Trachy Through the Roof

by Ganesh Mani Pradhan, Kalimpong, West Bengal, India
Chamaerops No. 43-44, published online 05-08-2002

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On a recent visit to Darjeeling I was walking into the main town through N.C. Goenka Road. This is a one-way street. At the entrance of the street, on the left hand side, I saw a huge clump of Musa sikkimensis growing out of a corner of a building. With its massive leaves and straight trunks it made an impressive sight. It was flowering with its typical almost horizontal (to the main trunk) inflorescence, and small fruit had formed. After a few zoom shots I walked on, keeping to the left on the walkway. Traffic in this street is always heavy and one forgets it is a one-way street, especially when vehicles of all sizes zip past and the exhaust blast can be felt as your trousers flutter like a flag. Walking slowly and taking in the general scene I chanced to look down through a gap between two massive buildings and stopped in my tracks.

What I saw was the amazing sight of an old Trachycarpus fortunei tree growing straight out of the roof of a small house. It took a long time for the sight to soak in, and when I was convinced that it was not a hallucination or mirage of some sort, I was able to take in the bigger scene of the surroundings. The house was a small, two floor affair with a shiny, new corrugated tin roof. Surrounding the house were other tin roof houses and on the outer periphery were large multistory buildings, some of which came up to the street level. Obviously some of the people living in these buildings disposed their plastics and other stuff through their windows and on to the tin roofs below. There were telephone cables and cables from cable-TV providers criss-crossing the scenery. Directly in front of the house with the Trachy through the roof was another old tin roof house, and from behind this old house one could see bright green leaves of a clump of Musa poking up. Obviously Musa sikkimensis is the one species that will survive and grow happily in this cold climate. I had other urgent business to attend to and made plans to seek out the owner of the house the next morning. Needless to say a few well-aimed shots on the digital camera were made. >From my vantage point on the road I also did a quick survey of various windows, verandahs, and balconies of neighbouring buildings from where I could photograph the plant, with due permission of the flat owners, of course. During the course of the day I showed the pictures on the camera LCD screen to quite a few friends and acquaintances in Darjeeling and no one knew about this Trachy through the roof!

Next morning around 8 a.m. my wife and I plotted our way to the house using visual markers which we had marked the day before. Through a narrow lane we finally emerged in front of the house. After a long and admiring look at the plant we knocked on the door, which was opened by a gentleman. I explained as best I could my nature of business with him and he did seem a bit surprised. We were invited into the home and were told that the extension of the house with the Trachy belonged to his brother who was out at the moment but would be back anytime and would we please sit down and would we like a cup of tea in the meantime? He was in a hurry of sorts to get off to the school where he worked as an accountant. After about a half an hour wait and a nice cuppa and biscuits the brother arrived, and the story unfolds.

Mr. Sharda Prasad Bhattacharjee came to Darjeeling in 1880 and was employed in the administrative office of the Maharaja of Burdwan. The Maharaja had built his summer palace in Darjeeling and this magnificent building with a blue dome stands today. This period was around the time when tea gardens were being planted out in the verdant hills, which eventually paved the way for the now famous Darjeeling Tea. Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker had completed his historic journey through the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalayas 33 years previously, resulting in the publication of Himalayan Journals (Notes of a Naturalist). Gosh, the hills must have been full of palms at that time!

Mr. Sharda Prasad Bhattacharjee decided to make Darjeeling his home. His son, Mr. Surapati Bhattacharjee, after finishing his schooling, joined the Darjeeling Municipality and worked in this institution till retirement. As an employee he was entitled housing provided by Darjeeling Municipality. His two sons, Snigdhendu Bhattacharjee, the accountant, and Chandrashekhar Bhattacharjee, the owner of the extension, who works in the Food Craft Institute, Darjeeling (an institute run by the Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal, offering a study course in various disciplines of Hotel Management), still live in this old house.

I enjoyed talking to Chandrashekhar, and after a few pleasantries I found that I had met him previously. I am a member of Rotary Club of Kalimpong and a few years ago we had organized a Career Counseling Seminar in one of the schools in Kalimpong. I had gone over to the Food Craft Institute, Darjeeling, to invite some of the teaching faculty to speak to the students on Hotel Management as a career option.

Chandrashekhar said that he and his brother grew up in the old house. The compound and neighborhood hold memories. He remembers the Trachycarpus fortunei tree since as far back as his memory can take him. When the yard was spacious and before all the houses came up in the vicinity, the Trachy stem served as a single wicket for neighbourhood cricket matches. The trunk base must have taken many a hit with the ball amidst joyous shouts of 'howzzaaaat"! The trunk has old nails hammered into it, from when it served as one end of a clothesline for hanging out the washing. The one thing that surprises him is that the tree has looked this big ever since he can remember!

In 1997/98, Chandrashekhar decided to add a bedroom to the house. There was no space on three sides of the existing house, so he decided to build around the Trachy. None of the family members could even think of doing away with the Trachy, totem pole of childhood memories. I was then taken for a guided tour of the bedroom, which partially stands on cantilevered wooden beams projecting from an existing wall on the ground floor. A flight of narrow wooden steps leads up to the bedroom. The floor is made of hardwood and walls and ceiling paneled with pinewood. While laying the floor planks the carpenters cut out a circular portion to fit the Trachy trunk. The ceiling was a repetition of the floor with a hole through which the trunk passed. The corrugated tin roofing was a bit more difficult. Two of the roofing sheets had to have their edges cut out in a circular pattern so that they joined around the trunk in a proper fit with enough overlapping of the corrugation. Once the corrugated roofing sheets around the trunk were in place then the other sheets were placed outwards on each side. The rafters supporting the tin roofing are closer near the trunk. The small gap around the trunk where it emerges through the corrugated tin sheets has been tightly packed with polythene sheeting. This does not make a watertight seal and during the monsoons and other rainy days water seeps in. A small price to pay for having a Trachycarpus fortunei growing through your bedroom! Downstairs, the Trachy trunk enjoys a clear 9 ft. headroom before entering the bedroom floor. About 2 ft. after emerging from the roof there is a rather large tangled mass of humus obviously collected by the root mass of a Cymbidium plant that has made its home among the trunk fibres. Various small ferns also grow along with the Cymbidium. From this point upwards, the mat of fibres so typical of a Trachycarpus fortunei trunk is intact. The crown of the tree and a portion just below seems to be home to a colony of entire leaved ferns.

After bidding goodbye to Chandrashekhar I asked permission from the owner of a nearby building to go up to the balcony to takes some photographs. Permission granted, I was able to make some photographs from a different perspective. This surely must be the luckiest and happiest Trachycarpus fortunei in the world!

Note: Any technically oriented reader of Chamaerops who could offer technical advice on making a watertight seal on the roof where the trunk emerges from the corrugated tin roof could write to the Editor for passing on the information to the author and then on to Mr. Bhattacharjee.

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