The Family Tree
It is because of the Tree that I am spending this scorching summer noon waiting outside a courtroom.
Justice is being dispensed from the once white, crumbling colonial building that serves as the Magistrates court in my once white, crumbling hometown.
I am bored. All I can do is watch the cracks where the plaster had fallen off on the wall forming patterns that branch out like rivers on a relief map while I wait for my call. Motionless lizards watch flies with their hooded eyes as they fly close to their doom. The lizards look bored too. There are too many flies. There must be no thrill of the chase anymore.
Leaning back against the wooden bench I undo the top button of my shirt. The heat is palpable. The air smells of cigarette smoke and stale urine. There is a waft of cheap perfume from my left, where a sari clad damsel sits fanning herself. Her doe eyes are lined with thick mascara and her curly dark hair is adorned with a bunch of jasmine flowers. She winks at me and spits betel juice into a spittoon filled with sand. The sand covers a multitude of sins. She must be one of the prostitutes who peddle their wares along the highway to the long distance lorry drivers looking for a quick pit stop. Bored policemen usually pick them up when the case rate falls, often paying the fines out of their own pocket to boost their statistics. She’ll be back at her post for the evening shift.
The corridor where we wait buzzes with khaki clad policemen and dark robed lawyers. I watch the legal eagles dart back and forth, holding hushed conversations with their respective clients in corners. They are sweating in the heat, dark patches spreading under their armpits and etching a Rorschach pattern on their backs. I wonder why they suffer under all those layers of clothing. Although the Indian Penal system is fashioned after the British, it seems a bit silly to adopt the black robes and curly wigs too. I wonder why no one ever protested – perhaps they liked the pomp and splendour, perhaps it offered some solace from the post colonial indignity of being called the ‘third world’.
The court clerk had told me to wait for my turn. There are three or four cases to be judged before mine. So I wait for my turn in the searing heat.
A sudden gust of breeze offers temporary respite. I look outside and see the trees rustle briefly in the wind before returning to their stupor. The leaves stay unmoving as my mind drifts. It drifts past the court building and soars high in the sunlit sky. It hovers over my hometown longingly, over the place of my birth; the place that still haunts me in my dreams; the place where I chose to return to after all these years.
My mind wanders to the Tree.
My association with the Tree grew from early infancy. My mother told me later how she used to set up a makeshift cradle by tying an old sari onto one of the lower branches, how she used to let me sleep there, while she worked in the fields with my father. There I must have been, swinging lazily in the breeze, cosy in the cool shade of the Tree. She said I loved it. Not that I remember much of my nappy days.
My earliest memory of the Tree was when we used to play hide and seek amongst its sprawling branches and aerial roots. It was a giant hideout. The main trunk of the Tree was so broad it took ten of us circled around, holding hands, to span its girth. The oldest trunk was in the middle surrounded by further generations spread in a concentric fashion. The ground was soft and cushioned with yellowing leaves. Birds nested in the higher branches and their calls and croons were soothing. It was always cool under the Tree. It was also relatively dark, pierced only by fine shafts of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. The criss-crossing shafts of light made it all the more magical.
The Tree loomed in our backyard, bordering the paddy fields. It was a comforting presence. I felt at home when I sat under it. My mother made packed lunches when my father worked the fields and we used to sit in the shade, eating lemon rice and drinking cool glasses of buttermilk. Every working day was a picnic.
I tried to climb the Tree when my parents were not around.
My brother was four years older than me and could climb higher, fearlessly. I remember clinging to the lower branches watching his naked feet disappear higher and higher into the upper reaches. My feet struggled between fear and fascination. I had a few falls, but the carpet of leaves always softened the impact. I never got hurt more than an occasional bruise.
For a while in my young life climbing to the top was an obsession; my own Everest waiting to be conquered. My brother dazzled me with stories of mysterious sights at the top, making me more and more eager to climb. Everyday I would climb higher by a few branches and give up after shaking uncontrollably. It long remained a secret, uncharted realm for me.
I was twelve when I managed to climb to the top. I can still remember that day. My brother was away with my father to the market, my mother busy at home in the kitchen. I climbed my usual few branches and looked up into the dark green ceiling pierced with dazzling shafts of sunshine. The smell was of dank foliage and drying bark. I reached higher than I have ever done and could see the last few branches stretching out like gnarled hands. A surge of adrenaline coursed through me and my heart thudded resonantly in my chest. My forearm was bleeding from scratches but I was oblivious to pain. I only wanted one thing, the glory of reaching the summit.
