The South Asia Brown Bag Series Spring 2020 presents:
Aparajita Majumdar, graduate student, History Department at Cornell University, Ithaca: “Recalcitrant Lifeworlds of a Tree.”
I study a tree called the Jri Bamon that grows in the political borderlands of Northeast India and Bangladesh. The Jri Bamon was identified as a ‘rubber tree’ in 1810 by colonial botanists of nineteenth-century British India, who after being unsuccessful in extracting latex from it in the plantations of Assam, discarded it as a ‘failed crop’. However, in the hills of Meghalaya in present-day India, near the international borders of Bangladesh, the tree holds socio-ecological significance as a ‘living root bridge’. The living root bridges are structures made by local communities, who ethnically identify themselves as Khasi, by weaving the aerial roots of the Jri Bamon across rivers and gorges. Many of these bridges have existed for more than 200 years, and form part of a generations-old network through which people and goods [both legal and contraband] move across the deep gorges of Meghalaya hills, into the unfenced floodplains of Bangladesh.
My paper studies the socio-ecological and political significance of the Jri Bamon’s conversion from a ‘failed’ rubber crop in the colonial plantations of nineteenth-century British India, into the animated living root bridges of present-day Khasi Hills. By locating both the Jri Bamon and the Khasi border communities as agents of change in the historical processes of colonialism and nationalism, I ask the overarching question: How do human-plant relations articulated in indigenous ways of being subvert modernist regimes of control that rest on a clear distinction between categories like ‘culture’- ‘nature’, ‘subject’- ‘object’, ‘human’- ‘nonhuman’, ‘national’- ‘foreign’? I argue that there is a recalcitrance to the material growth pattern of the Jri Bamon, which although incomprehensible to the British botanists, was legible to the Khasi communities who harnessed it to resist the incorporation of their ‘planthuman’ worlds [Haraway 2008] into the colonial plantation epistemic and to subvert the rigid political borders of the nation-state.
Keywords: rubber, plantation, British India, borderlands, colonial, postcolonial, Northeast India, Bangladesh, Khasi, indigeneity, living root bridge
Before joining Cornell in 2017, Aparajita Majumdar completed her MPhil in Modern History from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In Spring 2020, she is a visiting scholar at Yale’s Anthropology Department. Her Ph.D. dissertation uses the methods of historical anthropology to locate the diversity of resource cultures that developed around a ‘failed’ rubber crop, botanically called Ficus elastica, and locally known in Northeast India by a variety of names like Borgach, Borgos, and Jri Bamon. She explores how marginalized communities of hilly India- Bangladesh borderlands have historically related to and molded this particular plant to shape their own socio-economics within a surveillance-heavy frontier.