Common Roots: How Humans and Trees Adapt to Survive

A cruise through the Sundarbans brings to light the invisible lines that bind us.  
wildlife mangroves
Illustration: Arati Kumar-Rao

We leave the Kokilmoni, the cruiser we have been travelling in all day, in small boats. We are heading towards the largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans, about 300 kilometres south of Dhaka. Most of the forest lies in Bangladesh, a smaller part is in West Bengal in India, in the vast Ganga delta at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.

The children in our party, about nine of them aged seven to 14, are quietly excited by the prospect of sighting wildlife. They have been promised deer, wild boar, crocodiles, and maybe even the elusive tiger. It is early afternoon and the sunlight filters through the sundari trees casting strange dancing shadows in the shallow waters. We alight carefully onto the grey, slippery ground. This is treacherous swampland, hospitable only to a chosen few. The forest looks eerie, unreal. It could be a scene from a science fiction movie set on an alien planet. There is a sense of secrets lurking below the surface.

Several grey spikes stick out of the ground, two- to four-feet-tall, slightly tapering at the top. They could be quills on the back of a giant dragon.

“Look at the roots of the trees,” our guide points out. The children are scornful. “Roots are found under the soil,” says one. “We learned that in science class.” The adults are silent, unwilling to display our ignorance, secretly nursing a sense of wonder.

These are aerial roots, pneumatophores. Our guide is an amateur naturalist who has been on this journey several times. The swampy soil cannot provide oxygen for the roots, so the tree has adapted by allowing its roots to grow outside the soil. A few metres away, we see more trees with a mesh of roots at the base, reaching their way into the soil like tentacles of a sea creature. The stilt roots are all intertwined together creating a buffer around the tree, holding it steady in the face of frequent tides and storms. The mangrove forest absorbs the brunt of frequent cyclones in this part of the world, protecting other life forms.

It makes me think about our human roots, the invisible lines that bind us to a land, a community, or an idea of a nation. There are about 30 of us on this trip to the Sundarbans from various parts of the Indian subcontinent. Here, in Bangladesh, our common roots hold us together. They show up in conversations through a common context, through the lack of explanations. We talk Bollywood movies, want masala peanuts with our drinks, and make disparaging comments about our political leaders. I become more conscious of my origins when I am far away from them.

Yet, sometimes we need to hide them, to adapt to a new environment. Friends and relatives in western countries have contracted their long unpronounceable names and given their children short global names that easily slide off the tongue. I remember an aunt who had emigrated to the U.S. several years ago. I had seen her as a new bride, shy, sari-clad, with few words of English. When I saw her a few years later, she looked very comfortable in jeans and shirt. She sported short hair and a distinct American accent. The red dot on her forehead had vanished along with the thick gold chain around her neck. “People sometimes think I am Hispanic,” she said quite happily. Yet, she came to India every two years to reconnect with her roots. This connection, through family ties, the language spoken as a child, or a palate that craves a familiar taste is always there. It is the place we go to in our heads, when we are asleep in our beds, like the Peter Sarstedt song, “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”

I see a scatter of knee roots. It is the exposed part of a long subterranean root that has come up for a bit of air before it goes back again. The broad plank roots radiate in plump curves from the base of the tree like snakes.

Trees will do anything to survive; their roots are willing partners in this struggle. It is perhaps the same with us humans.

Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Common Roots”.

  • Nirupama Subramanian is a columnist and author of two novels, "Keep The Change" and "Intermission". She has also won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition prize in 2006 for her short fiction.

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