Deep Roots

Arun woke up to a bright Sunday morning of April. It was the first Sunday of his summer vacations; a day when his father was at home. While still in bed, fireflies of excitement began dancing in his ten-year-old mind. A long list of tasks battled within him to gain priority but none could beat the rope swing and the bird house. Just like every other day, Arun sauntered into the courtyard and sat heavily on the circular cement bench under the mango tree. He expected his mother to come and greet him with a good morning kiss. If she was busy, then it would be his father. None attended to him. He sat there for a while, cross-legged, like a little Buddha awaiting enlightenment.

Arun’s half shut, drowsy eyes showed him blur visuals. An eerie darkness seemed to have swallowed the brightness inside his house. The house was full of people, and yet, there was a frightful silence. Uncle Pramod was there with his family, but he ignored Arun. The group of pesky cousins, who would normally pounce on his toys and race all over the house, sat quietly as if they were tranquilized. There were people from the neighborhood, some little-known ones and some strangers. All of them had the same blank expression on their face. Confused, he looked out for his mother. She was seated in the verandah, weak and devastated. Next, his moist eyes searched for his father but he was nowhere to be seen. As the disconnected visuals continued to fall on his nervous eyes, in an emotional corner of his mind, a reminiscence of yesterday was eager to pounce on him. It attacked at the very moment Arun saw a pair of sandals lying somewhere in the courtyard.

The morning of the day before, was pretty much the same; bright, warm…normal. Arun woke up, walked casually into the courtyard and settled under the mango tree. Seeing his father getting ready for work, he playfully put on his sandals and challenged him for a chase. The courtyard burst into giggles, laughter, and squeals. Father won the challenge as Arun melted into his arms. They both shared a hearty laugh. A promise of a fun filled Sunday excited Arun. Embracing him warmly, he kissed his father’s cheek and waved at him until he vanished at the end of the lane.

Alas! Little did Arun know that it would be the last laugh with his father, he would never be able to feel the warmth in those arms again, and the kiss would be a goodbye forever.

It all happened so quickly; by noon, came the news of his father’s accident and by sundown, his mortal coil was reduced to ashes. Arun couldn’t recall when it fell dark and how he was asleep.

Death, as Arun understood until yesterday, was only a prospect of a film. But as the bitter reality fell upon him, he stopped comparing his life to a ninety-minute movie. Arun’s moist eyes gazed at his devastated mother. She looked strangely similar to those Indian widows he had seen in the many Hindi movies. The bindi that sparkled on her forehead was gone and so were the chiming bangles. Her glorious smile had vanished and a strange incompleteness surrounded her. The visuals pierced into Arun’s little heart. Unable to take it anymore he hid behind the mango tree and closed himself to the world. He cried softly.

The day got busier as it moved on. Many well-wishers visited Arun’s house to console the bereaved family. Some sobbed, some cried out loud, some prayed and some just stood in a corner with their heads bent down in mourning. A few attempted to console Arun, they tried to soothe him with a smile, but they did not receive a return gesture. Throughout the day, Arun sat under the mango tree, leaning his back against its trunk, clutching his knees into the chest and watching people entering and exiting the house through the gate of their compound.

A similar routine followed for the rest of the week. But, Arun spoke to no one. Uncle Pramod tried to strike a conversation with him and concluded that Arun needed more time to accept the wicked game of fate. Being an Army officer, Pramod was known for his practicality and logical thinking. He was a highly learnt man and a staunch follower of the Hindu belief system. After the tragedy struck his brother’s family, he had assumed the responsibility to rehabilitate them. He was into it hundred percent.

As for Arun, he had started to dislike many things that were happening around him. On the top of the list were the attempts the people made to erase his father’s memories. Arun particularly started hating Pramod, for it was he who had taken control of the house. He got himself involved in all the matters related to Arun’s family. Ferocious in his approach, Pramod wanted the family to overcome the tragedy as soon as possible. He had spearheaded a campaign to ‘bring life back on track’ with a slogan: “you have to let go, for a better future…”.

The process first started with his father’s foot wear; they were given away to a labourer. Next to go were the things related to his work, followed by his clothes, watches, books and his things stored in the closets, the almarah and in the store room. In Pramod’s words, these were ‘the seeds of pain from which memories came haunting’. they gave away everything until only his father’s photograph remained. Arun felt helpless and consequently, he stopped entering his own house. He came inside only to have his lunch and then, he returned back to his private hideout, the mango tree.

