Short Story: Judy and the Banyan Tree by Tapan Mozumdar

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‘I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.’ Judy whispered to the ancient roots of the Banyan. The boiled peanut seller in front of her didn’t see her lips moving. She was careful that way.

The Banyan had been listening to such stories since ages. The oldest person who used to sit below it was Puttaraju. ‘I got 89 the day before Ganesh Chaturthi,’ he would tell everyone who cared to listen to him, ‘not a day more, not a day less. We used to hide behind this tree when we were small.’ The Banyan outlived Puttaraju. He succumbed to pneumonia last winter. The tree survived construction of the adjacent road in 1995 and that of the apartment complex in 2012.

‘Give me a packet. How much?’ Judy relished the peanuts on days the clouds appeared in flocks, or the sun shimmered through the dense foliage or the dewdrops stealthily took over the tips of the grass blades near the cast iron bench on which she always sat. George had brought her first to this spot. That was when the Outer Ring Road had only four lanes.

‘You come here daily, Madam! And daily you ask the same question. What will change in a day?’ Judy gave him a ten rupee note. The seller always filled her packet to the brim and more; it was a task for her not to let a single nut fall.

‘A lot can change in a day, dear!’ Judy breathed out the words. The seller had moved away, but the Banyan heard. The evening breeze of late October prodded the leaves to whisper to Judy, ‘What can change in a day?’ It was a daily routine, but the breeze and The Banyan never got tired of listening to the story from her.

‘A lot! George would have been sitting by my side, here, for example?’ She pressed a peanut between her index finger and thumb. Pink and moist nuts slipped out of the brown pod.

After this point, Judy never needed any prompting. The events of Sunday, March 9th, 2014 would rewind. From 5:30 till the police knocked at her door. Pa-in-law was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s then. ‘Who’s George?’ He had asked when the inspector informed them about the accident.

‘Eeeks… Who boils peanuts? I want the sand roasted ones.’ Judy was from Kolkata. George was visiting for his corporate tennis matches and was staying with his aunt in Judy’s neighbourhood at the Free School Street. There were common friends, common interests and a mutual attraction. The wedding happened within eight months of their meeting each other.

Early in the marriage, he would laugh at her reactions on touching the packet of boiled peanuts. She loved the way he laughed. Loud, unafraid, clear, it would echo across the open meadow past the water body. That was in 2007 before those apartments were built.

It was getting darker and breezier. When Judy was a new wife, the winds of August here would smell of the Cannonball flowers. The tree was at the place where the garbage dump was built by the municipality in 2011.

‘Wettest August in the recorded history of Bangalore,’ someone was saying at the teashop next to the boundary wall of the cemetery.

The wall ended at the Banyan’s trunk and started again on the other side. ‘It’s strange that the Muslims spared the Banyan.’ George would pat her head as she leaned against his shoulder, ‘Seems the graveyard is younger than the tree.’ There was a park adjoining the Banyan. The wrought iron bench was left as a memento when the park was consumed by the road.

On weekdays, Judy would always be rushed for work. On Sunday, she would try to compensate for her inattention to George and family. He had lost his mother early. Judy wished to shower on him all the love he might have missed. ‘Love is fattening,’ he would tease.

She would watch the cookery show on Star World every Sunday after lunch and experiment with the recipes. George, the tennis coach he was, would cringe at the high-calorie goodies yet couldn’t resist tasting those.

On March 9th, she was off-mood due to her PMS. ‘Oh God, not again! Kitchen queen feeds the guinea pig before slaughter. What will be the price today, Madam?’ George’s banter, when she asked him to taste the salt, and six-year-old Lisa’s innocent laughter that followed felt much like a taunt to her. She poured the Tamarind Mutton Curry down the WC and flushed it. There was pin drop silence after that. Even Tipsy hadn’t dared to purr and hid below the coffee table.

George apologised a few times. He understood fast that the insult she felt ran deep. She had locked herself up inside the second bedroom and wouldn’t respond. ‘Ok, so I am a demon. Curse me but speak to me.’ He tapped on the door first then his amplitude and frequency mounted. Their colony had grown organically since 1972; several houses shared walls. If the decibel of knocking had increased, their petty feud would have become the topic for prime gossip after Sunday prayer at St. Rock’s Church.

George knew that. He knew as well that nothing could melt Judy more than a bucket of Café Caramel. ‘I am off to Corner House. Your loss!’ He had yelled. His helmet was inside the bedroom. Judy didn’t open the door.

‘Give some money, Amma!’ The kid was not much older than Lisa, ‘For food, Amma.’ It was 7. The rain had been bullying the citizens every day this year. The peanut packet was just half empty. She gave him the pack.

‘He had strayed up to Indo Asian College today. Please get someone to keep an eye. We may lose him someday.’ The neighbours, all relatives, took turns in keeping guard for her Pa-in-law. She expressed her gratitude, as she had often, through new dishes and seasonal gifts. Their fatigue and her growing prosperity were making them impatient.

