The Litchie Tree

Of all possible excuses that she could have made for coming late to work, she chose the truth. That it didn’t make any sense to Mrs Sujala, her employer, came as a surprise to her. But in the last three years that she had spent here in the city, she had come to realise that people here were moved by the same things, but in different ways. The rains, for instance, were not received with joy, but with a shake of the head, and instead of running out when the clouds opened up, people as a rule ran in. And hours after the rains had come and gone, the water that stayed on the roads and around the houses was never used to float paper-boats in. Back home, where they had far fewer means of crossing the muddy paths and the fields after it had rained, everybody greeted every downpour with dances of joy and by lighting up kitchen fires to fry the batter-dipped small fish she hadn’t eaten for as long as she had been here. Whenever she got caught in the rain as she returned from school, she would break into a run. Not because she feared her notebooks getting wet, but because even from that far she could smell the mustard oil heating up over the fire and hear the sizzle as the dumplings were dropped into the pan. She could still catch that aroma and that sound. All it took was for the skies to turn grey, and the first drops to hit the ground. Only now she would rush out to take the clothes from the line outside before Mrs Sujala had to remind her.

Another thing that people here were reacted to differently were the trees. Most houses that she worked in — and over the three years she had been here she had worked in quite a few — were large houses with a few potted plants and at least a few trees lining up the iron-gates on both sides. But these trees were never those that bore fruit. In her first few months she had assumed that she had arrived here in the wrong season, and that soon the trees would sprout flowers and then the season would change to turn them into fruits. But a year went by and not one tree bore any fruit. Over casual conversations with other maids who had been in the city longer, she realised that people never planted fruit-bearing trees, because they felt that trees would attract passers-by, especially children and adults who couldn’t afford fruits otherwise. Which she thought strange. For no matter how many fruits got picked or stolen whether ripe or not, whatever fell in the hands of the house-owners would still be more than what these trees were giving them now.

Which brought her back to the litchis. The sugary-sweet juicy fruits wrapped around a thick seed and packed inside a thin hard red-and-black peel. The fruit that she had mentioned as her reason for having come late to work when Mrs Sujala had opened the door looking upset. And when she heard her, she looked puzzled, without giving up on looking upset. She had actually looked at her with a strange expression, like she was hearing a person talk in a language she had never heard before.

Three summers had come and gone, each followed by rains that made the litchis sweeter, juicier while making the peel thin and soft enough for the worms to crawl in, since she had last climbed the low branches of a litchi-tree to reach for the fruit-clusters that weighed down the tree to a point that even a child could pluck them off without anybody’s help. As if the fruits were as eager to be devoured as the children were of devouring them. Three summers since she had sat on the trees with her friends, plucking and eating and throwing the seeds back on the ground, giggling from behind the leaves that helped them stay hidden from the eyes of the village elders and helped them get close to the clusters higher up where the sun had ripened them to perfection. But the biggest threat were not the elders. That came from the yellow wasps and the red ants that were as impatient for the fruit as the villagers, and were as determined as the children were, to get to them first. There were few who could go through a litchi-season without a wasp-sting or an ant-blister to show for all the litchi seeds lying around. She had never thought it possible then, but those sharp bites of the insects that she had last suffered over three years back was what she missed the most when she saw the litchis heaped up on a cart, as she sat in the bus that took her to the city from the make-shift shelters on the fringes where she lived with her distant cousin who had brought her here and found her a house to work in when the extended drought had made their small patch of land too barren for her family to live on.

The bus had stopped at the intersection when the traffic light turned to red, and the driver used the opportunity to change the songs on the player, while she took the opportunity to take a closer look at the cart. Yes, the cart was loaded with the biggest litchis she had seen. She looked at the red, ripe fruits between the dried leaves, both still attached to the smallest of branches that were always all plucked together to retain the moisture and the juice for the longest time. And then she looked up and saw the red light, which she knew would soon turn to green and for the first time she found herself willing the light to stay at red. Green meant reaching the houses on time. Green meant a blast of the air easing off the discomfort of the hot summer sun. But today green would also mean moving away from the cart, from her beloved fruit. In a way, moving away from her home of her childhood. But it wasn’t the lights that made her get off the bus, it was the sight of the man pushing the cart away. She couldn’t let it out of her sight.

The lights did turn green, and the bus pulled away, and when it left the scene, it also left the road open for her to walk across and over to the cart that was moving very slowly, pulled by a man made weary by the sun, and by the load he was pulling. She had no difficulty in overtaking it, and soon she was standing next to the fruits, the bunches just a few feet away from her hands. The man also stopped pushing the cart, using the excuse of a prospective customer to take some rest.

“Where are these litchies from?”

The man shook a bunch, holding it by the little twigs that were tied together with a plastic rope. The action made the tiny water droplets jump and fall back on the fruits and the leaves, making the bright red skin glisten even more. Unknown to her, this was a little trick that the man had learnt to tempt his customers with, and prepare them for the price that he was about to put on his wares.