After all, the tree was very special and an inseparable part of Arun’s life.

The Mango tree, actually, had a strange connection with his father. It was a distinctive memory that no one could erase. The tree was a legend and its story was Arun’s favorite.

Sitting underneath it, a devastated Arun recollected the story in his father’s voice and it went thus:

“This tree was planted by your grandpa; you know?” His father’s voice filled his ears and his visual imagination traveled faster than the speed of light. He was transported into a happier past where he often relaxed under the mango tree with his head in his father’s lap. The story went on…

“One day, your grandpa bought mangos from a farm. Of all the mangoes, one particular fruit had the sweetest aroma and a magical taste. After savoring the fruit to his heart’s content, he resolved to sow its seed in the courtyard. Right here, at this very place. Then, a sweet little coincidence happened. I was born on the very day the seed sprouted. Isn’t it a reason good enough for the tree to be special? I grew up with this tree. It was my companion in every game. Your grandpa got this platform built around it when I was of your age and then, this became my place to study. Oh! And it’s fruits! They are magical as you already know…Underneath its shade, I dreamt of becoming the man I am today. This was and is my place of peace and solitude. The tree has been a witness to all my joy and fears. This is my best friend or rather I would say, this is a reflection of my own self!”

With a legendary story behind it, Arun’s attachment to the tree grew to an immeasurable extent. Its fatherly shade pacified him. Its strong trunk gave him strength and its ripening fruits gave him hope. In its shade, Arun felt like being with his father. He felt fearless and confident.

*****

As days passed, a gradual feeling of normalcy began to set in. The count of consoling visitors nearly fell to zero. The plan for a grand ceremony to commemorate the thirteenth day was underway. A highly revered Brahmin priest was to visit their house and the preparations for his arrival were looked up to. Everyone was busy in a world of their own. Lost in this chaotic turmoil Arun approached his mother, cat-footed. He doubtfully touched her bangle-less hand and questioned her in a feeble voice.

“Ma, what is going on?”

Seeing Arun, she suddenly realized that she had lost touch with her sweetheart. It was probably the first time in days that Arun had spoken by himself. The barren eyes of Arun evoked pain in her motherly heart but she had to be strong.

“Oh! Beta. We are planning for the thirteenth day ceremony of your father.” She answered.

“What’s a thirteenth day ceremony, Ma?” Arun asked again.

Finding an opportunity of a connecting conversation, she crouched down to her son, took him into her arms and started explaining.

“Well, according to the Hindu customs, when a person passes away, it is said that his spirit leaves the mortal world only after thirteen days of his death. After the thirteenth day rites, the soul departs to a greater world, to heaven. So, we have to greet him a bon voyage, right? That is why this ceremony” she explained patiently.

“Oh! Where will it be for those thirteen days then? The spirit?” he asked, shocked and surprised with the answer he got.

“Hmmm…the spirit dwells in its most loved possessions, watching upon its most loved people…”  she clarified.

Listening to the answer, a tinge of energy flashed on Arun’s face. He quickly composed his posture and questioned excitedly,

“Oh! You mean father is watching us right now? Is he still here, with us?” His watery eyes restlessly wandered around the house in the hope of catching a glimpse of his father. He ran from room to room, he called out to his father until his throat went dry. But then, a sudden realization poured into his mind.

“Ah! So stupid of me…why will father be in these rooms?” he smiled at his own foolishness and energetically proclaimed,

“his spirit resides in the mango tree…”

Like playing a game of Hide & Seek, he ran into the courtyard. The glimpse of the mango tree had him convinced that his father’s soul must be residing within it. He hugged its potent trunk with a wide smile.

Unable to withstand the inconsolable innocence of Arun, His mother broke into wails. Pramod cried too, but he quickly regained his composure.

*****

Almost by evening, a car alighted in front of the house.

“Arun! call your mother…the priest has arrived” yelled Uncle Pramod.

Arun was least bothered about it. He was busy chatting with his father’s spirit that resided in the tree.

Pramod yelled so loudly that even the curious neighbors gathered to get a glimpse of the priest. After a while, the priest stepped into the courtyard. He was accompanied by his disciples too. As he walked a few steps into it, he stopped suddenly and twitched. His ghastly eyes opened wide. He thundered at the top of his voice.

