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
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
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
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
“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
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
“You. You there, leave my daughter alone. We have given
you enough over the generations. We owe you nothing
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
“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
“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
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
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