Aranyak: Jugal Prasad, the plantsman

I came across an unusual person one afternoon by the banks of the lake known as Saraswati Kundi.
I was riding slowly past its edge on my way back from the survey camp one day when I saw a man digging in the ground in the midst of the forest. At first I thought that he had come to dig up the tubers of ground pumpkins (literal translation; in the absence of any detailed description, I have come to the conclusion that this was Pueraria tuberosa or kudzu. This is known as Bhumikushmaand, Swadukanda, Ikshugandha and Kandapalaash in Hindi. It is indigenous to India and Pakistan.) It is a kind of vine with a large gourd shaped tuber that grows underground and cannot be seen from above. They are sold at a reasonable price for use in Ayurvedic medicine. Curious about his actions, I dismounted from the horse and went closer to him. I then saw that he was not digging anything up at all but planting some seeds. Startled by my presence he looked at me quite hesitantly. He was old enough to have greying hair. He had a hessian sack with him from which peeped the end of a short spade. A shovel lay beside him and a few paper packets were scattered about the place.
I asked: Who are you? What are you doing here? He answered: Are you the estate manager, Sir? I said: Yes, who are you? He: Greetings. My name is Jugal Prasad. I am Banwarilal’s cousin.
I then remembered that our estate employee Banwarilal had once mentioned this cousin. The reason his name had cropped up was that there was an opening for a Muhuri at Ajmabad Estate offices where I lived. I had asked Banwarilal to find a good person for the position. Banwari had said with some regret that he already knew the most suitable person for the position; his cousin. But even though there were not many people in the region who had such perfect handwriting or such education, the fellow was slightly strange and could be whimsical.
I had asked Banwarilal: Why? What does he do exactly? Banwarilal: He has many foibles. One of these involve wandering from place to place. He does not do a single thing, he is married and has a family but he does not look after them. He wanders about in the forest. He is not really a recluse; he is just strange like that.
So this was that cousin of Banwarilal’s?
My curiosity whetted, I asked: What are you planting there? I think the man had been trying to work in secret and he now sounded both a little ashamed and a little apologetic as he said: Nothing, nothing. Just these seeds here.
I was astonished: What kind of seed was he talking about? It wasn’t even his own land but part of a dense forest. Why was he scattering seeds there anyway? How would he benefit from this? He answered: I have many kinds of seed. I once saw a very beautiful flowering vine in a rich man’s house in Purnea. It had lovely red flowers. I have those and many other kinds of seeds of plants that do not grow in the forests here. I have collected them from far away. That is why I am planting them; they will grow and fill out into shrubs in a couple of years and it will look beautiful.
Once I had grasped his purpose my heart filled with respect for the man. He was spending his time and money on beautifying this vast forest with no hope of profiting in any manner. He had no claim to the land whatsoever. What an unusual fellow!
I called on him to come and sit with me under a tree.

He said: I have done this in the past as well. I planted all the flowering trees and vines that you see today in the forests of Lobtuliya about ten or twelve years ago from seed that I gathered in the forests of Purnea and from the hilly wooded tracts of Lachmipur Estate in southern Bhagalpur. They are a forest in themselves today. Do you like doing this very much? The jungle in Lobtuliya Baihar is very beautiful. It has been my wish for a long time that I would fill the low hillsides and the groves with new flower species. What flowers did you introduce? Let me first tell you how I was drawn towards doing this. I come from Dharampur. There were hardly any wild Bhandi flowers (Mimosa) in our area. I used to herd our buffalo along the banks of the Kushi as a boy, ten or fifteen krosh (1 krosh=2.25 mile) from my village on occasion. There I noticed the beauty of wild Bhandi flowers in the fields and wooded regions. I took seeds from those plants and planted them at home. Today you will see forests of Bhandi flowers all over my area, by the roadside, behind people’s houses and on fallow land. I have been doing this since that time. My hobby is to plant new flowers and seeds in various places. I have been all over the place in the pursuit of my passion. Now I am an expert at this.

I found that Jugal Prasad knew a lot about the forest flowers and rich plant life of the region. I had little doubt that he was an authority on these matters.
I said: Do you know the Aristolochia vine? As soon as I described the shape of the flower to him, he replied: The swan vine? The one with flowers shaped like little swans? Those do not come from around here. I have seen them in gardens in Patna.

One had to marvel at the depth of his knowledge. How many people had I seen who were simply worshippers of nature’s beauty? He had no interest in spreading seeds of flowers and plants across forests nor did he make any money from this. He was extremely poor and yet he devoted endless time and effort to increasing the flora of the forests.
He said: There is no woodland in this region which is quite as pleasant as the one on the banks of Saraswati Kundi. There are so many different plant species and the beauty of the water views are unmatched. Do you feel that water lilies would do well there? There are lilies in the village ponds of Dharampur. I was thinking I might bring some lily corms and plant them here.

I resolved to help him in whatever way I could. I was gripped with a desire to help Jugal Prasad adorn the forests with new species of plants, flowers and vines. I knew that he was so poor that he often did not have enough to feed his family with. I wrote to the main office and secured him a clerk’s position in Ajmabad at ten rupees a month.

That year I sent to Sutton Nurseries in Calcutta for seeds of exotic flowers and to the forests of the Dooars for cuttings of wild jasmine. These were planted in sufficient numbers in the forests around Saraswati Kundi. Jugal Prasad was ecstatic. I told him not to share this excitement with the others in the office. They would think him mad and also include me with that. When the rains came the following year, the plants all grew very fast. The lakeside soil was very fertile and the plants were all well suited to the climate. The only problem was with the seeds from Suttons. Each of those packets had pictures of the flower and a short description on it. I had selected them on the basis of colour and appearance; the seeds of white beam, red campion and stitchwort did really well. Foxgloves and wood anemones did not do badly either. But we could not save the dog rose and the honeysuckle cuttings.

~ Aranyak, translation mine

This entry was posted in A Good Thing, Bengal, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, Books, Calcutta, Garden, Translated Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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