Behind my childhood home in Kolkata, stands a big Moringa (Sojne) tree. Most Indians know it as the drumstick tree because of the thin long stick like fruit. The drumsticks are cut into small pieces and cooked widely across India, mostly in the South, and the way to enjoy them is to either suck out the tasty pulp or chew them down to a fibrous residue.
The Moringa is a generous tree. Because when it starts fruiting in spring, there is absolutely no stopping it. But despite all its medicinal goodness and abundance, the Moringa comes with a downside in the form of millions of small hairy caterpillars. These little creatures relish the small leaves and if unchecked, can take over a full grown tree and strip it down to bone in a matter of days. And if that wasn’t enough, the smallest skin contact with these hairy fellows can leave a rash and result in the most horrid itch. So, quite understandably, these little pests are most unwelcome in every garden.
We too were hit by a hairy caterpillar epidemic once. It was unbelievable. Due to the short life cycle of the species, the tree got filled up before we could react. The once welcome branches that peeped in through the bedroom window, suddenly became a nuisance with small caterpillars crawling everywhere. My mother and our gardener were going crazy trying to control the situation before it got out of hand. Of course, they did not want to use pesticides. My mother, being a true animal lover would never sanction mass genocide on these little baby moths, who, according to her, were just doing their job.
But then the complaints started pouring in from the neighbours behind the house. Normally quite reticent, they were suddenly very vocal about their feelings and asked my mother to cut down the tree. My mother said, absolutely not! The neighbours, who knew better than to mess with my mother, just went back to grumbling under their breath.
Anyway, this too passed. The tree was soon free of caterpillars and everyone was happy.
My last visit to Kolkata was during Moringa fruit season. It was nice to see the frenzy in the house. Between my mother, our old house-help Lakshmi and the gardener, they were making sure that not a single drumstick was wasted. Large bundles were being sent to relatives and friends. We were eating drumsticks for every meal.
Then one morning, Lakshmi, the ever protective warrior of our family, came huffing and puffing into the house accusing the neighbours of theft! Apparently she had spotted one of the same grumpy neighbours merrily plucking drumsticks from their terrace. Lakshmi was furious.
My mother, after hearing Lakshmi’s account, blurted out from the window, loud enough for the neighbours to hear ‘Aha, so when there are caterpillars, it’s my tree... and when there’s fruit, it’s everyone’s tree!’