Thursday 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Featured Writer, Debasis Tripathy

The Banyan Tree

My father was in a job where he got transferred often. Often to remote places. I grew up in my grandparents' place, where I was sent by my parents when I was about to start my school. Behind my grandparents' place, there was an orchard filled with many tropical fruit trees– mango, coconut, jujube, tendu, guava, jackfruit, bullet wood and some others whose names I don't remember and some whose English names I don’t know. Just next to the orchard was a piece of fallow land which was not owned by anyone, rather it belonged to the village. There stood the Banyan tree. 

I’d heard the tree was older than my grandfather, who was the eldest man alive in the village. It was even older than the village. It was huge and could easily shelter more than a thousand people. It could have been a tourist spot but rarely any man went near the tree. Even the cattle were not allowed to graze near it. I was but a six-year-old child and the tree was strictly off-limits to me. Though I didn’t know why. 

When I asked my granny about the tree, she looked annoyed and warned me of severe punishments should I dare to go near the tree. My grandfather’s response was worse.
“I’ll give you a tight slap the next time you mention this!” he shouted with raised hands. I escaped getting hit by a whisker. 

I’d see the tree from a distance when I visited the orchard. It looked splendid. The more I saw it, the more it enticed me. I yearned for the company of the Banyan tree. I had to climb it. Somehow!
I decided to discuss this with Kempa, our domestic help. He had been in the house since my mother was a child and was a very honest person. He was about fifty now and walked with a limp but still strong as a bull. Always friendly and a partner in my crimes. And above all, he kept my secrets to himself. I sure could trust him. 

“You are the only one I can trust, Kempa. If you promise not to tell anyone I have something to share with you.”
“Sure, Baba. Tell me what you want” Kempa responded as I’d expected
“Can we go to the Banyan tree?” I shot my request
“Baba, ask for anything else but not this” he cut me short, now this was not exactly as I’d expected or should I say wished for.

The next morning my grandfather was shouting out my name. I could hear him from a mile away like a thunder in the sky. My instincts told me something was not right. I ran straight to him.
“Did you speak to Kempa about the Banyan tree?” he demanded. Kempa was not that trustworthy after all. I started hating him. 

Many times I decided to sneak off by myself and go close to the tree but without fail my attempts were thwarted either by my granny or Kempa or someone else. And each time I was caught I was reprimanded, more severe than the last time. Then it was reported to my parents. My mother put my hand on her head and stole a promise from me that I'd not repeat what she called an offense.
You know how kids are. If you stop them from something, they would do it more. From then on, I was even more fascinated by the tree. But I was more scared than fascinated, so I decided it was best to forget the tree. At least for now.

In the next few months, I’d made a few friends in the village but none like Jubula, who was four years older than me and he looked older than an eleven-year-old. Working in the fields from an early age had made him burly and coarse, but he was still a child of my age at heart. All his life he had never ventured out of the village. A deft tree climber and an expert swimmer, he was more adapted to the village way of life. I was still a learner. I had learned the intricacies of tree climbing a little but when it came to swimming I'd put my feet down on the ground as I soon I started. The water always appeared deeper.

I told him stories, mostly made up at the moment, of people and places, which seemed alien to him. When I was in a good mood I allowed him to play with my toys. Yes, but never the big toy gun my mother had gifted me when she last came to visit me. We complimented each other well. 
Jubula didn’t go to school but faithfully waited for me outside. We had this hourly meeting in our orchard or near the river before I went home. He’d greet me with a small gift– a mango, gooseberries, jamuns – never empty-handed. 

One day after school, I saw Jubula came to me and said "I've got a surprise for you"
“What?” I asked disinterestedly “a mango?”
"I am sure you can't guess it" he responded while taking the thing out of a torn jute bag.
It was a parrot. Jubula told me that he’d caught it from a tree, chasing down the poor fellow by jumping from one branch to the other like Hanuman. Flying monkey.
It was a pretty parrot. It was not tamed so didn’t speak like humans but made a funny squawking call when Jubula tickled its underbelly. 

I leaned close to the parrot and asked excitedly, “Where did you catch him, Jubula?”
He replied insolently “On the big Banyan tree”
I continued “Oh wow!  Are you not scared of going there?”
He nodded his head. “No way. I am not a sissy like you. See how big he is!”
“Can he fly?” I asked naively
“Yes he can,” he said, holding the bird more tightly till it screeched with pain. “But I don’t want to leave him.”
I came up with an idea to tie the parrot’s leg with a thread and let him fly like a kite.
"The parrot will fly yet not be free," I said defiantly.
The thread was tied but the poor bird fell down on the ground with a thump. He didn’t have wings. They were cut. 

Finally, Jubula had to confess that he found it lying on the ground in the orchard.
I controlled my laughter not to embarrass him any further.
"Jubula, have you ever climbed the Banyan tree," I said to change the track to my object of fascination.
“No but not big deal for me” he replied and added “but I won’t go there”
"Then why don't you go there?" I demanded.

