|| Kalpavriksha ||

My friends on Facebook, who have ventured through some of my posts, may have noticed my infrequent return to a theme concerning ‘serendipity’ – the faculty of unexpectedly encountering some fortuitous happenstance or pleasant surprise.

Like all ordinary mortals, I too have my, albeit few, weaknesses. One of them is to discover (if there is) some secret thread running through apparently unconnected events of my life, separated by long periods of time – events which hold no particular significance for each other. Another one of my weaknesses is to project such a thread into the future, and hope for a miracle that would prove that such a thread did, and does exist.

Here is such a string of events, and let me reverse through them.

EVENT 5 (The most recent):
“Botanist Finds 1000 Year Old Tree of African Origin”, ran the headline of a small news item in the Hindustan Times, Ranchi Edition of August 31, 2015. It went on:

Baobab 1Daltonganj has a thousand-year-old tree called Adansonia Digitata, says a botanist from Maharashtra.

Om Prakash Rathore, a retired professor of botany from Maharashtra, found this tree during his nationwide search for Adansonia Digitata, the most widespread of the Adansonia species on the African continent. He was in Palamu to study the tree. This unique tree is located on the Station Road in Daltonganj town. The locals identify the tree as English Imli (tamarind).

“This is probably the oldest tree in Palamu and Jharkhand. The age of this tree is measured on the basis of its girth. However, the radiocarbon dating of this tree needs to be done to ascertain its exact age,” Rathore said. …

“Adansonia Digitata belongs to the African species, and found mainly in Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa. It is also knows as Baobab Tree, Monkey Bread Tree and Lemonade Tree. Five such trees have been found in Maharashtra too.”

On how a tree of African species reached India, he said, “The historical facts suggest the seeds of this tree were brought to India by African traders who came to India over a thousand years ago …”

My daughter, sometime in her high school days (before 2000), while she still read fiction, read my second hand copy of “The Little Prince”.

In 1979, I obtained the “Diplôme Supérieur d’Etudes Françaises”, at the “Alliance Française de Bangalore”. In a sequence of four ‘years’ of six-to-nine-month courses, in the final year I read some serious French literature. During this time I had access to its library and read some French books, but not “The Little Prince” in French. I cannot even recall if I ever looked for this book in the library.

TLP 2On 4 February 1977, I bought a copy of the English version of “Le Petit Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (though I had already read it) from a cubby-hole of a second-hand book shop on the Brigade road, Bangalore. I think it was at that time that I came to know about the tragic background of the inspiration for the story. At least its preface said this:

At the beginning of this strange and lovely parable, which is written as much for adults as for children, the author wrote: ‘I do not want anyone to read my book carelessly? I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories. Six years have already passed since my friend went away from me with his sheep. If I try to describe him here, it is to make sure that I shall not forget him. If I forget him I may become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures.’
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a professional air pilot as well as a poet, and this story tells of how he once made a forced landing in the middle of the Sahara Desert and woke up in the morning to discover the little prince, a solemn enchanting boy, who asked him to draw a sheep so that he could take it back with him to the star from which he had come.
As the pilot worked to repair his aircraft the little prince talked to him about Asteroid B-612, the tiny planet where he lived with three volcanoes and a haughty flower; about his problems in eliminating the Baobabs (the bad seeds); and about the rulers of the other planets he had visited, all of whom seemed to suffer from cares and stupidities of the everyday world.
We do not think anyone who has read about the little prince, with his clear loving eyes and his way of making simple things important, will ever quite forget him.
For everyone with imagination from nine upwards.

Now, looking at this copy, I find I had pasted to its jacket a paper cutting from The Telegraph, Calcutta edition dated Wednesday 22 December 1999 that goes like this:

The Fine Print
The Big Prince
Paris, Dec 21 (AP): Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s  “The Little Prince”, a whimsical fable of innocence and idealism, was voted Book of the Century in France.

Saint-Exupéry is a legendary figure in France, his tragic gate merging with his literary legacy to make him one of France’s most popular authors. He vanished in his warplane on July 31, 1944 near the French coast after having taken off from Corsica on an Allied mission against the Nazis.
“The Little Prince”, the tale of hope written in 1943 during the darkest days of World War II, has been translated in 84 languages and sold worldwide.

In 1972, I stayed as a guest at the home of a family of Calcutta, whose eldest son worked in Jamshedpur and was my neighbour. During my stay, I met his brother who let me read his favourite books which included the novella “The Little Price” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and a collection of poems of the French poet Apollinaire, both in English edition. Both were very picturesque. I particularly remember the poem “It’s Raining” (Il Pleut) from Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. “The Little Prince” was beautifully illustrated with many childish sketches, one of them being that of Baobab tree.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_de_Saint_Exupéry informs the following about the history of the novella.

On 30 December 1935, at 2:45 a.m., after 19 hours and 44 minutes in the air, Saint-Exupéry, along with his mechanic-navigator André Prévot, crashed in the Sahara desert. They were attempting to break the speed record in a Paris-to-Saigon air race … and win a prize of 150,000 francs. The crash site is thought to have been near the Wadi Natrun valley, close to the Nile Delta.

Both Saint-Exupéry and Prévot miraculously survived the crash, only to face rapid dehydration in the intense desert heat. Their maps were primitive and ambiguous, leaving them with no idea of their location. Lost among the sand dunes, their sole supplies were strawberries, ten oranges, a thermos of sweet juice, chocolate, a handful of crackers, and a small ration of wine. The pair had only one day’s worth of liquid. They both began to see mirages and experience auditory hallucinations, which were quickly followed by more vivid hallucinations. By the second and third day, they were so dehydrated that they stopped sweating altogether. Finally, on the fourth day, a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and administered a native rehydration treatment that saved their lives. The near brush with death would figure prominently in his 1939 memoir, “Wind, Sand and Stars”, winner of several awards. Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella “The Little Prince”, which begins with a pilot being marooned in the desert, is, in part, a reference to this experience.

Looking back on all these events I find a thread running and that is this. Ever since I first read about the little prince, like him I seem to have nursed thoughts and wishes that grown-ups would not understand. One of them is to sit under a Baobab tree, and the other is to read “The Little Prince” in French. Ideally, some day I should be able to sit under the one and read the other, taking small breaks to savour some poetry of Apollinaire.

Baobab 2

Will my wishes be fulfilled? I do not know, but I have just learned that the Indian name of the Adansonia Digitata is Kalpavriksha – the wish-fulfilling tree!

Baobab 4

© mikupa / 04 September 2015