Shelly ran up to her with complaints and attainments from the day. Lisa had grown old enough to spare such public display of affection. ‘How was the Maths test?’

‘Got all correct, Ma.’

Judy slipped to her room and then to the washroom. A cold shower could aggravate her sinus; without a hot shower, the backache might return. She took her chances with the sinus.

Pitter-patter on Marianne’s roof sheets drowned her mania of hearing the doorbell. After 9:30 on the 9th March, no one had rung the bell while she bathed, but still…

Between evening 7:30 and morning 8:30, the hours played out as they did daily. Lisa’s Hindi was getting beyond her abilities. She clicked a few queries and sent through WhatsApp to Samar, her classmate from Kolkata. Judy had pursued the brainy problem solver till the third year and realised that the barriers between them were too real to wish away. He remained a good friend. She found him useful again in catching up with Lisa’s Hindi syllabus. He sent the answers within half an hour. ‘You must be feeling very tired doing all this alone. Wish I could be there by your side!’ Samar had married and divorced. Judy never replied to those of his messages which bordered on promises. Pa was too unwell for her to wish for another future.

On her way to bus-stop the next day, she found that black and yellow tapes were put around the Banyan. It was not unusual for the local politicos to use the pedestal below the tree for a small gathering. When she returned that evening, half of the boundary wall of the graveyard had been demolished. ‘Expansion of 80 feet road,’ the main barricading signage read. ‘Today’s pain is tomorrow’s gain,’ said another. The felled branches of the old Banyan were bleeding sap right next to it. The colourless fluid looked crimson due to the setting sun.

Crimson was Judy’s favourite colour. On seeing a deeper shade of that on the white stretcher carrying George to the Operation Theatre, she had fainted. ‘The cranial fluid has leaked from its containment due to the impact. Only if he had worn a helmet!’ There was no other injury. When the doctors brought him out after four hours of honest efforts, Judy could see his smile clinging to the left of his lips, as ever.

Judy turned her head right and was relieved to see the trunk and the other major parts of the Banyan intact. The living branches swayed unconcerned to the tunes of the south-westerlies. Judy could hear their whispering pleas. The cutting team had retired for the day. She had the evening to act. She couldn’t fail George again.

George used to campaign at times for the party of the local corporator D. Basavaraju. Though he had chosen to hide his Christian name ‘David’ behind an alphabet, the local people knew of his dependence on the votes from their community. He had visited Judy’s house after George’s demise and offered her support. A young and pretty widow could not trust the intentions of a politician with a chequered past. She had kept a distance from him and his ‘help’.

The Banyan made her forget her reservations. She dumped her office bag and tiffin box at home, dragged Shelly along, asked Lisa to shut the door and keep watch, gathered a few women close to her and asked the women to persuade their men to join. A few shopkeepers joined them just for fun. All had lived in Chellikere for two generations or more. With a motley group of twenty would-be activists, she landed before the six feet tall gate of Basavaraju’s palace.

The Corporator had moved into the locality in 2007. Gruha Pravesham was performed at his palace in 2014. The security guard had seen enough of such tamasha before and parroted the usual ‘Saar is not inside, out of station for work.’

The lassi shop owner near the palace, Bhuvan, was George’s school friend. He confirmed that the Land Rover had returned about half an hour back. The leader had guests with him.

‘Sorry uncle, I dragged all of you here. I don’t think he will meet.’

Rasool had been selling poultry products for as long as the residents could remember. He was five years younger to Judy’s Pa-in-law and had taught football to George when he was a kid. ‘Parwa nakko amma!’ His raised palm reminded Judy of Krishna printed on the calendars, ‘We shall wait here. They will open the gate some time.’

Soon it began to drizzle. The crowd thinned. Some found seats in the shops nearby though some kept standing near the security guards. Under the thatched roof of a tea shop, Judy made a small lecture to the uninitiated about conservation, explaining carbon dioxide levels and all! Lisa’s general science assignments made her manner confident; her job of a receptionist and travel planner kept her language fluid.

She recalled that the Greenpeace guys got their tickets done through her agency. She searched her address book and found the number of their Head of Accounts. The sixty-ish gentleman had a kind voice and always answered with patience Judy’s payment follow-ups. He worked at a senior position in the State Bank before joining Greenpeace and had a good network. Within forty minutes, two vans full of volunteers appeared and started putting up posters. George’s sister-in-law worked as a legal consultant at First-post. On hearing from a common relative about the movement, she promptly sent two interns to cover the protest. It didn’t take long before a local TV channel got whiff of the matter and sent their crew and camera along.

