The Banyan Tree: Jawahar Saidullah

She unraveled in slow motion, like a ball of string, rolling along on a bumpy floor. So unobtrusive was her undoing that for a while it went unnoticed. If Rupa’s gait was a bit slower, her speech somewhat slurred, if she gazed into the distance a little too much, no one paid attention. She was a girl, after all. Well on her way to becoming a young woman. And young women, as it is known, are apt to be somewhat dreamy, somewhat distracted, always thinking of their uncertain futures. They knew that young women of her age were known for a certain listlessness that comes from wondering about their futures.

Her parents were looking for a good boy from a socially and financially compatible home for her, someone with a stable job and good prospects.
“What kind of man will my husband be?”
“Will my in-laws be as mean as some I have heard about?”
Perhaps, her parents thought, that is what she wondered, as she sat under the old banyan tree in the courtyard, drying her long hair in the heated shade of summer.

It was a magnificent tree. The trunk, rough and welted with thick muscular cords of tree tissue. Its roots thrust deep into the ground, thirstily sucking up water and nutrition. Aerial roots descended from its twisted branches, touching the ground, some of them gouging the black soil beneath like strong, giant fingers, helping to support it. The rounded base of each leaf tapered to a gracefully fine point, with its distinctly ridged, life giving veins. The intertwined roots and
branches growing in all directions had created an oasis, a little gazebo, shaded against the heat of the blazing sun. Inside this gazebo, on a bench, was Rupa’s special place. This was the place where she spent most of her time, staring into the distance. The banyan tree had been young when the house was built, a century or more before. The trunk was now starting to weaken from age, but its many roots and branches still supported its huge bulk. From the courtyard, it had witnessed the births, marriages and deaths that bind together every family. It had survived the children who had swung from its hanging roots. It had lived through years of no rain. And it had outlasted the monsoon torrents that had threatened to drown both it and the house. And it stood there still, ancient and secretive, watching over its house.

Banyan trees are the abodes of spirits, good and bad, who must be satiated. It is important to maintain the balance of the good with the bad, so that neither dominates. Every Tuesday through the generations, the mistress of the house, had broken a coconut at its roots, drenching the soil and wood with sweet water and fragrance. And, for every festival, it was adorned with red and yellow ceremonial powders. Marigolds and tube-roses were strewn around it. When a child was born, it was brought out naked and new to be placed under the tree for its first blessing. The bodies of the dead were laid on a sheet woven of its leaves, to temper the hardness of the paved courtyard. The tree was the first stop for the departed soul on its journey to other worlds. On hot, hot days and cooling nights, the family would sit under its shade, especially during the frequent and prolonged power cuts. Its leaves would whisper back and forth, a giant fan powered by the slightest breeze. Sipping cool lemonade and mango juice in its shadow, the family would relax from the day’s tedium. Then as the sun circled the globe and fixed its gaze more strongly on that little part of the world, its leaves would begin to fall, yellowed and brittle. A ceaseless drift of papery leaves falling without sound, forming heaps that would have to be swept away at the end of each day.

Summer days seem endless. The golden beating of the sun, the bright light that fades only reluctantly into twilight. Sweat that runs like a torrent, untamed by three baths a day and copious dustings of white Cuticura talcum powder. It was in this intense furnace of the season that Rupa began to slip away, like molasses being poured from an earthen pot. She spent most of her day sitting under the banyan tree in the backyard. She would only be roused, with difficulty, when her mother yelled for her to wash the dishes, or to pick the rice and lentils clean of the small pebbles with which the corner grocer routinely adulterated them. Everyone waited for the rain to arrive, battle-clouds to scare away the summer and water to wash away the heat. When she walked around the house doing her chores she took twice as long as normal. Or she would sit around languidly, forgetting even to fan herself when it became unbearably hot. Sometimes a fly would alight on the corner of her lip, attracted by a bead of sweetened tea she had forgotten to lick away. It would take her a few minutes to flick it away.

Then came the windfall of her father’s bonus from work, the first in ten years. Apart from a tidy sum put away to finance her wedding, the rest was to be used to improve the house. Her mother had always wanted to add on to the main house, a verandah and another room and perhaps a bathroom, for overnight guests. They would especially need it during the time of Rupa’s wedding, as soon as they decided on a boy, of course. But the weakening old tree had to go to make room for this new addition.

Talking to her neighbor, Rupa’s mother tried to rein in her unseemly enthusiasm, “I know it is an old tree, sister and it has served our family well, but its shadow has always terrified me. I will not be sad to see it go.” The tree contractors were summoned. They arrived when Rupa was slowly sweeping the yard, paying special attention to the area around the tree. They measured the tree, calculating the manpower and saws needed to do the job. There was a palpable air of excitement and change in the house.

