The last time I visited my grandmother, she was on the verandah of our ancestral house, wearing a pearl white sari with a red border and a nose ring that shone brightly against the sunlight as she bent precariously over the railing to greet us, her bangles chiming in harmony with her voice. The nose ring was new and she made no attempt to hide it. She encouraged people to marvel at its luminous splendor, delighting in the insincere admiration it received. She was blissfully unaware of the little things but insightful in a way that no one understood, on a parallel plane, against the grain, maybe just insanely crazy. But I understood her. It was always us doing something dangerous, eccentric or funny together. This one time we went wrestling with the wild hogs that rambled in the forests nearby. She said she had done it several times before and that it was easy, an instinctive ability that all human beings possessed, like swimming is to babies. We went searching for a herd all through the jungle and we found a herd of three. All our bravado dissipated the moment the largest one came charging towards us and we ran. We spent an entire afternoon laughing about that one. We promised not to tell anyone about our little adventures; they sounded too fantastic and frightening for anyone to believe anyway.
This time, she decided to take me to her old school, a small one on the east bank of the canal with no roof and white walls covered in a crawling green mould. We had to walk across a pair of termite-infested logs to get to the other side—it was the only bridge available for a kilometer on either side. I was a little unsure about my footing but she strode gallantly across and just kept racing away, looking like an amazon with a walking stick. I hurried across sloppily and caught up with her at the school playground where she stood with her hands on her hips, looking contentedly at the school-children who capered around the schoolyard and climbed the surrounding trees, walls, buffalos—climbed anything really.
“We didn’t have uniforms when I was in school,” she said gleefully, looking at me and turning away in one fluid motion. She raised her finger and pointed vaguely at something. “Look.”
I traced a line from her finger to see a tree on the far side of the long, rectangular single-storied school building. A large, seemingly antediluvian tree was eating into a corner of the structure, it was inseparable from the building itself; its roots were the foundation and its trunk the walls, its branches and leaves the roof that the school had never had.
That evening, after dinner, we sat in her bedroom, the two of us, talking in the flickering light of a bulb. She was halving her betel nuts with her nutcracker and humming softly when she erupted into a question— “What does it mean?”
She did this often. She almost never spoke when I was expecting it. It was always mid-thought and obscure, only a fragment of what she had obviously spent hours contemplating. “What?”
“The tree—the Fig tree—the one that’s breaking into the walls of the school, the one we saw today.” She seemed genuinely interested in my opinion, I could never understand why.
“I don’t know,” I said, bemused. “Why does it have to mean anything? It’s just a tree that grew into a wall. There’s one just like that in—”
“No,” she cut me off with a casual wave of her hand. “It means something. There’s no other tree like it. Of all the places in the world, that’s where it grew, into that wall and became part of it. You don’t know. Wait. Let me get my blanket and I’ll tell you the whole story.”
I didn’t really want to know the whole story.
Years ago, as a young girl, maybe six or seven, she had sat at the corner of the last room at the far end of the school, hardly listening to the teacher who sat on the rickety chair swatting flies with the lesson book and laboriously reciting some long forgotten poem. She had always been more occupied with the people around her than the books in front, pulling the other girls’ hair or stealing someone’s tiffin box, notorious for her mischief and her casual denial of any wrongdoing. That sultry summer afternoon, though, she was sitting in the dark corner, trying not to lean on the grimy walls, and over her head was the square, shabbily-constructed window with unsymmetrical, octagonal cavities through which the warm, pallid yellow light of the afternoon streamed in. The fan was whirling above her head but it only blew more hot air onto her face and drowsed her. Presently, she looked up unthinkingly at the crevices of the window and noticed through the sleep that was shrouding her eyes, against the blinding bright white sky, a long, dark, vein-like thing creeping inwards over the wall. She claimed throughout her life to have seen the branch creep in like a finger beckoning to her, slowly and enticingly, but what it was beckoning towards, she couldn’t tell.
“So what does it mean?” she asked me again, and again I could not answer her. She went on.
She walked out into the yard after class and stood watching the Fig tree as if she expected it to move or speak or at least notice her, but it didn’t, so she sat on her haunches and enveloped her knees with her arms, expressionless, the flaccid breeze blowing across her skirt. Behind her the other children frolicked about in a raucous, disorienting din of noise and commotion. She sat there unmoving.
She would spend hours and hours in school around that corner examining the tree and how its roots slid into the cracks in the walls and its branches engulfed the sides and engraved their lines into the plaster. She knew every fissure in its bark like a fingerprint and she could, if one asked her, recount, in excruciating detail, exactly how it grew—taller, lankier at first and then broader and slower as it matured, spreading its branches, resting like a giant after a daylong feast. The roots whittled the plaster of the wall until fragments began to fall on the floor. Strange birds frequented the tree, made nests, raised families and then left. My grandmother had collected the nests and the abandoned eggs and kept them under her bed in hope of their return. The children climbed up the tree but most could not climb back down. To the school teachers, the tree was a constant nuisance.