I climbed slowly but surely, looking for handholds and footholds, easing my slim body through damp branches. They were thinner as I climbed higher, bending ominously with my weight. I could see the sky better and better as I inched upwards.
I was at the top.
It was a different world from there. The fields were greener. My house looked like a fairy tale castle with smoke curling up from the chimney. The wind was fresher and as it ruffled my hair. My fear vanished in the triumph. I could never top that feeling in my later years.
Of course, my brother didn’t believe me, so I had to do it all over again the next day. I was one of the big boys then. I was in his league. He treated me with renewed respect and gave me my first cigarette whilst we hid among the branches.
I remember the acrid smoke making me cough. He sat next to me perched on the crook of the branch, patting my back. Showing me how to do it. I remember smiling bravely through the tears streaming down my eyes. Choking and spluttering. I felt all grown up…
“Got a light?”
I look up and the woman is edging closer. She has a cigarette clinging to her bright red lips and a practiced expression in her eyes. I fumble into my pockets for my lighter.
I light her cigarette and she winks at me as she exhales a plume of smoke through pursed lips, wiping a thin drizzle of betel juice from the corner of red lips.
“Not seen you round here before.” She states in a husky voice. She utters every sentence as if it was a sexual invitation.
“I only arrived last week, I am on holiday.” I smile.
“What are you doing in the court anyway; you look like a decent sort?” She flicks her fingers and a shower of ash mars the silken sheen of her blue sari.
“It’s a long story,” I shake a cigarette loose from my own pack and lit it, “too long.” A crowd of people come out of the courtroom cheering and clapping loudly. A mongrel scurries along the corridor sniffing at the wall. As it slows down and cocks its legs in preparation, a sharp-eyed policeman delivers a swift kick before it can do the deed. It runs yelping and snarling into the sunlit courtyard.
“So are you going to tell me or what?” she is so close I can see the fine patina of perspiration on her top lip.
“Not really. It’s not an exciting story.” I hold her gaze for a few seconds and only see vacant eyes that never really follow the rest of her face in the flirtatious tics.
She curls her lips in defiance, “Sorry to bother you! You just looked bored and I thought I’ll cheer you up,” she moves close and whispers, “For fifty rupees I’ll cheer you up even more, just let me know alright?”
I nod solemnly. She has the unbridled confidence of a seasoned veteran.
She moves to her side of the bench and resumes smoking, her legs crossed and feet shaking in her own rhythm. She sits there erect and proud, not even remotely concerned about her forthcoming ordeal. She’ll probably be back on the highway for her evening shift.
She purses her lips and blows another thin stream of smoke. Bright red lips in an eternal pout…
Mina’s lips were pink and moist and full of promises.
The first time I kissed Mina was under the Tree. It was the first time I ever kissed a girl. I could feel her heart thudding away as I held her close and smelled her hair. She smelled of jasmines and coconut oil.
She leaned on the trunk, head thrown back and eyes closed. The gentle curve of her neck was enticing. I kissed her throat and felt her gasp.
I was fifteen then and so was Mina. We rendezvoused under the Tree every evening after school. My mother thought we were comparing notes from school. We were comparing notes alright. Just not the kind my mother thought we were
The feel of the first kiss is something I’ll never forget. The awkward fumble; the bad aim, the pursed lips wondering whether to open up; the wetness; the heat; the streams of hot breath; and a glimpse of heaven.
The Tree rustled as if it approved.
Mina was a bit of a tomboy. She was always climbing the Tree after me, wagering me that she could do it faster. If she lost she said I could kiss her.
“What if I lost?” I had asked in anticipation.
“Then I will kiss you.” She said and broke into a giggle. That was the first time I found out what a win-win situation was.
That summer was etched in my heart. A summer of love and secret meetings; sneaky glances and stolen kisses; discovering senses I didn’t know existed. My brother knew what we were up to. He warned me to be careful. He even made up lies to cover for my absences.
It wasn’t long before my parents found out what we were up to. The village was not a tolerant one towards courtship. Mina got taken out of school and her angry father had turned up at our house to talk to mine. My brother thought it was funny. It wasn’t funny when my Father took his leather belt that he reserved for special occasions. I was angry then. I didn’t cry. I remember standing there with my arms clenched and feet apart, almost defiantly. The belt left long welts on my back. He stopped after a few strokes, his eyes never meeting mine. He must have sensed something then, something that told him his younger son wasn’t a child anymore. He never hit me since.
Apparently Mina was due to be married off to someone else. It had all been arranged between the families. They didn’t want any scandal. They wanted my father to control his wayward son. The marriage was fixed quickly in view of what had happened. I didn’t meet Mina again.
