Ever since I could remember, the branches of the sprawling oak tree in our front garden were festooned with gold-tinsel fringed crimson sashes that my mother bought by dozens every time she visited her hometown in India. My mother said that she had tied the first sash the day my parents moved into the house, three years before I was to make my appearance in the world and that she had taken to tying a sash every birthday in the family or festival or sometimes, for no reason in particular, which I interpreted to be homesickness. When I was seven years old and made that first trip to India which I could remember in entirety, we were driving through arid summer-parched plains when we encountered an ancient, straggly acacia tree growing in a ditch separating the road from the fields beyond. It was hunched and bent over, seemingly weighted down by the sheer volume of sashes, bangles, handkerchiefs, and dupattas it bore. My mother made the driver stop, took a baby pink scallop edged handkerchief out of her handbag and tied that around one of the branches in lieu of the red sashes. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because it is a wish tree,” she said loudly while my father pretended to be submerged in deep sleep, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the car had stopped.
“If you tie something around one of its branches and wish for something, the tree will grant it,” she had said. I turned back and examined the tree, trying to spot the handkerchief that my mother had donated to its branches but it seemed to have virtually disappeared inside the melee of red, green, and brown the moment it was tied around the branch. “What did you wish for?” I asked, wondering if it was for the much talked about imaginary younger brother that my relatives had incessantly referred to wherever we had gone that summer, so much so that I was almost convinced that he did in fact exist and we would find him waiting for us when we returned home to UK. My mother stared at the tree, closed her eyes, and folded her hands, before leading me back to the car. “Those wishes are like the ones you make when you blow out candles on your birthday cake,” she said. “If you tell every one about the wish, it won’t come true.”
When I got back home, I didn’t find a younger brother waiting for me although I was suitably impressed that we had a wish tree of our own. For several years after that trip, I would personally offer to tie a sash around one of the oak tree’s lower branches, making sure to affect a double knot to ensure that the sash would never fall off and my wish had the potential of being fulfilled. There was something special about doing it, although in practice it seemed no different from tying my shoelaces before I went off to school every morning; yet, it was the sheer festive presence of the sash that made all the difference, lending blood and flesh and bone to a wish that would otherwise remain ephemeral and insubstantial inside the sky of my head— “I wish that the new girl with the pond-green eyes becomes my new best friend. I wish that I get those ice-skates.” I especially loved the spectacle that the tree presented during summer-time, all that blood red (oxygenated blood red, I was fond of telling my mother) deeply and gloriously contrasting against the bursting green of the summer leaves. “It’s like Christmas during summer time,” my mother would say and I happily agreed, forgetting that my mother refused to buy and decorate a real Christmas tree during Christmas itself, claiming that we were not Christians, ignoring mine and my father’s protests that all the other Hindu families we knew, furnished their living rooms with huge Christmas trees. During autumn, the tree would become yellow and orange and it often looked as if it was on cold fire with the infusion of red and gold in its midst and I thought it could not look any more beautiful.
After a while, though, I realized that none of my wishes came true although the sashes looked uniformly crimson and radiant, which meant that my mother had taken to removing the older faded and torn ones from the branches. That first time when we stopped by the tree in the countryside she had told me that if people who tied those sashes around the tree’s branches had their wishes granted, they would come back and untie whatever sash or piece of material they had had knotted around a branch. “That means their wishes don’t get fulfilled then,” I had had said, wondering how they could possibly distinguish and locate a particular object they had consigned to the tree for so densely populated it was with material that the branches were the ones which seemed like superfluities. I never asked my mother if the fact that she had untied the sashes meant that her wishes had been fulfilled, for the tree had become a taboo topic between us after I had refused to tie a sash around a branch on my sixteenth birthday. “But why?” she had asked, holding out the sash in front of her. “You used to love doing it. You would insist on tying some of the sashes yourself, saying that you too wanted to wish upon something.” I turned away and began to excavate the interior of my wardrobe in hope of finding the sequined mini-dress that I had bought six months ago and which I had never worn until now, hesitant to spotlight myself. “I stopped believing in Santa Claus and wishing stars a long time ago, Ma. Do I need to remind you that?” She now held up the sash like a banner, the way a warrior did to reaffirm his identity and the cause for which he fought. “Does it embarrass you then?” she finally asked. “Ma. Look. You believe in these things, that’s fine – why do you expect me to as well?” I said, finally unearthing the dress and triumphantly flinging it upon my bed. She looked at the dress and then, back at the sash before walking away. I heard the front door slam a few minutes later.
She seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of the red sashes, making sure she stocked up every time she went back to India for a holiday. Apart from purchasing the other religious paraphernalia that dotted our house, including the elaborately made up shrines in the ironing room, which was the house’s most deliciously fragranced room, smelling as it did of sandalwood and freshly laundered clothes, she insisted on buying the sashes from the same shop as she had done for the last twenty years. The sashes migrated to other parts of the house and yet I began to exclusively associate the ironing room with them for it incontrovertibly had become my mother’s domain. I figured out why it was that my mother so uncomplainingly ironed throughout the day for it was the repository of all that she held most dear. Once, when I had had to iron a top that I did not want my mother to know that I possessed, I saw that if she looked to her left, she would glimpse her sustaining shrines and on the right, she would in turn see the tree framed inside the window: her two pole stars of faith. Over the years, the room accumulated other shrines: one corner was piled with decade old yellowed copies of her favorite Hindi women’s magazine, Grishoba, Hindi novels, Bollywood film magazines in English, and an annually updated Hindu calendar while another contained a bulletin board emblazoned with photographs, newspaper cuttings (including some from my mother’s favorite Hindi newspaper back home), letters, and even a couple of my primary school drawings, which predictably enough were of the tree. It was through the photographs on the bulletin board that I saw vestiges of another life she had lived in the UK once upon a time: hair blunt and short, skirts and blouses, and surrounded by her colleagues in the post office, all that she had chosen to relinquish for saris and staying at home and looking after me and tending to her shrines, holy or otherwise.
