In 1956, when my parents were building a new life for themselves in the city of Bangalore (now called Bengaluru), my mother’s brother arrived at their doorstep with a gift from my maternal grandparents.
My uncle had brought with him a set of three low-slung sofas crafted from the best teakwood. On the flanks of each chair, the ribs emerged in a radial formation, like the rays of the morning sun. My parents received the gift that would become a prized possession in their living room outlasting both of them: two single chairs and a love-seat, custom-built, stained and buffed to a fine gloss by a carpenter in my mother’s ancestral home in Kerala.
“Thekku” was the Malayalam term by which my parents had always referred to teak. I found out that the native term was, in fact, the origin for both the Portuguese (“teca”) and English (“teak”) references to the tree. My parents would always extol the wood’s durability and appearance. I learned that teak repelled termites, making it invaluable for use both indoors and outdoors.
Teakwood framed the doors and windows of our old bungalow in Chennai. Our doors, too, were fashioned from solid teak. When I reflect on the sale of the home my father had built with the breath and hope of his salad days, I wince at the dismantlement and, later, the jettisoning of all the teak reinforcements that had once made our house a home.
Of late, on all my travels, I’ve found myself sighing often at the stretch of an orchard or pondering the beauty of wood in both its native and its man-made form. On our walk through Galle, an old Dutch settlement in Sri Lanka, I couldn’t believe the fine craftsmanship—with local jackfruit, neem and teak woods—in the form of windows, doors, tables and seating. I stopped to feel artfully appointed wooden doors, benches, gates, settees, beds, headboards, shutters and windows. I asked questions about the type and origin of a wooden artifact. During my recent stay in South India, I drove through miles of semi-arid countryside where Tamil Nadu conjoins Andhra Pradesh. I rolled through jungle thickets in Kerala on an overnight train. Wherever I went, a phalanx of teak trees pierced the skies between rows of coconut, banana and rubber plantations.
I noticed that the teak tree (Tectona grandis) was never the tallest tree in the forest but it rose towards the skies with nary a hesitation. The coconut hunched over, depending on the sun and the wind. The palmyra seemed harsh, rugged and temperamental, dotting India’s landscape in an unpredictable manner. The stodgy banana was a ubiquitous clump of stumps, constantly birthing babies, often keeling over with a ponderous hand of fruit. But the teak, whether in a casual occurrence or in the formal mode of cultivation, maintained a stiff 70-foot stance, occupying little space close to the ground and sprouting a shower of leaves where no one could reach out to touch them—implacable and unshakeable on its lofty, one-track, pencil-point journey towards the blue yonder.
The teak, in my view, seemed like the elephant in the jungle. The comparison is not farfetched, I think. The two, the plant and the animal, were always colleagues working towards a common goal. They became inseparable when, in the middle of the 19th century, the obsession with teak began to rival that of gold and herds of elephants and “teak-wallahs” (teak inspectors) in Burma and northern Thailand carted timber for processing. Demand for hardwood in the west skyrocketed when European stocks of oak waned; teak became a worthy substitute, lining the interior and exterior of ships and residences.
While the world was discovering teak, one artistic young prince in the Travancore kingdom of Kerala, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, decided to build a house, a vast palace called Kuthiramalika, with 122 prancing horses carved into the wooden wall brackets that supported its southern roof. I walked through twenty rooms of this 80-room palace—lavishly ornamented in teak, rosewood, granite and marble—that took 5000 artisans four years to complete. I was flummoxed by the elaborate carvings in teak: sixteen rooms of the palace were constructed in sixteen different patterns, with each coffered ceiling a paean to the versatility of teak and to the skill of the artistes who molded the wood.
A few years ago, I discovered some of the same artistry with teak wood in my husband’s home when, years after my first visit, I walked into his ancestral property in the village of Esayanur. It was the first thing that accosted me when I stepped under the eaves of the old home: a doorway ornamented lavishly in teak with mythical annapakshi birds perched on swaying branches. As I did on every visit, I ran my fingers over its fine edges and shot yet another photograph of the same doorframe.
A photograph stanches a deep-seated fear of the evanescence of a particular moment. If I assumed an animistic perspective, I would argue that the spiritual world is intrinsically tied to the material world and that the wood in the doorframe is invested with the spirit of the people, in this case my husband’s ancestors, who touched it. Even in its inanimate avatar, wood is invested, I believe, with the power of the touch, of the transference of energy from one person to another.
In fall, when I receive three pieces of teak furniture whose grains were burned with the warmth of my parents’ bodies for over a half of a century, I’ll sink into one of the chairs on a rough day. My hands will glide over the arms of the chair knowing completely, as those of us do who seek their loved ones in every object they own, that while one of its arms belongs to my late mother, the other must surely belong to my recently departed father.