I must confess from the start: it’s been many years since I was in Chennai. I’ve been meaning to go back, to write about it as well as to see some old friends, but Chennai has remained off the paths I’ve been beating these last few years, so I’m going to have to rely on memory.
Chennai (formerly known as Madras) lies on India’s east coast, firmly in the south of the country. The city is not a big tourist magnet, and there are damn good reasons for that. Like just about every Indian city (with the possible exception of parts of Bombay/Mumbai), its roads are clogged with a perpetual traffic jam, caused less by the quantity of cars than by the masses of scooters, mopeds, bicycles, livestock, pedestrians, and just stuff that is continually circulating on them. I could never drive in India—it’s not dangerous for the driver, but I can’t fathom how anyone can actually propel a motor vehicle through such mayhem without leaving a swath of flattened people and animals behind.
Once, a business contact from Chennai came to spend a week with me in Paris. The poor man had never left the south of India in his life. I went to pick him up at the airport, and he spent the next half-hour clinging terrified to the dashboard. He had never gone faster than about 50 kilometers per hour in his life (it’s just not possible on Indian roads … too crowded). Once I had slowed down to a crawl, he loosened up a little and started looking around at Paris. I was proud to show him my adopted city, but his only question was “Are there no cows in the street?” Yes, Indian roads are very different from European or American roads.
But I digress. I didn’t want to write about Chennai’s roads, nor about its tourist attractions (since, aside from a few temples, there really are none). I wanted to write about the banyan tree.
There was a time, some years back, when I spent a number of weeks in Chennai, spread over a few different visits. Despite its lack of historical attractions, Chennai does boast great, cheap food, as well as a plethora of Indian music and dance to appreciate. But still, a body wants to get out and wander from time to time.
One place I quickly decided to wander to was the beach. The beach is about 12 kilometers long, and probably about 500 meters wide at most points. It is sandy and flat and easy to walk on. The beach is festooned with merchants selling all kinds of things. There are very few people in the water: a few young men in bathing suits showing their prowess in the waves, fully clothed women who wade in to their knees and laugh as their saris spread across the water’s surface. Most people just walk along the beach. I was once approached there by a boy on horseback, who galloped up to me to ask if I didn’t want to take the horse for a spin. I have to confess that I’ve never been on a horse’s back. The closest I came was a donkey named Luigi in Sicily when I was 12, not to mention the various camels that have plagued my life, so I said no and the boy galloped off again.
The beach is also home to many fishermen, who cast off into the Bay of Bengal in skinny little boats that look like they were made by lashing a couple of pieces of driftwood together. At least, it used to be home to the fishermen—the 2004 tsunami swept death up onto this beach, and many of the poor who lived there perished. But when I was there last, this particular tragedy lay hidden in the unknowable future.
The beach was definitely worth the visit, so I decided there must be more to the city. I asked around and was pointed to the grounds of the Theosophical Society to discover the great old banyan tree.
Banyan trees are sacred to Hindus, to whom they represent eternal life. The banyan tree at the Theosophical Society in Chennai was represented to me as the world’s largest (which wasn’t really true, but you have to make allowances for local biases) and I made my way over to check it out.
But first I wanted to find out what the hell the Theosophical Society was. Or is. I therefore researched it as best I could and learned pretty much nothing. As best I can tell, it was one of those quasi-mystical 19th-century pseudo-religions that were so attractive to overfed and underskeptical British and American aristocrats. A couple of them created this philosophy/religion thing and for some reason decided that its headquarters would be in Madras (for Madras was still Madras then, before linguistic sensitivities converted it, in 1996, to Chennai). The tree was already on the grounds when they purchased the land, and had been for some 300 years.
The grounds of the Theosophical Society are pleasing and peaceful, which is a welcome respite from the rather smelly tension of Chennai itself. The tree, though, is not at all what I expected. I was escorted around by a kind, older gentleman who was some kind of security guard, although what he was guarding is a mystery. I suppose he was guarding the tree itself. He explained that the main trunk had been destroyed a few years earlier by a storm, which left only the secondary trunks. This means that the tree doesn’t look anything like a big old tree; instead, it looks like a thicket of small young trees.
This confused me, since I didn’t know anything about banyans at the time. He explained. Banyan trees are a kind of fig; they generally have a central trunk, and then, as the years go by, they drop “aerial roots” that descend into the ground and basically serve as the starting points for new trees. This means that old ones can pretty much create their own little grove.
This begged the question “If the original, central trunk had been blown down by a storm, was this still a tree, or was it the descendants of the original tree?” I asked this of the security guard, who said he didn’t rightly know. It depended on whether I meant in a philosophical sense, or whether I wanted to know if the roots were connected, or what. I said that each aspect of the question merited a response, and he stopped and began to think about it.
He never really finished thinking about it. He said he would look it up, or talk to some friends about the question, and that I should come back and ask him.
Now here’s the thing—I never did go back, and I can’t help but wonder if he found any answer, whether botanical or philosophical, and if he was disappointed that I didn’t return to find out. I’m kind of disappointed myself.