Frederick Noronha <[EMAIL PROTECTED]> wrote:  A piece on a Jesuit... writting 
some time ago. FN


By Frederick Noronha

You could call him the priest with green fingers. Jesuit priest
Pratap Naik has put together a collection of over 328 trees and
plants, all in the yard of a research institution studying the local
Konknni language that he heads.

Naik (56) believes that the culture of a place is reflected "not
only" in its language, but also in its flora – apart from its fauna,
architecture, food habits and dress.

He wants to grow one of every fruit-bearing tree that grows in this
former Portuguese colony that happens to be, not coincidentally, rich
in plant diversity. This richness is thanks in significant part to
plant exchanges by the former rulers who centuries back controlled
international seaways and had an empire straddling the continents.

Many months of hard work has seen Naik piece together a
well-maintained and neatly labelled botanical garden. You can read the
local names in Konknni, the botanical names, their English names.
Elsewhere, he keeps a list of the original native countries of these
Goa-adopted plants.

In one corner you can find the 'ainno madd' (the Fan Palm in
English, or 'Livistona rotundifolia' as it's known by its botanical
name). It comes from tropical America.

There's the 'ambaddo', dismissively perhaps called the hog-plum
(Spondias pinnata) that traces its origins to India itself. The
'ambor' (mulberry, or Morus alba) has Chinese origins. Kalljirem
(black cumin, Nigella sativa) is again of Indian origin.

Kiraitem (canscora in English, or Canscora decussata) is from India,
but the 'zaifoll' (nutmeg, Mystica fragans) comes from the Moluccas,
the so-called Spice Islands of past centuries, in the Far East. Gazgo
(the 'fever nut' or Caesalpinia bonduc) is, again, of Indian origin.

By now, Naik has already found the names of 325 species from among
the 329 he planted. "Some don't have names in Konknni (the local
language)," says he, obliviously because of their exotic origins.

Naik cites the advice given by Alain Richert, a self-made French
botanist, who advised him to give names to plants, which don't have
local ones. He told me, 'Don't break your head over botanical terms.
These keep on changing. Your field is anyway not that.' "I want to
preserve the flora existing in this complex, and keep a sample," says

So giving names to plants is not too difficult for this linguist. It
should fit a couple of criteria. Firstly, the sound should be like
that of a Konknni word. Secondly, it should fit into the grammar
pattern of the local lingo, one of the smallest among India's list of
officially recognized 'national languages'.

For instance, he points to a particular hibiscus, which rotates with
the movement of the sun. It also changes its colour from crystal white
to dark pink, at different times of the day. "We call it the 'girgitti
dosonn' (or unsteady dosonn, the latter being the local word for
hibiscus)," he explains.

His collection doesn't include wild plants. But he bought and
planted "almost any Goan edible fruit". Most were purchased from
Mapusa, a nearby bazaar that has a colourful weekly market day each

"One vendor, Manerkar, who lives very close to Bicholim, manages to
bring me plants from almost any part of Goa," says he. "It started
off as a hobby, but has now become a way of life," explains the
priest. "When you get up in the morning, the whole compound is filled
with music (of birds both reared
and wild ones attracted by the plants). It starts from 4 am onwards," says he.

This oasis of green, amidst a growing concrete jungle, is a refuge
from a whole lot of local and migratory birds. "I don't allow anyone
to touch their nests, kill a single bird, or reptile. Everyone is
welcome to look and observe them, but not to disturb them."

There are still a few trees that he's looking out for – with local
names like 'xiranttam' and 'bhuim chamfo'.

Then there's the 'adao', a tasty fruit that you got easily in the
'sixties and 'seventies but now sees to have all but disappeared.

"People don't want such big trees to plant. They don't have the
space to do it. Our traditional land (which was customary around local
homes once) has vanished. Our whole culture has turned upside down,"
laments Naik.

Naik feels that over the years, Goans have shifted from living in
picturesque bungalows to flats, meaning that "our mind has become
flat". There simply is no space to grow, even if one wishes for it.
But Naik is not alone. In South Goa, another Jesuit priest, Savio
Rodrigues, has put together a wide range of plants himself at the
Aruppe Institute located in the village of Raia just outside Margao,
the South Goa headquarters town.

"Goa could be such a beautiful place. It could be a model," says he,
and calls his own green patch a "kind of shock absorber" in a centre
of urbanization.

