The by-product of efforts to manufacture lac in a laboratory will continue to haunt us for a long time to come. It's just nature's way of telling us not to interfere…

From the arid regions of Rajasthan, let me, your langur story teller, take you into the tropical forests of India for my next story!

In my travels through thick forests, I have seen an amazing thing that grows and spreads on peepal, fig and other trees but doesn't really grow on them. . . did I confuse you? Well, listen, I shall tell you the story of lac.

The name “lac” comes from the Hindi word “lakh” and the Sanskrit “laksha” both meaning the numeral 1,00,000. You want to know what lac is, right?

It is a red-coloured waxy resin that the female lac bug secretes on twigs and small branches of trees. While the male insect matures, grows wings and flies away, the female remains under-developed. With no wings, no eyes, it remains immobile on tree branches. It sucks the sap of the tree on which it remains. In time, of course, the tree dies. This does not bother man as the lac they secrete brings him a lot of money.

Why do they produce this resin? Thousands — no, lakhs; hence, the name lac — of insects attach themselves to the twigs. They lay their eggs and cover them with lac. The sticky substance they produce hardens when exposed to air. Man crushes this waxy stuff and makes use of it in making many products like cosmetics, paints, wood polish, gramophone records (things in use long before you were born) and so on. All useless things, if you ask me.

Lac was used by people in this part of the world for many thousands of years. Mughal kings had trees felled and made them into ornate furniture; then they had it lacquered with shellac to make it look glossy.

I cannot understand the need to do that as I find the tree good enough to sit on!

Speaking of varnished wood, I remember this anecdote my grandpa once told me.

Emperor Akbar had a beautifully carved, lacquered sweet box. It had two chambers. One was filled with poisoned sweets and the other with good ones. Sometimes when people came to the emperor for justice, he was unable to give judgement. At such times he offered the accused man a sweet from the box. A guilty man chose the poisoned one by will of God!

Man does not depend on the lac bug for shellac these days. He has made a synthetic one. That was the start of a tragedy for the rest of us on the planet. Do you know why? Because when he was monkeying around in the lab to make shellac, he made plastic.

A most unfortunate serendipity, if you ask me!

An amazing substance with amazing stories linked with it!

Umm, I think I use the word “amazing” far too many times. Must change that!

Keywords: NatureLacShellacPlastic