The last I saw of Mina was from the Tree. I watched her wedding procession from the top. She must have been barely seventeen. One after another the bullock carts progressed along the muddy road. The marriage party was loud and boisterous. A band played wedding songs. A dusty haze covered the road as they sped past.
I felt loss bear down upon me like I bore down upon the branch. The branch bent, heavy, drooping.
I caught a glimpse of Mina as the last bridal cart went by. She was sitting in the cocoon of a bright red silk sari, head bowed and veiled. I am sure she looked up towards the tree, it was difficult to say. I think she saw me sitting there, waving my hand awkwardly but I couldn’t see clearly as my eyes were stinging.
I spent a long time on the Tree after the carts left. I felt the branches move around me. The leaves rustled and murmured a soothing lullaby. I sat there shrouded in the foliage, feeling as if I was back in my mother’s womb.
I only stirred when I heard my mother call out for me. I heard my name echo through the branches…
The court usher was shouting my name. I stood up and ran a weary hand through my hair.
“Have you got any representation, sir?” he asked as I walked towards him.
“No, I am happy to represent myself.” I step past the woman and she gives me a thumbs-up and another mascara laden wink.
I follow the usher into the courtroom. It is almost empty. A bored clerk sits in front of an ancient Remington typewriter. The liveried usher escorts me to the front where the Judge hunches over the table like a weathered gargoyle. The room is cooler with a tall ceiling. Electric fans creak as they rotate overhead. There is dust everywhere: on the walls, the wooden tables, on the fading portrait of Gandhi over the Judge’s head. Even the Judge looked dusty.
I feel like leaning over and blowing the dust away.
The clerk confirms my name and address and takes me through the formalities. I swear I will speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The prosecuting lawyer mumbles something to the Judge, and he nods solemnly and peers at me from above his bifocals, “How do you plead to the charges of assault and battery?”
“Guilty, your honour.”
The Judge jots it down in his pad. He takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes.
“You are not a resident of India now. Would you like to inform the British Embassy or seek legal representation?” He switches to a stilted English now with a wry smile.
“No, your honour. As you may be aware, I was born here. I am willing to accept any penalty that you bestow on me.”
“Bestow?” he repeats it and chuckles, “I see that you have no previous convictions or a police record. Could you explain to the court what made you inflict bodily harm on a government employee who was just doing his job?”
“I regret that I acted in a moment of anger and frustration, Your Honour. I am willing to pay for any hospital costs involved.”
He waves his hand, “The injuries were trivial. Let us say that I am just curious. I have spent all day trudging through mundane cases in this god awful heat. Humour me. Do you belong to Greenpeace or any similar organisations?”
“Oh no, my actions were purely personal.”
He taps his pen and cups his chin, “I am willing to listen.”…
My brother loved listening to me about the city.
I went to University when I was eighteen. It was miles away from the village. I boarded in a cramped flat near my College and only came home during holidays. It was hard at first. I was so used to the open spaces of the village. The city was cramped. There were too many shadows and not enough sun. The buildings were daunting and I missed the Tree.
I always went for walks with my brother when I returned home for summer holidays.
We would end up sitting under the Tree. It was I who shared my cigarettes with him then; my big city cigarettes. He would tell me about the farm, about the village gossip. I would entertain him about my adventures in the big, bad city.
He was proud of me. Little brother made good. It could’ve been him too, I told him. He could’ve gone to the University. He was clever.
He dismissed me with a wave of his callused hand. Someone had to look after the farms. Father wasn’t strong anymore though he pretended to be. Anyway we needed money for my College fees.
In the flickering shaft of sunlight we talked about our lives. My brother would etch little figures on the trunk as he listened. His eyes smiled but deep beneath I could sense a yearning. He was twenty-three and had already taken over the farming duties. But business was slack, he said. The river was dry there was a drought. The monsoons were failing and there was no reliable water supply.
He somehow looked older than his age. I asked him if he had any girlfriends. Or if my parents were arranging his marriage. He laughed my questions off. I could see he wanted to tell me something but he always held back. We smoked in silence under the Tree, watching the world go by.
I felt safe with him. Safe under our Tree.
Each year he talked less and less. The village was looking more and more like a ghost town. People moved out as monsoons failed. Abandoned farms were abundant. Every time I came back the place had shrunk a little more than the previous year.
My trips were briefer due to summer jobs. I felt guilty every time I returned, like a bloated parasite coming back to the host. It was as if my family was fading away to support my life.
My parents grew greyer and somehow smaller. I wanted them to move, to sell the farms and come with me to the city. They refused. My brother held on, bound by duty and responsibility.
