Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Longlist, Madhavi Vaidya

The Banyan Tree

The most exciting part of my childhood was spent at my maternal uncle’s huge mansion in Piyali, a small town close to the sunderbans, near Kolkata. I still remember the magnificent nature of that mansion. It was called the Majumdar’s Haveli.

The haveli’s architecture was splendid. Huge stone walls gave it a towering look. Small windows were intricately holed into these walls and they overlooked a vast verandah. The ceilings were very high and were covered by sloping tiled roofs. There were several rooms in the mansion, each having a distinct character to it.

Three of my cousins and me were like a gang of goons in and around the haveli. We almost wrecked the place with our mischief.
Bikash was the naughtiest of all and being the only boy in our group he bullied us girls beyond limits. But the girls Soumi and Tanvi were also clever pranksters and my addition in the gang only encouraged them, especially to get even with Bikash as now the girls were even a stronger majority.

 Most of our afternoons were spent circling the buildings and running carefree in the narrow by-lanes that twisted their way amidst huge buildings made of stone and bricks.
Just adjacent to our haveli near the end of a road, there was a big playground bounded by Mango trees, Tamarinds, Neems and a huge Banyan tree. 

Five years ago my aunt succumbed to an accident leaving behind my cousins and uncle.
Her death was more than fodder to the gossip mongers in the town. Sometimes sudden deaths create quite a stir leaving the family in misery; one that is not caused by the death itself but because of the speculations that some empty minds circulate and also help keep them alive.
People blabbered about how my aunt’s soul would return to haunt the town; after all a mother for the sake of her children can come back even from the dead was their logic.

But uncle was not the one to believe in this futile gossip. He chose to ignore all that was said. He was a practical man and had to think about the future of three motherless kids. Hence he went ahead and hired Chellamma, a care taker for the children who also stayed with the family in the haveli.

Chellamma hailed from a nearby village. Her husband had died long ago. Her sons worked in the fields of the village. They were married and taken care of by their wives. Hence with no apparent responsibilities on her shoulders she agreed to stay at the haveli and visited her village only twice a year.  

Chellamma defied the rules of old age with no hints of aching joints or a troubled spine. Looking at her no one could say she was sixty five. Full of enthusiasm and undying energy, she worked the whole day preparing food for the family, sending the children away to school, supervising the other servants of the house, picking up grocery from the market and then again cooking evening meals for the family. 

After returning from our exhaustive afternoon wanderings in the town, Chellamma fed us delicious meals. The taste of her preparations lingered long after I last visited Piyali when I was a kid.

There is always something about childhood.  The memories carry a flavour; a kind of a flavour that never ceases to die. And Chellamma sure added all the spice to that flavour. She not only fed us tasty food but she also weaved and narrated scary ghost stories. 

The nights in Piyali would fall suddenly, engulfing and almost swallowing the bride-like beautiful twilight. The eerie silence would be very discomforting, with the air bringing in the smell of burnt leaves with it sometimes and with the wind echoing inside the huge rooms with high ceilings, one would well be actually able to visualize what a wind dance would be like.

Soumi’s room upstairs, right above the kitchen was the venue for our storytelling sessions. We would sit in her room in a semi- circle around Chellamma. The room was special with a huge king size antique bed that had a capacity to occupy almost four to five grown-ups at a time. A wooden book shelf stood content in the corner, full with books of Mahabharata, Ramayana, English dictionaries and some other story books. 

The window just behind the huge bed was a little odd in its design. It was almost half the size of a door. Three of its four small doors rattled against the window at the slightest breeze. It overlooked the vast playground spread ahead of it with all the trees hemmed on the edges.
After the ritual of oiling our hair, Chellamma would begin narrating stories. Her stories revolved around ghosts, prets and about the wandering souls of those who had met death unalarmed. Her stories were so surreal that in between narrations I sometimes have felt someone’s presence near the door of our room. May be my aunt I thought, just wanting to peep in to mingle with her children for sometime…

One such night she narrated a story of a little girl.
‘The name of the girl was PaakhiChellamma began to narrate.
‘But before I go and tell you what happened with her, mind you this is a true story that happened nearby. In fact, near the banyan tree right there, you see!’ Chellamma smiled pointing out at the banyan tree outside the window.

On a reflex we all stood on our knees on the bed to look at the banyan tree. It looked so huge with all the roots sprawling down from above. It almost appeared like a primeval giant to us.
‘What happened near the banyan tree Chellamma?’ asked Bikash
Paakhi was the daughter of one of the farmers who lived beyond those trees, across a small patch of paddy fields. This was some couple of years ago.’ 

