The Gone Tree
When the old tree in the compound was cut down, all that remained were the ghosts of the ghost stories that we had all grown up on.
Till the day the tree stood tall and majestic and mysterious against the sky as seen from the window of our nani’s house, it held among its many branches the many ghosts that our elders claimed to have seen, and would tell us about if we wished to venture out at night, or stay back late whenever we went there on our winter vacations. The same tree under the clear blue sky of the morning would be used to play under, bathe under, spread out a bedsheet and lie under as our mothers sat tying each others’ hair in plaits. The same tree under the dark night sky would form strange shapes and figures and would seem to reach towards us as we lay down huddled in the razais snuggling close to our grandmother for comfort, warmth, and the stories of all rajas and their exploits. She was the oldest living member of the family in those days, and yet she never once told us of a ghost story, saying children should be taught to be brave and not be scared with such tales. Of course, she never had to use the threat of spirits to keep us inside. She had her stories and we would never ever leave her side as long as she would be speaking of gods and goddesses and kings and queens and the many wars they fought.
Only once did she speak of the ghosts that lived in the tree and it was on the night before the day it was to be cut down to clear the land so that it could be sold off.
“Do you remember the time when you children didn’t want to drink your milk and it was lying around all day so I had to throw it away? Well, I picked up all your glasses to do exactly that and saw that they were already empty. I first hoped that you had finally decided to drink your milk. Then I blamed the cat. But in my heart I always knew. I walked over to the tree and saw the few drops of milk that must have dropped down as the spirits on its many branches sat sipping what you wouldn’t. I looked up, wanting to scold them. They never entered the house unannounced, or unwanted. Only when I asked them to. And I would only ask them in when there was no one else home. Especially you children. But that day they had broken that rule. And who knows how frequent their visits would become, and what all they would start taking without asking if I let them get away it? So I did what they never liked. I gathered a few cow-dung cakes, put a match to it and let them smoulder under the trees. And every once in a while I would walk out of the house and look up at tree to see if their strange shapes would make themselves visible in the smoke that went up and ducked and dodged around the leaves and the branches. This is what they hate the most. Becoming visible to us. To any of us. And long back I had realised that it is only when you can prise out their shapes from the air around them that they safely become a part of, that you could directly look at them and give them a piece of your mind that they would really listen to. And there they were, quivering, because of the way I was looking at them or because they were trying to escape the smokes from the smoldeirng uppley below.”
Grandmother paused for a while. We thought she was concerned about us, only now realising that she may be scared for us. But the way she looked outside at the tree standing under the dark sky, parts of it merging with the spreading blackness, parts of it standing out, reaching out, its branches seeming to emerge not from the tree but from the very skies that the rest of it had become a part of. And seeing her look at the branches reaching towards us, we realised that it certainly was her concern that we had seen in her eyes, but the concern was not for us, but for the spirits in the tree she was now conjuring for us.
“And they were looking down at me, shifty though they were, never in one place, never together at one time. They had lived on the tree for so long that it was difficult to tell one from the other. And even so, I could see that they were looking down at me. They seemed to be questioning me, as I was doing the same to them. Of course, we never spoke. Not in the way we speak, the way I am speaking to you. We just understood each other. From the day your grandfather died, I could sense that he had left a message with these spirits. Why he didn’t join them and keep a watch on me and the house that we had together built and why had to chosen to inhabit another tree, perhaps, or another world, I would never know. That’s not what these ghosts ever told me. I don’t think they knew either. But we understood each other. And in the fumes that rose from the upple below, I could see them almost pleading with me to let them stay indoors. But I couldn’t let that happen. Now could I? There were children — your mothers and your fathers and your aunts and uncles. And you. Still clinging to your mothers’ breasts. Some of you crawling about and picking up things and putting them in your mouths. You, the eldest, barely able to push your uncle’s cycle and thinking of those days in the future when you would ride it. So I shook my head, and went in. Not even thinking for once if there was any harm in letting them stay inside. Or what could be the reason that they wanted to leave the home of their many generations and shift inside where the constant smoke from the incense sticks and from the cooking fire, or your uncle’s hookah put them at the risk of being found out.”
She got up, possibly to get a drink of water, but all of us held onto her. We couldn’t be left alone under this tree now. We would only feel safe once it was cut off, but that was to happen the next day. Tonight, she had to stay with us till we all slept off, if we could.
Smiling, and understanding, she sat down.
“But then yesterday, when I saw the ball that you had long stopped playing with moving on its own, here, by that door, I knew they had stepped in again. Despite my telling them not to. And what’s the point of understanding each other if we are not going to listen to each other? This time I went out with not just upple but also a lot of dried straw and lit it undet the tree.”
She looked at one of us and said, “Remember you asked me why was I lighting a fire and I told you to run inside?”
One of us nodded, and she continued.
“Not one single spirit showed up. Not one! And I knew, they were all inside my house!”
All of us huddled so close to her and to each other and inside our razais that she could barely move. She laughed her gentle laugh, and said, “And that’s when I knew why they were all inside. Because they knew, that one day this tree would be brought down too.”
We all shut our eyes, as tightly as we could, despite being in the dark cave made by our quilts. And from outside, we heard her muffled voice filter in.
“How could I refuse? So that’s where they are now. Tomorrow, the tree would be gone. But they would be here. But don’t you worry, children. They will never harm you. You know I am here, to talk to them, and make sure they behave.”
Suddenly, we didn’t know if being under the quilt was of any help. What if they were all inside? Instead, we all clung onto our grandmother. And one of us asked what was playing in all our minds.
“But when you are no longer here, nani?”
And she laughed, carefree, loud, and innocent, like only an old person can.
“Then I will one of them. Still looking after you.”
And we all slept peacefully. Knowing she would be there. Long after the tree was gone.