"Many people come in just to admire (the plants). It becomes a
showpiece. I don't want that to happen. On the contrary, it should
become a part of our culture. You too should do something at your own
home," says the priest.

Naik has purchased plants costing as little as five rupees. Costly
species go up to Rs 700-1000 a piece. "Palms are very expensive," says

As we walked along his green campus, he points to a Pathan's Oak --
a hardwood plant that perhaps unlike it's name doesn't grow too tall.
It has a leafy circular spread. In his view, the currently widely
grown and colourful 'gulmohar' is a fairly "useless" plant. But he
grows as many as 13 varieties of 'champak' -- the plant locally called
the 'chamfo'.

There are no roses. "It's useless in this soil," says he, perched
atop the locality of Alto Porvorim. As the 'alto' prefix suggests,
it's the hilltop of a former village, which has barren soil.

Naik now has more than 15 varieties of mango, the king of fruits
that is popular in this part of India too, and where grafting
techniques has created scores of varieties believed to have been
brought in by missionary priests centuries ago.

To make the place colourful, he has brought in some birds -- guinea
fowls, local fowls, local and Manila ducks, geese, the 'gilli raja'
and even a fighter cock. He has a dozen or so of tortoise.

"My desire is to build a snake park, but for that I was told that
permission from the authorities would be required. Outside our
compound (in a suburb of state-capital Panaji, undergoing a real
estate boom) people keep killing snakes. I go out and bring them in,"
says he.

Naik himself learnt how to catch snakes "out of necessity". He says
workers were afraid to work in their compound. And Goa anyway has a
strong mythology about how "dangerous" snakes can be.

How did he get started? Ironically Naik himself "hated botany as a
student, and took mathematics instead".

But, he adds, that Jesuits themselves have had a "great tradition in
botany". He cites the example of Jesuit Pallithanam, a South Indian
priest long based in Goa, who taught a generation of students the
subjects at the North
Goa-based St Xavier's College. Some of his work has been preserved
and published by the Madurai Jesuits.

"From the beginning, Jesuits have been specialists. In almost all
subjects, except medicine," says Naik, not without a tinge of pride
about the religious order he's part of. He points to their work in
astronomy including in the Vatican observatory, and in physics.

"Botany has been a tradition, specially in areas like Madurai's
Sacred Heart College, outside Dindigul. For instance, the late Fr
Louis Anglade, a French Jesuit who worked in Tamil Nadu, was a known
environmentalist in times
when even the term was not fashionable. There's a museum named after
him at the Sacred Heart College," says he.

Fr K M Mathew was capable of identifying almost any fern in South
India. Late Santapau, a Spaniard Jesuit who worked in Mumbai (or
Bombay as it was then known), collected over hundred thousand
specimens and was an internationally
recognized authority on plant-taxonomy

"Late Cecil Saldanha, from the Karnataka Province, was a Jesuit
botanist connected with the Western Ghats -- as the hilly tract across
coastal western India is known -- while Fr Leo D'Souza of St Aloysius
College in Mangalore is considered an expert in biotechnology," says

Is there anything more Naik himself would like to do? Of course,
plans are plenty, but resources are often limited. "We recently
acquired 24 volumes of the Flora of India," says he, talking of plans
of doing more.

One of his dreams is to come out with a book, showing all the local
plants in their flowering state.

Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr is a Jesuit-run centre for the Konknni
language, one of India's smallest 'national' languages spoken by an
estimated 2-5 million speakers, mainly along the west coast of the
country. This academy works on research in the Konknni language,
literature and culture. It
teaches the language in the ROMAN, Devanagari and Kannada scripts.

It was set up on land donated by Jesuit priest Claude Saldanha, and
partly purchased. The project cost Rs 12.5 million (Rs 1.25 crore),
including its landscape cost.

Both the TSKK, and its neighbouring Xavier Centre for Historical
Research, another Jesuit-run institution, have a joint campus of about
33,000 square metres. This gives ample space for building up a cool
environment for spreading knowledge and learning. TSKK garden is one
of the study centres for botany students and plant lovers. In Goa in
the name of development everybody is busy with constructing more
buildings and reducing the space for greenery and vegetation. In this
scenario nature lovers are optimistic that Jesuits would maintain
TSKK's lovely mini botanical garden without adding new cement
structures in the campus.



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