“WHAT IS THIS TREE DOING HERE?” he shouted, pointing his index finger towards the tree.

“But, the tree has been there since a long time, your holiness” Arun’s mother said humbly.

“OF COURSE! IT HAS SPREAD ITS EVIL ROOTS INTO YOUR HOME AND YOU HAVE PAID A HEAVY PRICE FOR IT!” he remarked.

“His holiness is an expert in Vastu Shastra too” one of the disciples said in a perceptible tone.

“Oh! The tree? it might be… otherwise, how could a hale and healthy person meet with such an untimely fate?” someone in the curious crowd suggested. Nodding heads and grim hums vouched to agreed.

“’Vastu’ is predominantly to do with the architecture of temples. But as per the Hindu belief system, a house- or preferably a ‘Home’ is also a temple. Hence, the science applies here equally well!” The priest shared a bit of his revered knowledge.

“But, Sir…the tree…” Arun’s mother tried to speak, but the priest took over harshly.

“NOTHING MORE! BRING THIS TREE DOWN AT ONCE. IT HAS BEEN FEEDING ON YOUR TEARS AND BLOOD, IT IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF ALL YOUR PROBLEMS! CUT IT DOWN, AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!”

The words of the priest startled Arun. By now, he had understood the crux of the situation. He was afraid that even this memory of his father would be erased…

He resolved to revolt and got down the platform.

“They are going to bring this tree down, aren’t they?” his question induced pity.

” It’s ok Beta… it is ok…” She could not get any more words to soothe her son.

“How can we allow this? Father loved it immensely…How can we cut it down?” Arun wanted to be brave and face the situation. He knew he was powerless in front of the mean world but he was wanted to fight.

“Arun, you are too young to understand all this” Pramod tried to intervene, but Arun was adamant.

“Back off, I am speaking to my mother!…”  he warned.

“Arun, you listen to me! don’t get emotionally attached to this tree. As his holiness says, it has brought a bad time for all of us. It has made you pay a heavy price…Arun, it killed your father” Pramod spoke hatefully.

Arun turned to his mother for support.

“Ma, how can it be…tell them Ma, tell them what this tree meant to father, tell them what it means to us…to me…How can a tree kill someone?”

“You have to let go son…your father is no more, accept it and walk away from him…” Pramod reiterated his philosophy.

“Back off, I said…not one more word!” Arun snarled. He did not like an outsider poking his nose into his personal matters. His eyes shone with anger. His tone went deeper and wetter. At one side, there was the hatred that had built for his uncle and at the other end, it was a feeling of being helpless.

“CUT IT DOWN! AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!” the priest thundered again. He wanted to break the ice.

“WILL I GET MY FATHER BACK, IF YOU CUT IT DOWN?” Arun retorted with his angry eyes fixated on the priest. Energy pulsated through his weak body so much that given a chance, he would beat the pulp out of anyone who would come in his way. His strange behavior sent goosebumps to the people around him. None dared to raise a voice in front of this skinny ten-year-old. He was surely growing into a man; a cub that was learning to roar.

“The boy speaks more than his age” whispered the priest.

“CUT IT DOWN… BEFORE IT’S DEEP ROOTS CAST ANY FURTHER EFFECTS.

Cut it down before the thirteenth day!”

saying so, the priest left the house, red-faced.

Arun stood in the courtyard like a lone warrior defending his rightful piece of land. The many eyes that hovered doubtfully at him had the same question in them. “Has he gone insane? Has he lost his mind? Is it really because of the tree?”

At this point, Arun wanted to scream, he wanted to burst and cry and tell that the tree was a gifted legacy from his father and that it was all that was left of him. He wanted them to understand that the tree was, in all aspects, more than any memorabilia or a photograph; it was a living memory of his loving father. He wanted to tell all of them that he loved his father deeply and he missed him, and therefore he wants to save this tree.

But how could someone as young as Arun give vent to such deep feelings? There weren’t enough words in his vocabulary to match his emotions. For that matter, there are no enough words known to the world that could translate these emotions. They could only be experienced through ‘love’ and the ‘pain’ that came with it.

His mother walked up to him and gathered him into her arms.

“Shhhh! Quiet now, nothing is going to happen. come with me…” she said, hugging him tightly. She took him to the bedroom and pampered him to sleep. At first, he resisted, but the love in the soft palms of his mother put him to rest. He slept peacefully.