“Because the tree is haunted!” he said with his head lowered “Hundreds of villagers were cremated under the tree during the Great Famine. This was about a hundred years ago. Since then no one dares to visit the tree. Many people have said that they have seen the Burning Woman Ghost near the tree and some have even heard horrific screams of a woman.”
My face made a mocking gesture, I snapped back, “And you say I am a sissy? You are scared of something which happened a century back. I’ve made up my mind. If you don’t join me I’ll go there alone.”
Now that hurt Jubula’s pride. He couldn’t take it from a junior. 

“OK, I will go with you but what do I get in return?” he said making an attempt to bargain.
“Whatever you want?” I offered
“Your toy gun” he shot back.
This was the last thing I wanted to part with but the thrill of doing a forbidden act was far more overpowering.
“Deal” I relented. With a very heavy heart.
Next day after school when the sun was shining hard, we reached the Banyan tree. Finally. For a change, Jubula was following me. 

The tree looked resplendent. Its extensive branches, like other trees of its family, bent to the ground to turn into new trees. The roots were skywards and the stems entered the earth. Inverted. Like the cauldron of bats which clung on to its branches when it was not dark. Besides, there were many other animals, birds, and insects which had made the tree their home. Glossy red fruits sparkled like small balls of fire, like stars. It was a cosmos in itself.  Surely mesmerizing. Far better than how it looked from a distance. 

Just under the Banyan tree was a pond, turned green by algae. Jubula told me that it had no bottom, never ran out of the water. Not even where the entire village went dry in the Great Famine around a century back and which lasted for years. Cracks grew deep in the barren river which once ran next to the village, the paddy fields got baked hard like a burnt rice cake which you could eat no more. Nothing to grow and eat the villagers started eating the fruits of the tree, which in normal times, not even the cows would eat.

“Can we eat the fruits?” I asked
“Have you gone mad?” Jubula quipped
“Is it poisonous?” I inquired
"No, but no one eats them. I told you it’s haunted” he said, whatever he had heard from others.
I picked one and bit a small chunk of the fruit before Jubula caught me in the act. Too soon.  I hadn’t even sensed the taste.
“Spit it out. Now” he ordered. 

I did as he said and began climbing the tree. The expert tree climber that Jubula was hesitated but followed me, nonetheless. Few notches up, there were tons of spider web hung intricately within the branches. Sunlight streamed in through the openings illuminating the web. I was now a little reluctant to climb further up. I stopped to look down at the ground. Jubula was a few steps beneath me. The pond had no ripples. Still as a sepulcher.  

All at once, something flew just over me, out of the tree, wings flapping like thunder. My heart went blank. It could have been a big bird but all I remember seeing was a huge shadow. It was too strong and it grew bigger and bigger. Terrified I closed my eyes. I was falling down. I tried to hold on to the branch but something pierced through my right hand, something hard and very hot. The flesh in my hand felt like burning. There was no one to be seen, no voices either. 

I fell into the pond. I kept sinking, something was dragging me down further into intense darkness. I could not move. The cold dark shadow began wrapping tightly around me softly like an insect slowly getting trapped in the sticky silk of the web. Till it swallowed me. My consciousness slipped away and I closed my eyes and tried to accept the approaching death. I stopped breathing. I surrendered myself to a long endless sleep. I was dying and I could see death. A blind flash of light. 

The first thing that hit me when I woke up was the fact that I was still alive. Next was the intense burning pain in my hand, which had turned crimson. There was a deep slashing pain in the whole of my right hand. I bit my tongue and stopped myself from screaming out. I passed out.
I woke up to the feeling of cold water getting sprinkled on my face.
"Kempa pulled you out of the pond," said someone.

It was Jubula and he was frantically pressing my chest to pump out water from my lungs and Kempa was rubbing my feet with his rough hands. I looked up. The Banyan tree seemed even bigger as if I was seeing it through a lens.

I had a bad fever for four days after that. On the second day, my parents arrived. I couldn’t get up by myself, I couldn’t speak properly, I could hardly eat. The best I could manage was a little liquid diet.  It took me another two full weeks to recover. My mother stayed with me the whole time. She had made up her mind to take me back along with her, against all the protests by my grandparents. I’d never come back to the village.

Years later, when I was a lecturer in a faraway city I got the news that my grandmother was on deathbed. I came back to meet her in the same house, where I lived as a child.  My grandmother had passed away a few hours before I reached. She was cremated under the same Banyan tree, per her last wish. In the early dawn, as we waited for the cremation ceremony to get over, I watched the Burning Woman.

Under the banyan tree whose leaves didn't stir,
The priest's chanted louder, more than ever,
My mind - half awake carrying a heavy breath,
Grappling with how life is and what is death!

Then, when the cruel fire caught her fair face,
The old lady, my grandmother lay there in grace,
No visible signs of pain, plain simple submission,
Like in the crimson horizon drowns the mighty sun.

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