Saturday, December 26, 2009

Story of Teak from The Glass Palace

This is from Glass palace by Amitav Ghosh. I was fascinated.

"...Almost invariably, they would find themselves following the course of a Chaung, a rushing mountain stream. Every few minutes a log would come hurtling through the water, on its way down to the plain.

To be caught in midstream by one of these hurtling 2 – ton projectiles was to be crippled or killed. When the path switched from one bank of the Chaung to the other, a lookout would be posted to call out the intervals between logs so that the porters would know when it was safe to cross.

Often the logs came in not singly but in groups, dozens of tons of hardwood caroming down the stream together: when they hit each other, the impact would be felt all the way up the banks. At times, a log would snag, in rapids or on the shore and within minutes, a tangled dam would rise out of the water, plugging the stream. One after another logs would go cannoning into one another, adding to the weight of the accumulated hardwood. The weight of the mass would mount until it became an irresistible force. Then at last something would give; a log, nine feet in girth would snap like a matchstick. With a great detonation, the dam would capsize and a tidal wave of wood and water would wash down the slopes of the mountain.
Chaungs are the trade winds of teak. In the dry season, when the earth cracked and forests wilted, the streams would dwindle into dribbles upon the slope, barely able to shoulder the weight of a handful leaves, mere trickles of mud between strings of cloudy riverbed pools. This was the season for the timber men to comb the forest for teak. The trees once picked, had to be killed and left to dry, for the density of teak is such that it will not remain afloat while its heartwood is moist. The killing was achieved with a girdle of incisions, thin slits carved deep into the wood at a height of four feet and six inches off the ground (teak being ruled despite the wildness of its terrain, by imperial stricture in every tiny detail).

The assassinated trees were left to die where they stood, sometimes for 3 years or even more. It was only after they had been judged dry enough to float that they were marked for felling. That was when the axe-men came, shouldering their weapons, squinting along the blades to judge their victim’s angle of descent.

Dead though they were, the trees would sound great tocsins of protest as they fell, unloosing thunderclap explosions that could be heard miles away, bringing down everything in their path, rafts of saplings, looped nets of rattan. Thick stands of bamboo were flattened in moments, thousands of jointed limbs exploding simultaneously in deadly splinter blasts, throwing up mushroom clouds of debris.

Then teams of elephants would go to work, guided by their handlers their oo-sis and pe-sis, butting, prodding, levering with their trunks. Belts of wooden rollers would be laid on the ground and quick fingered pa-kyeiks, specialized in the tying of chains would dart between the elephants’ legs, fastening steel harnesses. When finally the logs began to move such was the friction of their passage that water carriers would have to run beside them, dousing the smoking rollers with tilted buckets.

Dragged to the banks of Chaungs, the logs were piled into stacks and left to await the day when the chaungs would awaken from the hibernation of the hot season. With the first rains, the puddles along the streams’ beds would stir and stretch and join hands, rising lowly to the task of clearing away the debris accumulated over the long months of desiccation. Then, in a matter of days, with the rains pouring down, they would rear up in their beds, growing hundreds – fold in height.: where a week before they had wilted under the weight of twigs and leaves, they would now throw 2-ton logs downstream like feathered darts.

Thus would begin the logs’ journey to the timberyards of Rangoon: with elephants nudging them over the lopes into the frothing waters of the chaungs below.
Following the lie of the land they would make their way from feeder-streams to tributaries, until they debouched finally into the engorged rivers of the plains.

In years of bad rain, when the chaungs were too feeble to heft these great weights, the tiber companies’ profits plummeted. But even in good years, they were jealous, punishing taskmasters – these mountain streams. At the height of the season a single snagged tree could result in a pile up of 5000 logs or more. The servicing of these white waters was a science unto itself with its own cadre of adepts, special teams of oo-sis and elephants who spent the monsoon months ceaselessly patrolling the forest: these were the famed aunging herds skilled in the difficult and dangerous arts of clearing chaungs.