*****

Arun woke up to the sounds of hitting and thrashing. The voice of his father calling for him poured into his ears. It alarmed him. He ran into the courtyard only to find what he had least expected to see.

Four men with axes were bringing down his ancestral tree of memories. Arun froze for a moment. With each bump of the axe, Arun’s pain magnified. He grew uneasy as the mangoes fell on the ground and burst into yellow blood. With each branch falling, it felt as though a part of his body was being separated. In a sudden fit of rage, he ran screaming at the top of his voice and hugged the tree trunk.

“STOP IT!! STOP IT!! DONT CUT IT DOWN!! PLEASE…

This is my father…don’t kill him. Please!” He cried and yelled at the same time.

“Let go, my son…Let go…” His mother tried to console him by drawing him into her arms and embraced him tightly but Arun was uncontrollable. He pushed her aside and ran towards the platform.

Pramod expected this reaction and was well prepared. He, along with a neighbor waged at Arun and dragged him off the platform. Arun fought vigorously to free himself from the clutches of his uncle, but he was just a ten-year-old boy. They dragged him with all their might and locked him up in the bedroom. Arun banged on the doors and windows. He shouted, cursed, abused, plead and did everything he could. After an exorbitant outburst, weakened by the emotional overload, Arun fainted.

****

Absolute silence greeted Arun as he came back to his senses. His mother was sent to unlock him and lead him out. Arun was extremely fatigued but his eyes were emotionless. He was led into the courtyard where there was nothing left for him to adore. Only the circular cement platform remained like a tomb in the memory of the tree. Tears rolled down his mother’s eyes, but Arun showed no emotion at all.

He walked alone, kicked aside a mango that was lying on the ground and sat on the platform. He looked up into the sky as if searching for shade. Apologetically dropping his gaze, he said anonymously.

“The thirteenth day ceremony is not required anymore…Father’s spirit has left us now.”

*********

Time is the healer, they say. Don’t know how true it is, but time does not stop for anyone and that is a well-known fact.

Years passed, but Arun was never able to forget his father. Contrary to what Pramod wanted him to believe, the world actually helped him in keeping his father’s memory alive.

Arun was always identified with his father’s name. It was everywhere; it was in his certificates of achievements, in the admission records, in government ID cards and even in the pooja rituals. At times, his mother doubted if Arun worked hard only to get recognized with the S/O (son of) mention – and it was true to a large extent. These little priceless mentions made Arun feel immensely happy. In the adolescent years, when Arun looked into the mirror, he found his father smiling back at him. His mother often complimented that he was growing into his father. The mannerism, the habits, the thinking process, even the posture in which Arun slept were very similar to his father’s. The family friends and distant relatives agreed to this fact and it made Arun flash a broad, proud smile. It was his experience that in testing times, his father’s teachings guided him to victory.

He proudly shared all these with Uncle Pramod whenever he visited their house. In his mind, he laughed sarcastically on his Uncle’s ‘practicality’ slogan and proved to him that neither his campaign nor his philosophy was fit to exist. He didn’t want him to realize his mistake nor make him feel sorry for what he did, but he just wanted to prove that his father is an inseparable part of his life. Just like the mango tree, Arun was the living legacy of his father and he didn’t need anyone to certify on that!

The cement platform, to this day, remains in the courtyard, holding its destined place since time immemorial. It continues to be Arun’s favorite place. He did most of his tasks sitting on it; be it studying for exams or filling the job application forms. His mother had once suggested planting another tree there, but he didn’t care to do so.

*****

As of today, the drawing room of Arun’s house hosts a picture frame of his father. His mother regularly cleans and garlands it. Arun is a successful man and is happily married to Sudha for over a year. The couple is awaiting a child very shortly.

It is a usual Sunday morning in the month of April. Seated over the cement platform, Arun is thinking about the activities for the day. Then, suddenly, his eyes fall at the center of the platform. He sees little green shoots sprouting out of the presumably dead trunk of the mango tree. A closer examination confirms that the mango tree has miraculously resurrected after twenty years!

Just then, his mother yells from inside the house.

“Arun! Sudha is having labor-pains! Call the doctor, quickly…”

A tide of emotional engulfs Arun, wetting his eyes instantly.

“Welcome back Father!” he whispers excitedly to the juvenile shoot and rushes into the house.

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