Sumana Roy

If money really grew on trees, most people in the world would have worked towards being good gardeners. And yet I find myself surrounded by visual images 

that insist that they do: financial consultants, stock trading companies, bankers, mutual fund agents, and now also life insurance agents, the last equating a well lived life with money that shall come to one like ripe fruit does to mature trees, use visuals to show money could grow organically (by which they perhaps also mean easily, discounting the tree’s labor at fruition). Dollars and rupees as leaves on a giant banyan; curled up currency notes as fancy leaves on a bonsai that has suddenly been liberated from its clay pot-prison (a stand-in for a stagnant economy, I suppose) and re-planted into the soil, that dark earth made to represent the naturalness of capitalism; and ubiquitous of course, the epipremnum aureum, commonly known as the ‘money plant’, its evergreen vine perhaps meant to convince the sceptic and the communist about the evergreen nature of the green coloured currency notes. There is something else about the money plant vine of course – it is a plant that will grow almost anywhere, inside the house or in the garden, in the light or in the dark, without fuss and attention; money should grow like that too, and as a writer in the Hindu, an Indian newspaper, wrote in the summer of 2002, ‘Get rich with money plant’.

A few years ago, I watched with concern and caution a play performed by students of a junior school in Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. The play was titled Money Grows on Trees – it was about an imaginary tree, as fictitious as the kalpavriksha, the Tree of Imagination. In this village of lazy people, someone had planted this Money Plant. When it grew into a kind and bounteous tree, someone discovered its miracles. Soon after, the people in the village stopped working. The play, performed by ten year olds, was, with good reason, structured into a moral narrative, and we watched, with collective sighs, how money became useless because there was nothing it could do on its own. No food to be bought because the farmer had stopped going to the fields, no clothes to be worn because the weaver slept all day, and so on. I was pretty certain that all of us in the audience were aware of similar stories about the uselessness of currency notes, but watching children perform an apocalyptic version of our deepest fantasies was clearly something else.

At first, when the children, dressed according to their professions in the play, began shaking the tree, green paper notes began to fall, some of them drifting off the stage, there was a sense of carnival, the kind that attends the arbitrary distribution of free gifts. But when this began to happen in instalments, and the tree, wrapped and buttressed for a series of performances, looked denuded, a bit like a tree in autumn, or what must in this case be a bearish market, something in us must have stirred. In the dim light, I looked at the faces of those around me to be convinced that it wasn’t me alone. By the time the play ended, the tree looked like a pole. Perhaps the art director, doubling as a moral science teacher, had meant it to be that.

But it wasn’t the anorexic tree that troubled me so much as the original tree that the art director had created. The title of the play had led me to expect either a generic tree that one saw on stage, a green afro on a brown trunk or a version of the humble money plant that many urban houses pet. Instead, I discovered giant versions of what is called the Chinese ‘lucky bamboo’. Dracaena braunii stems, bound by red ribbons, have made a place for themselves in a large percentage of urban households in India. Like the money plant, it is easy to grow, and like it, can be kept in water instead of sand. I thought this decision to use the Feng Shui bamboo as a prototype for the ‘money’ plant was imbued with significance. Sociologists might see this as another instance of the superstitious ways of the new moneyed class, but it is also about the addition of another layer to the superstition-reliant Indian consciousness: the ‘Chinese’ bamboo allied to the prosperous Chinese economy must replace the old world ‘money plant’.

There is a joke inbuilt in the nomenclature ‘money plant’: ‘money’ placed before ‘tree’ or ‘plant’ must generate as much laughter as ‘real’ before ‘love’. But a cunning mix of the ambitions of late capitalism with a fake folk wisdom has now taken over the way we look at plant life in India. ‘The wood for the tree’ is old world idiom that has been turned literal. Reading folktales about plant life from various parts of India, I discover two kinds of people: the first prefer gold to green; the second are rather unambitious, at least in a material sense, and choose the wisdom of a ‘natural’ life. It goes without saying that the world of these folktales is structured into simplistic binaries, but given where our socio-cultural life and polity stands now, it is rewarding to visit these tales to make connections. In “Two Leaves”, a Himachali folk tale (Folk Tales of Himachal Pradesh, Children’s Book Trust, New Delhi), two brothers, Birju and Damru, live in a ‘remote mountain village’. They are poor cobblers, and in the moral binary that structures these tales, Birju is ‘loud and aggressive and given to fits of temper’ while Damru is ‘quiet and patient’. Once, Damru, in spite of his brother’s protests, gives shelter to a tiny bird. The bird, in turn, in the exchange economy that is a part of this universe, offers a reward, and so she asks them to make a choice: ‘On the shores of this lake grow two trees. One has gold leaves, the other has green. The man who has a gold leaf will always be rich and the man who has a green leaf will always be happy. I can get a leaf for each of you. Tell me, which leaf do you want?’. Birju, expectedly, chooses the gold leaf, and Damru the green one. After this, a series of incidents play out, all evidence of Birju’s greed and Damru’s quiet self-content, and the moral is driven home: happiness over riches, green over gold. In all these tales, the living green is privileged over glitter, and so the victory of the tree planter over the wood cutter always.

On Facebook, a message by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went viral just before the parliamentary elections this year. Defining this as ‘the road to prosperity’, Modi said, ‘If a daughter is born, plant five trees along your farm and when she’s grown up you can sell the timber to fund her wedding’. I discovered, to my dismay, that people found this a magic and winsome formula. An economist friend and I first made jokes about this ecology-economy conflation, but later the anger refused to die. It wasn’t only the offensive scam to marry off the daughter (education for the son and a groom for the daughter savings formula that Indian banks have long popularised) that got us. It was the easy mechanics of cutting the ‘five trees’ for ‘timber’ – for someone who is emotionally invested in plant life, it is the equivalent of murdering five brothers to pay for a sister’s wedding.

Understandably, Modi’s ‘investment’ in plant life is obviously different from mine. His ‘development’ economics implies only a utilitarian ecology, one where plant life must be man’s slave alone. This isn’t, of course, very different from the ‘Environment Science’ textbook idiom that drives a schoolboy’s conscience: Plant-trees-for-oxygen is only replaced by Modi’s Plant-trees-for-money, in what seems like a natural progression from innocence to experience. Modi’s ambition is ‘social forestry’, one that will bring in the ‘tourism economy’. Statistics from a report by the Forest Survey of India, Dehradun, prove the success of his initiatives: tree cover in Gujarat is 4 percent compared to the national average of 2.7 percent. These trees are, of course, ‘money plants’, part of the tree-for-timber formula again.

Timber, Fuel, Fodder Wood, Carbon Stock, Tourism – these are Modi’s demands from the tree. The ‘Sanskritik Van’, the ‘cultural forests’, Modi’s brainchild that apparently derives from the Vedas and Upanishads, are being built also for the same exchange economy.  There are many jokes about the ‘money’ plant. ‘If money doesn’t grow on trees, why do banks have branches?’ ‘If money is made of paper, doesn’t that mean that money grows on trees?’ This one I like best: ‘If money grew on trees, there wouldn’t be much shade’. The Indian Prime Minister would do well to remember that.

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India, and is at