Once while sheltering beside a dying and girdled trunk of teak, Saya John gave Rajkumar a mint leaf to hold in one hand and a fallen leaf from the tree in the other. Feel them, he said, rub them between your fingers.

Teak is a relative of mint, tectona grandis, born of the same genus of a flowering plant, but of a distaff branch, presided by that most soothing of herbs verbena. It counts among its close kin many other fragrant and familiar herbs - sage, savoury, thyme, lavender, rosemary and most remarably holy basil, with its many descendants, green & purple, smooth leaved and coarse, pungent and fragrant bitter and sweet.
There was a teak tree in Pegu once, with a trunk that measured 106 feet from the ground to its first branch. Imagine what a mint’s leaf would be like if it were to grow upon a plant that rose more than a 100 feet into the air, straight up from the ground, without tapering or deviation, it’s stem as straight as a plumb-line, its first leaves appearing almost at the top clustered close together and outspread, like the hands of the surfacing diver. The mint leaf was the ssize of Rajkumar’s thumb while the other would have covered an elephant’s footprint, one was a weed that served to flavour soup, while the other came from a tree that had felled dynasties, caused invasions, created fortunes, brought a new way of life into being. Between the faint hairiness of the one and the bristling coarse texture fur of the other, there was an unmistakable kinship, a palpably familial link.

When the timber-heavy streams of the monsoons debouched into the Irrawaddy, the impact was that of colliding trains. The river was by now a swollen, angry torrent, racked by clashing currents and pock-marked with whirlpools. When the feeder streams slammed head-on into the river, 2-ton logs were thrown cartwheeling into the air; 50 foot tree trunks were sent shooting across the water like flat bottomed pebbles. The noise was that of an artillery barrage, with the sound of the detonations carrying for miles into the hinterland.

It was at these points where the river intersected with its feeder streams, that the teak companies’ profits were at greatest risk. So fast were the Irrawaddy’s currents in this season that the timber was as good as lost unless quickly brought to shore. It was here of necessity that that the logs passed from their terrestrial handlers to the aquatic, from oo-sis and elephants to river folk and raftsmen.

The streams’ confluences were guarded by retrievers specialised in the capture of river-borne logs: for the sum of three annas per log, these swimmers swung a human net across the river, wresting the logs from the currents and guiding them into shore. At the start of the season whole villages moved locations to take up stations along the river. Children kept watching along the banks, while the elders breasted the currents, darting between the giant trunks, treading water around churning whirlpools of teak. Some of these retrievers came back to shore lying prone on their captured logs, legs dangling. A few rode in standing on their feet, guiding the spinning, moss covered logs with prehensile toes: these were the monarchs of the river, the acknowledged masters of retrieval.

Once brought to the banks, the logs were anchored and moored. When enough had accumulated, skilled raftsmen bound them together into river-worthy craft. These rafts were all of the same size, the number of their logs being set, by the companies’ ordinance, at an exact 360 in each, a round sum of 30 dozen.

At one ton or more per log, this gave each raft, the tonnage of a small battleship and a deck space that was many times larger, wide enough to accommodate a fair or a parade ground. At the centre of each of these immense floating platforms, there stood a small hut, built by the raftsmen as housing for the crew. Like the temporary dwellings of teak camps, these raft-borne huts were erected in a matter of hours. They were all exactly the same in plan and yet always different in execution - one being marked by the trailed shoots of a quick growing wine, another by a chicken coop or even a shelter for a pig or a goat. Each raft bore a tall mast and a pole with a handful of grass affixed to the top, an offering to the river’s nats. Before being cut adrift, the rafts were assigned numbers, to be displayed on their masts along with the flags of the companies that owned them. The rafts travelled only between dawn and dusk, covering 10-15 miles a day, powered solely by the flow of the river and guided only by oars. The journey to Rangoon from upcountry forests could take 5 weeks or even more.

Despite their immense size-the rafts were immense in construction,: running afoul of a shoal or sandbank, they could disintegrate in a matter of minutes. Solid in appearance, their surfaces were as deceptive as quicksand. Thousands of gaps constantly opened and closed between the logs, each, a small but deadly ankle trap..."

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