Tag Archives: trees

The Venus Flytrap: Fig Tree Tales


Some things call to you, and other things call to many, but not you. Firmly in the latter category for me is the excitement around the ascension of the statue of Athi Varadar of Kanchipuram. Except for one precious detail: the statue, immersed in a water tank and displayed for public worship only once every forty years, is made of the wood of the athimaram, the ficus racemosa. This tree is both the mythical udumbara of the Pali texts, and the humble cluster fig (I believe we mostly eat the ficus carica, the common fig).

The many species of the fig tree have a cherished place in the stories of myriad traditions. The wood in which this avatar of Vishnu takes embodiment is connected to the sacred Bodhi beneath which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, the heart-shaped leaf of the pipal through which the Kutia Kondh goddess Nirantali created the first human tongue, the wild fig tree in whose roots was found the cradle containing the wolf-suckled babies Romulus and Remus (one of whom, having killed his brother, would establish Rome), the sycamore fig which was the abode of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, and numerous ‘world trees’ across cultures. The banyan too, that vast and intricately thriving repository of mystery and comfort, is a kind of ficus. Fig trees are special – givers of shade, stories, statues and, not least, sweetness.

Having tasted the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves into girdles to cover their bodies – the first undergarments (the Persian god Mithra too dressed himself with them). This Biblical parable gave rise to the literal use of the fig leaf motif in plaster casts commissioned by some museums to hide the genitals of sculptures when dignitaries visited, such as when Queen Victoria viewed a replica of Michelangelo’s David in London. Certain Popes also had fig leaf coverings made for works in the Vatican. Coincidentally, or not, the Greek god of debauchery, Dionysus, was also associated with fig trees, and one of his myths involves him making a phallus of fig wood for a secret rite.

It wasn’t until this contemplation that I realised why there’s something about the fig fruit that has always confused and seduced me. It’s because it plays a trick on the eye: green-skinned in the hue of a guava or pear, yet tender-fleshed in a way neither of those fruits are. I’m surprised every time by the lusciousness that’s inside that lacklustre rind. Perhaps this was that forbidden fruit, ripe with revelation.

Who knows who or what will still be standing in another forty years, in time for Athi Varadar’s next scheduled rise from his silver-casketed immersion. But fig trees have long lifespans – the fruit-bearing common ones can live up to two centuries, and folklore contends that banyans survive to a venerable ancientness. The elation around the idol’s current advent will lead to at least one lasting good: the Kanchipuram administration has committed to planting 40,000 fig saplings across the district in honour of the occasion. May those trees live to watch many tales, and keep safe many tellings under the aegis of their canopies.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 25th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Forest Of The City


Sometimes I think of what that learned one told me as I move through the city’s avenues, sound-sieged and sun-bleached but for intervallic canopies of leaves. “Vana is ‘city’ too,” he told me, a woman with a forest in plain sight in her name. Vanadurga is She of the City then, another kind of wilderness. Etymologies rearrange things. I think of urban briar and bramble, some danger always underfoot. The frightening things gridlocked into the city’s rhythms the way traffic engorges its roads. It makes sense: Vanadurga’s temples are supposed to be open to the air. No sunshade, no crown of verdure. It is the primeval forest goddess, Aranyani, who has no temples at all, who resides deeper within and without human consciousness. She is remembered only by the beauty of ancient words made to praise her.

Sometimes potted plants are too obvious a metaphor for things that grow – or try to – wherever they are given, in containments disconnected from the bounty of the earth. Other times I wake unto my gallery of green and am grateful for their tenacity, their thirst, their sheer splendour. The way bougainvillea the colour of sweet mango flesh arcs beyond the trellis, flagrantly flirtatious. The way water poured on parched soil brings forth the smell we wrongly identify as rain, for petrichor is only the scent of mud being made.

On the street, besides the stump of a tree we lost in the last cyclone, a vivid frond announces an uprising. Life goes on – “grows on”, someone said. There’s something immutable about this fact, despite the other one: everything changes.