Rupa’s lassitude snapped with a vengeance. She tore at the neat braid her mother had woven for her that morning, loosening her hair. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head as she convulsed and thrashed on the ground, soiling her clothes in the dust.
“Lord Krishna, what is happening to her?” her mother cried, as her father inserted a wooden spoon in her mouth, like the bit of a mare, so that she would not swallow her own tongue.
“She must be possessed. Look, it is the Goddess Kali incarnate,” old family servants whispered. She did look the picture of the violent protector, with her tangled black hair and whirling arms. A few people came to touch her to be blessed before the goddess retreated; leaving just the girl they had always known.

“It would be best for her to be married,” whispered other old timers. “But who will marry a crazy girl?” others countered. Her parents, meanwhile, searched for a cure from doctors in the area. The search for boys gained a new frenzy but rumors travel fast in a small town.

Rupa divided her time between sitting and staring into space under the banyan tree and giving in to her fits. Occasionally, the local doctor was summoned. The sharp needle, pulsing with clear liquid, brought with it some relief for the household as she was swept away in a deep sleep. Life in the old house crept into a routine of frenzied panic and numbing sleep. Everyone agreed that this curse being visited upon the family was because of that old tree. For it was only when its life was threatened that Rupa had gone mad. Her father bore this burden stoically. He shrugged his shoulders as he had done when Rupa was born, his only daughter, his wife unable to bear more children. Her mother, on the other hand, cried and bemoaned her fate to all who would listen. “Oh, every Holi and Diwali we expiated the tree. We included it in every ceremony, everything that happened in the family. When my husband’s ancestors built the house, out of respect, they let it live. They could have cut it down, but they didn’t, did they? In fact, they brought it into our house, our lives. See how it repays us?”
“My poor Rupa, she was starting to get such good proposals, sister,” she would cry, wiping ceaseless tears from her eyes. “But now, she just sits there. Look at her.” Her confidants would commiserate with her, filing away the girl’s symptoms for later gossip sessions over hot tea and pakoras with the other neighborhood women.
One neighbor in particular, Rajni, a sharp-tongued woman with a long thin nose like a fox, visited every day, listening to Rupa’s mother, offering advice.
The women would whisper and cry, casting furtive glances toward the girl who lay on the bench under the tree. The two women then stood outside the canopied tree, and looked upon the girl. The banyan’s twigs adorned with pendant-like leaves, played their shadows on the girl’s face.
Rupa’s eyes were closed, a slight smile on her face chasing one thought after the next, her fingers playing with the long black hair that cascaded around her, a rich pillow of black, rippling silk.
Rajni nudged Rupa’s mother in the ribs. She cleared her throat. It was best to sound authoritative and in command.
“You. You there, leave my daughter alone. We have given you enough over the generations. We owe you nothing more.”
Rupa lay still, not noticing anything, as if her mother’s shouts to old trees were commonplace.
“Rupa, leave the tree alone and come here. I am your mother and you must obey me. It is written in the laws.” What laws, she did not know but it had to be said.
The hand playing with her hair stilled, but the eyes never opened and the lips kept on smiling.
Her mother’s voice became shrill, “Listen to me girl. This has gone on long enough.”
Her voice broke as she cried to Rajni, “It is of no use. She is totally under his spell. Oh cursed was the day that my husband’s great-great-great-grandfather invited him into our lives. Tell me sister, whose daughters can be safe with this menace living right in one’s house?
She broke into tears, while her companion did her best to console her. They returned inside to re-think their strategy. Their whispers, loud, harsh and sometimes tearful could be heard though indistinctly through the house. Rupa remained where she was, until the pale shadows of the leaves on her face changed to dark patches before being erased completely by the night. Still she lay there, looking at the starred skies through the jostling leaves.
“It is those lustful spirits that live in the tree sister. And your daughter, so pretty, and Lord Krishna, that hair, black as a young man’s lust, down to her hips.” She clucked her tongue in disapproval.
“A woman’s hair should always be confined. When I was a young girl, I remember my mother beat me up one time, for my own good; sister, you understand. Every week I would wash my hair and sit under the banyan tree to dry it. She got tired of telling me not to do that. But I was young and would insist on doing it anyway.”
Rajni could see she had her friend’s rapt attention and so she continued. “Then one day, an old sadhu visited us, asking for alms. And, as my mother opened the door to him, he looked in and saw me sitting under the tree. He shouted, and sister, his words still ring in my ears to this day. “Get away from that tree daughter. For it is in these old banyans that the desires of man are trapped. Some of the spirits in the tree are more dangerous than any mortal man, to the chastity of a young woman. And, especially, these spirits are attracted to the long, dark coils of a woman’s hair. For in the hair is the seductiveness of woman.” He left without even taking any alms.”
Rupa’s mother looked at her, alarmed yet intrigued. Rajni continued her story.
“That very day, sister, my father and brother took an axe to that tree and chopped it up for firewood. And I got such a beating that I will never forget that lesson. To this day I can’t forget. But luckily I was saved before any harm was done. Now, I would see your daughter and the tree, and had wanted to say something for years. But, it is not in me to put my nose in other people’s business. And now see what has happened? I blame myself, sister. I knew the dangers but I did not want to intrude.”
Rupa’s mother’s voice quavered as she asked, “But we are going to get the tree cut down in a week, sister. Will that solve it?”
Rajni’s response was quick, “No, no, not now. Now, he has entered her body. If it had been cut before she had invited him in, it would have been solved. But now, I have heard, she will die if the tree is cut.”
“Now if it was to fall by itself through natural causes, she could be freed. But otherwise she, and you, are trapped by this thing.”
A flood of tears greeted her words.
“Oh Lord, I am caught in a hellish web. If I cut through it, my child dies and if I don’t she dies. I can’t just wait for the accursed thing to fall down by itself. What can I do?”

