On a Wednesday night in early May, four teenage athletes were rushed to hospital from a Sports Authority of India training centre in the coastal city of Alappuzha, in Kerala. The young women had deliberatly swallowed the poisonous seeds of the othalanga tree, or Cerbera odollam. Police later reported finding a note signed by the four, explaining the act as a response to harassment by other athletes living at the centre. The next day, one of them died.
In the media storm that followed, the othalanga tree was described in uniformly macabre tones—a “suicide tree,” a plant of “ill repute” bringing a “brutal harvest”—and with good reason. Kerala—where the annual suicide rate, at 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people, is more than double the national average—has a long and lethal acquaintance with the species. Yet, as I discovered on a visit to Alappuzha in June, the Othalanga tree is far from ostracised here. It grows freely in nearby salt marshes, and in similar locations elsewhere in south Kerala, and has rooted itself deeply in the local psyche. Many Keralites have a surprisingly easy relationship with the potentially mortal plant.
C Dileep, an assistant professor of botany at the Sanatana Dharma College in Alappuzha, agreed to show me the tree in its natural habitat. From a new fast-food restaurant opposite the college campus, we drove along roads under gathering monsoon clouds, lined with fisherman waving their catch at us in hopes of a sale. We stopped just outside town, at a stretch of road cutting through a backwater. Othalanga trees shot up sporadically along its flank, displaying succulent leaves and dainty white flowers reminiscent of crape jasmine blooms. Mango-like fruits hung low and heavy, bobbing in the wind like yo-yos; I was told they are also called “sea mangoes,” and have inspired a Malayalam phrase with their tendency to wobble before coming to rest: Othalanga pole mariyum, or “Fickle like an othalanga.”
Dileep picked a fruit, and, after several blows with a rock, prised it open to reveal an ovoid seed in a fibrous white shell. This is the seat of a toxin, cerberin, that causes uncoordinated spasms of the heart and eventual cardiac arrest. The seeds are a favoured means of suicide, Dileep said, because they purportedly bring on a painless death. There is also a cultish fascination with them, including in online forums about mystery writing, as perfect murder weapons, since cerberin goes undetected in standard autopsies. No antidote has been found yet. If anyone swallows a seed, doctors can only induce vomiting to try and flush the toxin out.
Debarshi Dasgupta is a National Foundation for India Media Fellow, exploring linguistic aspects of the Maoist conflict.