It was after my final year in college when it happened.
“You are here on vacation?” the Judge is tapping his pen like a metronome.
“Yes, your Honour.”
“You had hardly arrived here and you headed straight for trouble.” tap, tap, tap.
“I didn’t come with any intention of trouble. I was merely visiting our family farm.”
“I am told this property no longer belongs to your family.” tap, tap, tap
“No,” I want to reach forward and pluck that ancient fountain pain and sling it across the room.
“It is government land now, isn’t it? Purchased by the highways department.”
“There you confronted the workers from the Public Works Department.”
“Can you tell me why you were so upset?”
“I can’t explain it, your Honour. It was just a momentary insanity.”
I shift on my feet. A brief gust of wind sweeps through the room. The bamboo blinds clatter on the large window. A tasselled rope hangs from the corners, swinging in a lazy arc.
It was his feet that I first saw, the feet I was so used to seeing clambering above me on the branches. I stood on the muddy earth, mindless of the rain lashing through the tree. Wind howled all around me. The monsoon had come early.
Little drops of water trickled down his feet as he hanged from the Tree. I could hear the branches crashing out as if in torment. The Tree was angry.
He had picked one of my mother’s saris to loop around his neck. I remembered the pattern on the sari vividly. Red flowers in an orange background. It was her favourite.
He never told me what had happened. The bouts of depression must have got worse. He had always been the silent sufferer, must’ve decided not to share his turmoil. I was home from college and had noticed he wasn’t his usual boisterous self. He was sullen and preoccupied. My mother told me that he never spoke to them much anymore. There was some woman involved. A married woman.
The village doesn’t take kindly to adultery. There was meant to be a public inquiry. My father wasn’t very happy, as this would mean humiliation and shame.
My days in the city alienated me more and more from the village dynamics. Honour and shame, duty and justice were not black and white anymore. They were gradually becoming shades of grey. The village existed in its own time warp; ancient codes and ethics still ruled.
I cried for not being there, for not being close to him. To make him see it wasn’t as bad as he thought it was. I might have saved him. I could have stopped him from hanging himself on that day of monsoon fury. I cut him down from the Tree while tears mingled with rainwater. My father was there, his mouth a thin line of grimness.
We laid my brother down on the leaf-strewn earth. I couldn’t bear to see his face.
Local women held my mother as she wailed. Sounds lost in the storm.
Only the Tree didn’t sway. It stood bravely, weathering the wind and rain. It s branches encircled us in a sheltering embrace. It stood like a dark clad mourner in a rain-drenched graveyard.
I thought I could hear my brother call out for me from the Tree.
Come on, you chicken, climb.
It’s magic at the top.
We all moved to the city. My parents never returned to the village.
I came back twenty years later on a crazy voyage of mid-life penance.
I booked into the hotel near the station and took a bus to the village. I could see the Tree even before I got out of the bus. It was still standing there, silhouetted against the glare, while the house we lived in was just a crumbling shell, a skeleton.
That’s when I saw the workmen with electric-saws surrounding the tree like vultures.
“So you hit the worker and tried to take the saw off him,” the Judge looks down on his document and pushes his bifocals up his nose
“Yes, your honour.”
“All because he was chopping down a tree?”
“You were described as being in a rage, in a great deal of anger.”
“It meant a lot to me, Your Honour.”
“You do realise they are building a highway there and the tree had to be removed.”
“I do realise that.”
“You regret your actions?”
“I do. I wish to apologise to the person involved. I realise he was only doing his job and my anger was misdirected.”
I get off lightly. A 500 rupees fine and I am free. I thank the Judge and walk out into the heat. I want to get out of the town and fly back home. But something draws me back to the old farm.
The Taxi crawls to a stop. The workmen have left now. I get out and ask the driver to wait.
It is unnaturally bright without the Tree. No more cool shade from the summer heat. I wonder where the birds went.
It feels like I am walking though a battlefield. Leaves, twigs, branches are scattered all over like dying soldiers. The wind is stronger now; playing unhindered through the barren field. I don’t know whether the wind was lamenting or laughing. For decades the Tree had stood there braving the wind. Now its remnants are tossed about without respect.
I bite back a cry as I see the stumps. The whole area is littered with wood chips. The central trunk is laid open. I see concentric circles in the amputated trunk like ripples in a pond.
I wonder which of the circles I am.
I kneel down and run my hand through the chips and fragments of the bark. The wind plucks them away and scatters them into a distance. I pick a handful of chips from the ground and walk back to the taxi.
I look at the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror as I climb back into the car, and nod.