Later that night she talked to her husband who ignored her, as always. He looked down at her hand which was digging into his bare forearm, and said firmly, “The tree comes down in two days. Now stop all this nonsense. We will take the girl to the doctor in the city tomorrow. Mr. Sharma at work says this doctor specializes in cases of hysteria.” His wife clucked in dismay, unable to do much else.

The night was still. Stark skies, precisely placed stars and the silver luster of the moon made the world a painting in silhouettes. Under the canopy of leaves, Rupa lay, staring at the darkness outside from the darkness within. Occasionally a leaf, shaken loose by an errant breeze would fall onto her. The leaves and branches shook continually, like the tremor of a palsied old man.
“They are trying to keep me away from you,” she whispered. “How can I bear it my love?”
A soft leaf fluttered down, kissing her upturned lips. She smiled, “I cannot stay away. When I am with you, I feel, I feel alive. As I’ve never felt before. I feel the keenness of the wind, the fire of the sun, the whips of the rain as my body has never felt before.”
The night drifted away toward moonlight. The tree was a lone boat on the sea of the universe. Rupa remained cradled within the tree. She lay there, even as the wind gathered strength, and the stars and the moon were enveloped in quilts of dark clouds. The first drops of water crept in through the leaves and splashed onto her cheeks, like tears. Each drop of water, black like oil in the night brought with it fear of loss, and an omen of the approaching storm. Wind gathered strength over the land until it finally approached the small town. Huge clouds pregnant with rain launched an invasion in the dark. The madness of the wind competed with the deadly fingers of lightening that reached down from the sky, and the stinging sheets of rain that threatened to drown the world. The storm lasted through most of the night, while the towns-people remained inside, cowering against the cries of the wind and the growling of the skies.

Morning arrived as the storm finally went on its way, considerably weakened. Power lines had snapped, roads were submerged and all the creeks and rivers in the town had risen to dangerous flood levels. The old tree had been unable to withstand the punishment and had fallen with a mighty crash in the early hours of the morning. Its huge roots now pointed toward the blue rain-washed sky. The tree had left a huge crater, a gaping wound in the earth indicating where it had once lived. Twigs, small branches and leaves were scattered throughout the court-yard. As it had teetered and then fallen, its thunder had reverberated through the house, competing with the angry growls from the skies. The family stayed inside as they prayed that it would spare their house.
Rupa’s mother was overjoyed, later in the morning, when she discovered that it had.
“Oh, thank Lord Krishna, it missed the house. It fell down by itself. Now we don’t have to pay them to cut the damn tree, just to take it away. And it fell by itself. So she is free and we are saved,” Rupa’s mother rejoiced, knowing that it was over.
“Well, time to make tea and breakfast. Where has that girl gone and died? Aii, you,” she gestured to one of the servants, “go see where that lazy girl is, and tell her to wake up.”
She was not in her bed, not in any of the rooms. Rupa had disappeared, sending her mother into another fit of tears lamenting her fate.
“Had she run away with someone? Had she been abducted? Did she just go to visit someone and had forgotten to tell anyone at home? Those were the thoughts in her mother’s mind before, she saw the hemmed and tasseled edge of the yellow ‘dupatta’ Rupa had worn the day before, trapped in the wreckage of the tree; before the workers hacked away at the roots and branches to the trunk, where the girl lay, clasped within its embrace; before she looked into her daughter’s sightless, open eyes. Blood had pooled in them, and run down her cheek, like tears.


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