Short Story: The Tree by Naina Dey
“Delonix Regia or the royal Poinciana or what we popularly call the krishnachura is perhaps the only tropical tree that bears flowers and gives shade.” Parasuram looked around with an air of pride. The boys appeared bored. Only Sreeja pretended to be interested. She was the lone girl from her class who had travelled this far on a day-long educational excursion. “A tree lives for an average of five to ten years,” continued Parasuram unperturbed, “But this one has been here for over seventeen!” Parasuram was no student of botany. He taught Bengali in a renowned city college and had brought his students to see his native village, its hundred year old Shiva temple and the ruins of an adjoining haveli that belonged to an indigo planter. Sreeja had a crush on Parasuram and his thick hair and moustache.
The tree heard everything and didn’t know what to make of it. For it could remember nothing of its birth. It was perhaps a seed dropped by a bird that did the trick or who would care to come all the way from the village to plant a solitary sapling in the middle of nowhere. No human hands had nourished it, watered it. The summer rains and monsoon clouds had done the work. The tree had taken its time to grow and flourish to become a fine specimen of its kind, its branches symmetrically spreading out to cast a shadowy patterned trellis on the ground under it. When the sun was overhead, the shadows deepened accentuating the intricacies of the trellis on the brownish soil. This was the hour when Laltu came skipping, his pet goat Bhombol in tow.
Laltu studied in the village school which began its lessons punctually at eight thirty every morning much to Laltu’s chagrin. But as much as he hated waking up early and taking his baths, he looked forward to the twelve o’ clock bell that called it a day. Laltu would quickly run home, gulp down two mouthfuls of rice, untie Bhombol and spend the rest of the day fishing for tadpoles, plucking fruits from other people’s orchards or venture beyond the village walls to look for turtles in the paddy fields. If he went further along the track that led him out of the village, he invariably found himself at the foot of the tree. Laltu would fling himself on the trellised ground and gravely converse with Bhombol who would absentmindedly sniff away at the fallen krishnachura blossoms or munch on tiny clumps of grass. While Laltu prattled about homework woes, his mother’s incessant scolding, his stern father, his concern about the perennial ill-health of his doting grandmother, the tree would listen full of attention. As the sun moved and the shadows thickened, the branches would seem to come closer as if to hear him all the better.
It was only a couple of nights ago that Mujib, the thief had sat under the tree and cried with his legs splayed like a child. Mujib lived with his sickly wife Hamida in a ramshackle hut at the end of the village. After his wife got tuberculosis, no one dared to employ Mujib as a field labourer or for any other work. Mujib had begun to depend on the generosity of neighbours for meager meals which soon dwindled. Mujib took to stealing. But he had his own ethics. He would never steal from any household of his own village. It was not unusual for the tree to see Mujib leave his hut after the other inhabitants had gone to bed, and make for the next village. Mujib was still unskilled in his new profession. Sometimes he would barely manage to escape. This time he was caught trying to steal kitchen utensils and was soundly thrashed by an old woman and her daughter-in-law. The brass utensils would have fetched him a handsome price with which he could have bought oil, rice, dal and coal to last them a month. Mujib sat and cried copious tears while the tree watched helplessly.
During winters, the tree shed most of its leaves revealing a few wilting ones clinging desperately to its branches and the dried yellow pods that hung forlornly. Winters were the most depressing for at this time almost every year one witnessed the death of an aged resident. There was grandma Budhiya who made coconut balls sweetened with jaggery every winter, overcome by an acute bout of asthma last year. And then there was uncle Giri who went down with pneumonia the year before. Each time someone died, the villagers would carry the deceased in rickety beds adorned with thin garlands of marigold and incense sticks to the burning ghat beside the river that lay some three kilometers away from the edge of the village. On their way they sometimes put down their burden under the tree to smoke beedis as if to brace themselves for the unpleasant task that lay ahead. It was hardly different when it came to taking the sick to the hospital.
The patient would be bundled up on a van rickshaw while the nearest kin would sit at one end with legs dangling. If there were others who cared to accompany them, they would hurry behind trying to keep pace or bring along their bicycles. During the marriage season, the tree became a transit camp. Those who could afford to hire a small matador would head straightaway for the bride’s village as if in a hurry to finish off the task at hand. Those who could not pay for the luxury walked their way cracking silly jokes to one of the three neighbouring villages of Patashpur, Habibgunge and Palashdanga because all the brides and grooms who have come to the village belonged inevitably to one of these places.
Seasons have come and gone. Birds have built nests at the junctions of forked branches, laid eggs, reared their young. The tree has watched the chicks grow and fly away. That was how nature worked. The tree stood upright, its leaves shielding the birds who would take shelter during storms. It stood as the wind and rain lashed, agitating its branches. It stood while the summer sun dried up the grass underfoot. It shivered under the cold winter moon its leaves wet with droplets of mist of the coming dawn.
Parasuram reached up to break a twig with blossoms, twirling it between thumb and forefinger drawing in his breath in a mock show of inhaling the faint sour perfume of the flowers. Then on a sudden impulse he held out the bough to a confused and delighted Sreeja. The students began to take selfies with their teacher on their smart phones with the tree as a backdrop – mementos for their departmental register when they would return to their college in the city. Without network they didn’t hope to be able to do much in this pre-historic wilderness anyway.
Mujib has met with success tonight. Slung on his shoulder was a bedcloth filled with utensils. From his waist hung a small bundle containing a wristwatch and four ten rupee notes. On his way back he would sit for some minutes under the tree to ease his back and aching legs. As he stumbled forward in the half-darkness he expected to see the dark silhouette of the tree. Moving forward with his back bent under the burden he was surprised to find himself within the precincts of his own village.
It was late when Mujib awoke the following morning. The uneasy feeling crept back again. Clenching a neem twig between his teeth he ambled towards the fields. A small crowd had already assembled. The tree lay, its trunk split into two, the blossoms as crimson and vibrant as ever covering the trunk like a delicately woven shroud over a grave. “What a fine tree it was”, they remarked, “Age perhaps.” “It’s the termites,” said one knowingly, “The trunk is hollow within. Can’t you see?”
Dr. Naina Dey is a teacher, critic, translator and creative writer. Her books include Macbeth: Critical Essays, Edward the Second: Critical Studies, Real and Imagined Women: The Feminist Fiction of Virginia Woolf and Fay Weldon, Representations of Women in George Eliot’s Fiction, Macbeth: Exploring Genealogies, Snapshots from Space and Other Poems and a translation of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s “Gupi Gain O Bagha Bain”. She was awarded the “Excellence in World Poetry Award, 2009” by the International Poets Academy, Chennai and twice won the Heart Bytes poetry contest. Her latest publication is One Dozen Stories, a book of translations.