The teachers would sometimes sit in the corridor and have long deliberations about cutting the tree down. ‘It doesn’t even grow any fruit,’ they would say. ‘It’ll eat up the entire school.’ Grandma stood hiding behind a rotting blue pillar, eavesdropping, agape with horror. One day, they did finalise plans to cut down the tree and the village woodcutter was appointed to hew the tree down. The next morning when the woodcutter arrived, grandma was sitting atop the highest scion, swinging her legs in defiance. All the teachers came out, beseeching her to let the man do his job, swamping her with rationality and reason and finally resorting to hopeless begging, but she wouldn’t budge. Ultimately, she had to be brought down by force; screaming, yelling and squiggling, the school chowkidaar held her all in the bow of his arm. She was taken home and consequently thrashed by her parents about the disobedience. The tree, however, was not felled that day or any other day. The woodcutter explained to the staff that the tree was too deeply entangled with the building itself and, though he was not an engineer, he was afraid that cutting the tree would cause the building to collapse.
“So now, what do you think it means?” she asked me once again.
I didn’t want to disappoint her. “I don’t know. It’s like the tree is a part of the school now… no, not just a part of it but it
the school now. One cannot exist without the other.”
She looked at me for a second. “No,” she said. “What rubbish.”
I sighed and leant against the wall. “You tell me then. What does it mean?”
“You know, figs are a proud species. You could command them to fruit, curse them even, but they won’t unless they really want to. The next morning, on the way to school, I was half-crying and half-terrified but when I got there, I saw it standing there, staring at me, smiling at me. I ran to it and hugged it and looked up at its branches. I saw this tiny green balloon-like thing on one of its boughs—like a baby being cradled—it was a strange looking fruit. In a few days, it ripened and turned a pretty purple colour. It was the best I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
The canal in those days only served the purpose of being plastered on its sides with dung cakes. When she grew older, grandma would sit on the branches of her tree and watch the scantily-clad women laying the cakes in rough geometrical patterns to dry in the sultry heat of the summer. Even the tree had felt the heat, she recalled: it would shed its leaves just as the boys would shave their heads, both in an attempt to keep cool. One of those days, she recalled, a kite had entangled itself in the mesh of branches.
“Hey,” she heard a boy scream. “Hey, you on the tree, give me my kite.”
She looked down at a stout, short-haired boy with muddied clothes and bruised ankles trying to climb the tree in vain. “I can’t,” she said biting into a mango. “It’s too far away.”
“You can,” he retorted. “Just stretch a little.”
“I can’t but if you want, I can help you up. You can try stretching that far.”
She lent him a hand and with some effort was able to pull him up over the branch.
“You’re right,” he said. “It is too far to reach.”
Grandma didn’t gloat, or at least that’s what she told me. “Do you want a mango?”
The boy nodded. “I can’t lose the kite. I’ve only had it a day, not even a day. My mother will kill me. The others won’t play with me if I don’t have a kite. I need to get it. Maybe we can shake it hard enough to get it out.”
“You can do what you like,” said grandma.
The boy began jumping on the branch, causing it to oscillate vigorously. Grandma chuckled throatily at the boy’s futile efforts. While the boy shook and shook, the sky was invaded by a large dark cloud from the east. In moments, the sun was blotted out and thunder echoed all around. It began to drizzle and then began to rain and then there was a gust of wind that blew the kite away. The boy helplessly watched the wind take his red kite higher and higher into the sky until he saw nothing beyond the curtain of rain. He looked around and grandma was sitting there, still grinning, still munching on her mango, soaking wet.
“Do you know who that boy was?” she asked me with a suppressed smile.
“It was grandpa,” I rejoined. “You’ve told me this story before.”
“Oh, yes,” she said amusedly admonishing herself. “I forgot. He was so silly; he always was.”
We didn’t speak for half a minute. She continued to crack her betel nuts perfunctorily. Her grey eyes looked away, hiding from my gaze, and just for a second a kind of delicate sadness flashed across them. A single strand of hair straggled down her calloused cheeks, like a river in the desert, and she quickly pushed it back into place.
“The tree has always been a part of my life. We prayed in its shadow, we swung on its branches, we made bonfires from its leaves. Sahil Dada’s motorcycle crashed into it once.”
It was hard to think of her being anything but happy, smiling, all sunflowers and daisies all the time. And yet, somehow, she hadn’t lost her smile; but then her smile, I realized, was deeper than just the curve on her lips.
“So what does it mean?”.
She sighed tenderly.
“The tree,” she said with paan in her mouth, “the tree is why I’m telling you this story.”
by Arpit Nayak