My father would not have voluntarily gone to the temple but he never stopped my mother from buying the sashes and the religious objects or turning parts of our home into holy spaces; so much so, that I had taken to telling friends before they entered the house that they should take off their shoes as a reflex. For them, the tree was a whimsical oddity, similar to the faux marble birdbaths or hideous gnomes or a rusting unused metal rake that constituted the landscape of their gardens. When I was younger and had even narrated them the tale of the oak tree being a magical wish tree that had flown out from India to Britain along with us, they had happily transformed it into an enchanted tree and we spun out many a hot summer day in its fairyland shade. One of my friends, Sally had even looked up oak trees in the twenty-six volume encyclopedia that otherwise remained unread in her house and told us that in Celtic mythology, the oak tree was considered to be the tree of doors, a gateway between worlds and that simply reaffirmed the tree’s magical status. Yet, now, even if my friends casually reminded me of those days and how we had christened it as a wish tree, I would scowl and immediately changed the subject. “The damn thing didn’t even grant a single wish,” I would say if they persisted for the red did not sting their eyes as it did mine. I wished I could photoshop it out of my vision while staring at the front garden.
For a long time, I asked myself what it was that I had so begun to dislike about the tree. Was it the sheer outrageousness of the red which rippled through its midst? I did not like red or orange or yellow. I preferred colors like biscuit brown or sky blue, like those found in our leaf-patterned lounge carpet, solid, stolid, safe, and boring. They were the colors of camouflage and that is all I wanted to do, wherever I was, whatever I was doing. Was it because it had not granted any of the innumerable wishes I had expected it to fulfil? Why couldn’t the tree be like any of the other trees that lived on our street? Why couldn’t it be left to simply get on with the business of being a tree: shed leaves in autumn, shiver in the keening winter winds, its skeletal branches silhouetted against the winter sky, like antennae, and metamorphose into the flurry of green in spring? Why burden it with the added onerous responsibility of being a wish tree? “The tree doesn’t mind,” my mother had said the one time I had broached the subject; otherwise, after my sixteenth birthday, she had not referred to the tree or the red sashes in my presence, although the sashes themselves lay around everywhere, obvious, inescapable reminders of the tree’s existence apart from the tree itself.
A few weeks before my eighteenth birthday, though, the treetop began to wilt, the canopy dying, and we discovered that the tree was suffering from oak wilt. It would eventually have to be axed for the disease would greatly weaken the tree and it would surely fall down during the spring gales, unable to withstand the ferocity of the winds’ assault. My mother could and would not allow it to be axed and yet, the impact of the tree falling down in the garden could not be discounted either. She nonetheless religiously continued tying the sashes around the branches although it was now apparent that it was more for the tree’s sake rather than fulfilling our shopping list of wishes. The blood red ribbons looked grotesque silhouetted against what was clearly a dying tree and I longed to remove them all, letting the tree be peacefully diminished into nothingness.
After one March night when the winds yowled all night long, many branches snapped and scattered across the garden, smushing my mother’s strictly regimented and demarcated flowerbeds. “You got your wish, didn’t you?” My mother suddenly remarked apropos nothing several evenings later while we were having dinner. I had stared at her, unable to say anything, but she had gotten up, picked up a sash, and went out into the garden, although she usually never tied the sashes after sunset, saying that plants too needed their rest and could and should not be disturbed.
I went to university six months later and whenever I returned home for a weekend, I found the tree looking progressively ill each time I saw it: increasingly denuded, skinnier, and possessed of fewer limbs than before. Whereas earlier it had been a fecund, maternal embrace of green and brown and red, it now looked as if it shunned contact, the remaining branches twisted and curled into themselves, as if veiling the tree and its decay from the world’s gaze. The autumn of its life had finally descended upon it and yet, Ma continued to tie the sashes; the tree regularly shorn off older ones and dressed with new ones, reminding me of elderly hospital patients suffering from terminal diseases, their lipstick still fuschia and pearls glimmering around their neck.
I learnt about its death only when I came back from university for Christmas, glimpsing the empty space where the tree had stood from the distance when the car turned into our street. For a moment I had thought that the years of relentless mental photoshopping I had had done had finally worked its effect and that I had assimilated into my vision what I had been wishing for so long. “Baba, the tree,” I said, breaking into my father’s cheerful questions about the term, the exams, my friends. He fell silent, parking the car and then, putting his arm around me. “There was a bad storm about three weeks ago; the tree fell then,” he said. “Your mother has taken it very badly.” I got out of the car and went to the bare, tree-less spot, kneeling beside where the tree had once stood; there were no remains, not even a tombstone of a stump to commemorate that it had once lived there. I scooped out some of the soil, feeling it icy and crumbly and weightless within my palms; I let it fall between my fingers, some of the soil choosing to adhere to my palm-lines and grooving my nails. When I finally went inside, my mother hugged me and asked if I was hungry, if she should warm dinner. “Ma, the tree,” I blurted out but her face was turned away and she began to tell me that she and Baba were thinking of moving away. “It will be nice for us to live somewhere closer to your university,” she said. That was all she had to say in context to the tree during the entire holiday and as for the red sashes, I did not find a single one inside the home. Not even inside the ironing room, which felt cold, the shrines palpably bereft of presence.
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