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The coconut is a grass


Sheela Jaywant

The scientific name of the coconut you grind for your curries is Cocosnucifera. It’s a member of the family Arecaceae, a relative of the supari. Wikipedia tells me the palm, and its nut, get the ‘coco’ part of their name from the Portuguese/Spanish word for a person’s head. Apparently, the three scars on its ‘face’ make it resemble a human skull. “You didn’t know that, did you?” I asked Shri Husband.

He grunted. Once; which meant he was actually paying attention, but pretending not to; does that often.

I took the opportunity of his not saying anything and went on: “It’s not really a tree, you know.”

“Not a tree?” queried Shri Husband. “How so?”

“Our Chief Minister said so.”

“When? Context? Reason?” Abba, I thought, here starts the why-session. But I was prepared.

I said: “At a state cabinet meeting chaired by him last Friday. It seems, since it (the Cocosnucifera, not the state cabinet) has no branches, it can’t be classified as a tree.”

“Well, it’s a palm; but, tell me, did he not have any other important things to discuss with his colleagues? Could he not leave nomenclature to scientists?”

How would I know? I’m only a poorly-informed housewife, I thought, but kept quiet, as is my wont. Then I told him: “Now, if you want to cut a coconut tree you don’t need to take permission from the forest department.”

“I don’t want to cut any… array, you just called it a tree,” he corrected me. “Call it a palm. And the coco-fruit is a drupe, not a nut,” he went on.

Huh? I thought. I’m ok with calling it a palm. But coco-drupe? coco-fruit? My curries won’t taste the same with these names. (Once, long ago, he’d told me that the cashew wasn’t a nut either, that was also a drupe. Later he added that names stick, never mind botanical definitions.)

I ignored that and informed him: “The government has approved the amendment to the Goa Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984. So now the coco-palm isn’t a tree.”

“After its productive years are over, a coconut tree is inevitably cut. So, does the amendment seek to omit coconut tree from the definition of a tree as in Section 1-A?”

I agreed: “That’s right.” Then, not wanting to miss a chance to correct him, pointed out: “You also called it a tree. Say ‘palm’.”

Both of us stepped out to see the lanky, towering Cocosnuciferas in our neighbourhood. It was hard to believe, though we know it to be true, that such a glorious crown so high above us stood on a foundation of a root system known as fibrous or adventitious, a characteristic of the grass species. Only a few of the roots penetrate deep into the soil for stability. Other types of large trees produce a single downward-growing tap root with a number of feeder roots growing from it. Cocosnucifera continues to produce roots from the base of the stem throughout its life. The number of roots produced depends on the age of the tree and the environment.

I said: “A tree that’s 60 to 70 years old, could have more than 3,600 roots.”

Shri Husband commented: “Who’s counted?”

Me: “Does that matter? Facts are facts, no?”

He nodded in agreement. He’s reasonable, sometimes.

He said: “The earliest description of the coconut palm was given by Cosmos of Alexandria in his ‘Topographia Christiana’ written about 545 AD.” I wondered of what use such information was to me.

Before he began his tirade on the goodness, etc., of the coco-drupe or whatever the Cocosnucifera fruit actually is, I was beginning to wonder whether this change of name would affect the prices of our ‘nustya-ros’, ‘alsande-sukey’ and ‘xacuti’.

We don’t have to grow our own coco-palms in Goa, I thought. After we’ve cut ours to widen roads and build still more houses, we could always import coco-drupes from neighbouring states, like we do vegetables, milk, pulses, sugar, even rice.

Shri Husband seems to read my mind. Can you believe, he interrupted my thoughts. He said: “I guess fish is the only food left we can call our ‘own’.” I ignored that and returned to my thoughts.

I’m not concerned with the builder lobby, nor do I side with the environmentalists, I’m only apprehensive about how to put food on the table. If I’m told to spell banana as ‘c-h-i-k-o-o’, I will do so, provided I don’t have to pay more for it.

“And,” said Shri Husband before he walked out of the room, “Invest in a good solar-cooker. After all the natural, shady greenery is gone, you can save on the cost of the LPG whose subsidy the government’s taking away.”

After he left, I thought to myself, how strange, that the coconut tree as I know it has something in common with grass. Can’t imagine ‘a cow eats grass’ being re-written as ‘a cow eats coco-palm’s cousin’. Just doesn’t sound right. But ‘aamche goem, harit goem’ might honestly become ‘brown Goa’, sooner rather than later. I don’t know how, but I think maybe it’s somehow linked to the official category-change of our dear, beloved Cocosnucifera.