India, from Burma, Aden, Zanzibar, East Africa, Japan, China, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Afghanistan, Siam (Thailand), the Malay States and even from the Channel Isles and Great Britain…. ‘With an establishment like the Himalaya Seed Stores in the country, there is no need for garden lovers to send to England or America for their seeds, as the firm under notice can handle orders from the smallest to the largest quite satisfactorily as any of the well-known seed establishments at Home,’ says F. Bodycott’s Guide to Mussoorie of 1907.

In the nineteenth century, Barlowganj’s Himalaya Seed Stores could provide gardeners with all they would ever need in the way of flower and vegetable seeds; manures including guano; and gardening books too. When Mr R. Barton-West passed away in 1893, his company was taken over by Mr W. W. Johnston, a prolific writer on horticulture. His Amateur Gardener in the Hills was published in 1894, but he seems to have missed the Himalayan Palm or Khajur-ka-ped which grows faster for being weighed down, and becomes a symbol of resolution overcoming calamity. Some believe the palm sprang from the remainder of the clay from which Adam was formed.

Seated on a bench under the palm tree that Shiv carried here many long years ago, I remember the day we planted that little sapling with love and kindness. And at day’s end these are the things that make us human and help us create a bit of our own sunshine.

Ganesh Saili, born and home-grown in the hills, belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books, some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.