By the time D. Basavaraju tottered down his gate to see his guests off, there were even ice cream vendors and paani puri stalls set up. Someone had tuned in to the 98.3 FM…

Bombe helutaite, matte helutaite
Neene Raajakumara…

The volume was high enough to shake off Basavaraju’s stupor. The din, posters and TV crews shoving a microphone up his mouth completely ruined the sweet feeling that had seeped inside him after cohabiting with a virgin 18-year-old Glenfiddich.

The mass pushed Judy to the front. She found herself explaining to the two-time corporator about the hazards of uprooting an old Banyan, both for the environment as well as his public relation.

‘Stop the cameras,’ he gestured in a hushed voice, ‘let’s see what I can do.’ This was bound to be shown in a loop all over Karnataka soon.

Rasool uncle made his way through the crowd and stood akimbo in front of him, ‘We can’t leave. This tree is our elder. We need to know who ordered its cutting.’

Bhuvan had an old grudge. The corporator’s palace had barricaded half of his shop’s frontage. Sales were never the same. ‘Yes, the government can’t do whatever he feels like. He has to answer to us.’ He shouted, and the chorus followed the cue.

‘What can I do at nine thirty? We will see tomorrow. Come to my office.’ He was about to pull back his gate when he realised that little Shelly, who had accompanied her mother Judy since evening, was holding the bars back. He was in a split second doubt whether to pull back the gate from her powerless grips or wait till she was pulled back by her mother. The crowd sensed the opportunity. About twenty fists grasped the bars of the iron gate.

Basavaraju couldn’t leave his gate open. He could call the local Thana. He didn’t. He had been advised to lie low by the party bosses after his name had come up in several cases of grabbing land owned by churches. He didn’t want to have anything to do with creepy journos. ‘Let me give the Commissioner a call. My family is having dinner. Please don’t come inside.’

His personal security and the house staff made a line near the gate. A jeep with members of the Youth Friend’s Society, supported by Basavaraju, arrived soon after. The crowd had grown. The politician instructed, ‘No violence’. Like an international border stand-off, the two teams, numbers balancing the hidden weapons, kept a tense distance from each other.

‘The commissioner is sending a high powered technical team tomorrow to review whether the tree can be spared during road expansion. No cutting will happen…’ The crowd shouted out with joy, even as he left his sentence mid-air. It was like the Everest for their daily grinds.

Next morning, on her way to the travel agency, Judy saw policemen guarding the tree and the gate of the corporator. She had baked a cake to thank the senior accountant from Greenpeace and was hence running late. Pa-in-law’s health and children’s exams always kept her on a leave overdraft. She had to rush despite her excitement and exhaustion.

At about 11:30, the Regional Manager Subramanya called her. ‘Judy, can you please come to my cabin for a while?’ Since her interview two years back, they had only greeted each other casually at lobbies and get-togethers. She never needed to meet the man on purpose.

‘Our company is getting unwanted publicity. Our investors Irfan Sir and Samuel are getting disturbed. We are a young company and can’t afford to be seen as activists. And you cannot use official contacts for personal favours. That’s unethical.’ The manager’s voice quivered with guilt, interjected with forced punctuations of emphasis.

Judy’s obligations choked her outburst on the environment. The medical expenses to sustain Pa were not small. Lisa would move to high school next session. Shelly was fast growing out of the prep school. She called Samar. The mellifluous texture of his voice that had got her hooked at his recitations had given way to the coarseness of business as usual.

‘What could you do alone against a Development Authority? The contractors might have already paid off the political “servants”!’ She knew it yet wanted someone to mirror her thoughts on the matter. ‘I wrote to you so many times for moving back to Kolkata.’ His family was wealthy and connected. ‘The kind of job you are doing now can be easily found here.’

There was another incoming call. Judy excused herself. Her sister-in-law was calling. ‘Listen, I sent the reporters yesterday and now my boss is giving me a mouthful. Seems like the road under expansion leads to a new 125-acre township. This was approved by all authorities as part of the deal with the developer. We checked. Even the Waqf board has surrendered land. Everything is legal and above the table.’

That evening, Judy got down at a stoppage before her scheduled one. She couldn’t bear to watch a dead body again.

On her way home, she saw a couple courting each other below the grand canopy of a Rain tree along the green strip separating the highway from the service road. On a first or a second date perhaps, the boy was tentatively trying to hold the girl’s hand. The girl was not done with assessing him perhaps and maintained a foot’s distance. A peanut seller was trying to catch their attention.

She noticed that the girl wore a skirt in her favourite colour, magenta. The boy had grown a beard similar in style to what George wore inside his coffin.

 

 

Bio:

Tapan does real estate construction as his day job and writes short stories and poems, often, at night. He was shortlisted for Star TV Writers program, Times of India Write India 2, Bangalore Literature Festival (Bookmark event for new writers) and Jaipur Literature Festival (First Book event). His stories are published in The Spark and other literary magazines. He lives in Bengaluru.

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