Chellamma raised her eyebrows continuing her narration, ‘That night the full moon had just risen above the clouds. The girl had strayed away from her home in to the paddy field near the time of twilight.  She had lost her way and had stopped near the banyan tree holding on to a doll in her hands. She had stopped to watch the monkeys on the banyan tree.’
‘Never go near those trees there,’ Chellamma warned us modulating her voice like a professional storyteller.

 The nocturnal insects and crickets broke into a chorus with rhythmic creaks and pauses amidst pin drop silence of the night while Chellamma sipped water. The leaves of the banyan tree shined like silver in the bright moonlight.
‘So what happened to that girl Chellamma?’ Bikash asked curiously.

‘Strangely enough, she seemed to be attracted to watch the monkey play standing there all by herself.  There were only two monkeys there, a pair of them to be precise. But the sound that was heard that night must have been at least of a dozen of monkeys.’ Chellamma continued.
‘Some say that the two monkeys are evil, they in a way had invited her there for the mean act…’
‘Evil monkeys? Mean act?’ asked Tanvi whose eyeballs were almost popping out of anxiety.
‘What mean act?’ I asked. ‘
‘Oh! Those two monkeys snatched her doll away. But they didn’t stop at that. They pulled out her limbs and they were at her throat when she started screaming’.

Chellamma paused and she went and stood near the window. We followed.
It was past one o‘clock in the night and there wasn’t a hint of sleep on anyone’s eyelids. The breeze from outside was getting wilder. The window doors rattled hard and the moon that looked as if it was pasted on to the sky cast its silver shimmer generously on to the banyan tree and also into our room…

‘Is it a true story?’ I asked to confirm.
‘Yes it is; I told you so. Even today on a full moon night people claim to have seen Paakhi around the banyan tree. She returns for her doll that was taken away by the monkeys’.
We looked at each other in disbelief.
‘And what happened to the monkeys, do they still visit the tree?’ asked Soumi.

‘Just in about a week after Paakhi’s death someone else died near the tree again, the monkeys were at it again for sure, but after that no one really claimed to have seen them on that tree.’
All of a sudden the gate of the haveli opened with a loud screech. We were so scared we rushed and held Chellamma tight.

‘It must be your father returning from his shift. Now go to sleep quickly or else he will send me back to my village for good.’ said Chellamma switching off the lights for us.
That night no one could sleep a wink and we all kept discussing the banyan tree, Paakhi and of course the monkeys.

After a week or so uncle decided to take us for a factory visit, a little study tour packed with loads of fun. After all it was a visit to the confectioneries and chocolate factory where uncle worked.
Uncle instructed our driver Bahadur to pick us up in the afternoon. Bahadur had only arrived in Piyali a week ago looking for a job and uncle had offered him one since he had known Bahadur’s father for a long time before he expired.

Bahadur had shifted to Piyali. His family stayed tucked in the far-away foggy slopes of the Himalayan ranges. Still not well versed with the local language he mostly communicated in broken words and even using sign language at times. Of all the things in this world, the one thing he was most scared of was ghosts. He told us about how he was the only one from his family to be able to see ghosts. A curse it was to him he thought. 

That evening after our exciting factory visit, while we were on our way back Bahadur kept complaining about how the car’s engine was misbehaving. Uncle didn’t pay any heed to his complaints. We drove almost for half an hour and as we approached the playground near our haveli the car screeched to a sudden halt. 

We heard a big thud on the roof of the car and some sort of a nail tapping. Bahadur immediately got down to check the unfamiliar sound but didn’t find anything nearby.
It was almost past eleven in the night and the moon had returned; this time bigger and brighter.
After much struggle with the engine Bahadur asked us to walk down to the house while he chose to repair the car or alternatively look for a mechanic nearby. We quickly matched steps and reached the haveli. Uncle followed soon.

The next morning our car was still at the ground. But Bahadur was nowhere to be seen.  Uncle inquired about him around but no one had a clue about Bahadur.
The whole day was spent looking for him but in vain. We all finally returned home puzzled and worried. Chellamma served us dinner and asked uncle about Bahadur

‘No, there’s no clue about his whereabouts.’ said uncle.
After a long pause uncle frowned and continued, ’but the last talk I had with Bahadur was a little weird I remember. Hespoke about something that he saw near the car’. Uncle looked confused.
‘What’? Asked Chellamma
‘He asked me whether monkeys venture out at night here. And after a pause he said he had seen a pair of them swaying on the banyan tree last night.’

The dinner was quickly gulped down that night with no more stories following it. The air had once again brought with it the smell of burnt leaves that spread across our room and the full moon floated amidst the clouds looking down upon the banyan tree.

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