Aranyani walking through cities, through what has become of the landscapes of her dominion. Redolent of bark and blossom, the tinkling of her anklets lost amidst the noises of this feral place.

If only the summer could still do to me what I see it do to the pods and buds on these trees. I borrowed the line from Pablo Neruda, and that’s why I reject its original preposition. I cannot type his “do with” without remembering what he did to the Ceylonese woman he employed while a consul on the island. Reader, he raped her. Don’t tell me you can know that and still be softly stirred by “I want to do with you what the spring does with the cherry trees”. Yet, why then did I forget, for awhile, what Derek Walcott too had done as every timeline filled up last week, in eulogy, with his exhortation to the rejected lover to feast on their life?

No, the summer is probably doing with me everything it always has: season of quenching, of moisture, of the quotidian pleasure of undressing. Season when the skin sings. I can’t see the brazen bougainvillea bursting over my balcony from behind my French windows. Am I like that too, in blossom but unaware? Disentangling the wrong etymologies. Seeing cities of trees and forests of conurbations while seeking some other kind of proof. I’d like to flourish again as if it was the first time, as if I need not be grateful, as if I did not know too well that seasons turn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Flower Power Party Guide


Everybody knows that spouses come to resemble each other, and if you’ve ever been bored on the Internet you’ve probably also seen that animals and the people who keep them share some similarities (or perhaps just a hairdresser). One expert usefully asserted that you could spot a hound owner from a mile away because they “look very doggy”.

But for company that neither vocalizes nor poops, you can’t go wrong with plants – and I have a feeling there’s a kind of foliage just for you. Recently, nodding obsequiously through a particularly boring conversation, I spaced out and thought of how the whiskers this woman was sprouting, elegant and sporadic as they were, were not unlike the bristles of a black bat flower.

Rewarded with a great solo party trick after years of deep poetic thoughts about trees and flowers, I suddenly enjoyed looking around the room. There were the clusters of weeds, the sycophants, all different variants: pretty and harmless dandelions, downright irksome poison ivy, and the honestly rather useful St. John’s wort and cannabis. The last one might have been more than a metaphorical sighting. Not that I could tell.

And that one over there – she surely grows bonsai; her soul itself seems corseted in a trellis. A little sad, a little less interesting than the bougainvillea and the pepper vines snaking their papery petals and heart-shaped leaves along the lengths of supportive spines. Not quite sycophants, those, just Sitas.

Hello, night-blooming cereus – why are you never as fun during the day? And over there’s a teetotaler, but you can’t be condescending to a Rose of Jericho, not when his sense of humour is even drier than his drought.

The cacti are actually a lot of fun: they’re a little prickly at first, but they really know how to hold their liquids. Anyone who vomits qualifies as a corpse flower, but only if they’re within smelling distance (otherwise, they may just be a different sort of plant entirely: the factory kind). Speaking of which – it’s also much easier to ignore the inebriated idiot taking off his shirt if you think of him as a deciduous tree.

Thankfully, though, there are other kinds: the banyan around whom the party inevitably congregates, the resilient olives (sometimes symbolically holding martinis) and maybe an ancient bristlecone pine or sequoia, still living it up and sharing everything they’ve seen along the way.

Including perhaps – through we’ll try not to stare – the cute little hothouse flower accidentally flashing her Georgia O’Keefe. A blush of shy mimosa pudicae, meanwhile, curl up and hide for shame.

I don’t know about you, but I always start the evening off as a narcissus. Vanity trumps misanthropy every time. Before the bloom wears off the rose, though, I’m preening with the lot of them. Sometimes I even get mistaken for celebrity flora, the kind mentioned in holy texts for example: sagacious bodhi trees and Lebanon cedars. I’m able to hang around only so long as they don’t realize that my own superstar qualities are fictional, and then I’m booted out along with the Faraway Tree and the Two Trees of Valinor.

And then there I’ll be, sulking and swilling something in the corner (and you know what my ultimate totem plant would have to be): trap-shut, thorny, digesting my findings.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.