“Murshidabad.”

“Really?”

She was from Murshidabad too. Though it wasn’t exactly true, geographically speaking. But she did come from a small village some twenty kilometers away from the main town that went by that name, but few outside that area knew of any of the six or seven villages that circled the town, and the world knew of all these places by that one name. Not that the residents of the villages that went without their own identity seemed to mind, as Murshidabad made them feel like they too belonged to a bigger place where they went every month or so, to see the cinema hall and the movie posters, to see the long and narrow bazaar lanes made colourful by the bangles and the garments hung outside each shop, to see the cars and the buses and the clock-tower and the college with its imposing front that the children would stand outside and wonder what went on inside. In exchange the town got all the credit for the best litchis grown in this part of the country. The town itself had a few trees, but the majority of the produce came from the villages around it. But they all went by the name of ‘Murshidabad Litchis’. And being this far from home, she went with the name of Murshidabad too.

“Are you from that place too? Did you bring all these litchis from there?”

The man was eager to make his sales and move on to a place that afforded more customers and a little shade.

“No, I am not. I got these from the mandi. Now do you want any or are you only interested n people who come from that place?”

Who wouldn’t be interested in meeting people from their hometown when they were far away in another city? But she let it go and focussed instead on the litchis. She had heard from people who still came flocking to the cities that the drought had eased off, the rains were back, and the lands were beginning to turn green. Seeing these litchis now was proof that things had improved. Though her father kept sending word to her that she stays where she was and continue sending money as times were tough and her younger sisters and brothers needed to be kept in school. Well, if she couldn’t go back, at least here was something from her home that had come to her. Should she wait for the evening when she could buy a few to take them back to eat on her way? Or should she buy these now and finish them off on the short walk from the bus-stop to the house she worked at?

“Would you be here in the evening?”

The man had been selling long enough to know that people who didn’t start by asking the price of things they were interested in were either going to buy enough to make up for the day’s sales, or were not going to buy at all. This girl didn’t look like she belonged to the former group. He had already started pulling the cart as he looked back and said, “I may be. But I am not so sure of the litchis. These are the first of the season and some people here have been waiting for a year to get a taste of these again.”

The girl knew what the first of the season meant here. It meant the prices will be high, the measures small and the people wary of sharing. And this wasn’t just for the litchis, she stood for a while watching the cart leave, glad that the heat of the sun wasn’t letting the man leave too quickly. She would take her chances on her way back, she thought as she boarded the next bus that stopped at the traffic intersection.

“Have you had litchis this year, Didi?”

She was having her tea with a slice of buttered toast that Mrs Sujala always kept for her from her own breakfast. Her work was over, and she would soon leave for the other house she worked at. It was only in this brief interval of time when her work was over, and she was having her tea sitting on a low stool directly in front of the air-conditioner that her employer behaved more like an elder sister than a demanding employer. This was when they would discuss the frequency of power-cuts in the summers, the growing population of the city because of the new offices coming up all around the suburbs, the ways in which their cooking differed, and anything else that may have caught their attention or interest on TV or in the newspapers. Or, like today, on the streets.

“Litchis? This early in the season? Can you even imagine how much a bunch would cost?”

That got her worried. If the litchis were expensive to these people, then how would she ever be able to buy any? And now that she thought about it, that particular cart was really the only that she had seen this year. She could try going to the mandi, that huge open place far out of the city where trucks and tractors laden with farm produce reached every day before dawn to feed the sacks and carts of smaller sellers who would take them closer to the homes and lanes of the city. Maybe she could go there? But the bus-ride to that place alone would make up for the difference in the price. Or everyone would have bought things from the mandi. Silly of me, she thought, as she picked up her glass and empty plate and walked over to the kitchen to wash up.

The other house was a short walk away, and the sun was beating down on the road that was almost empty because of it. She walked slow under the shade of the trees and hurried past the gaps between them. And every time she ducked under one, she would look up and wonder why couldn’t they plant litchi trees instead. She reached out with her hand at a low-hanging branch, to check if she could have reached the fruits had these trees borne any. Her hands rustled through the leaves, making a butterfly resting inside take flight. She wondered if her friend Chanderi was sitting high on a branch at this very moment, plucking a litchi, peeling off the red skin and planting her teeth in the soft, juicy fruit? She hoped a red ant would bite her right now if she was, and partly satisfied with that, she walked on, thinking it served her right for stealing the season’s first litchis without her.

This next house she worked in offered her some rest, some recreation and some time alone, as the occupants were three young men who were all at work at this hour, and she would take the keys from the landlord on the ground-floor, enter the house, clean it up, cook their dinner and leave it in the fridge. She was also entitled to having some of the food she cooked as her lunch, and this she would eat with the television switched on, sitting under the fan on a carpet next to the bed. She only saw these men on Sundays, and today being a working day, she had the house to herself. She loved these hours — humming songs she had heard her mother sing as she massaged her long, black hair with mustard oil and then combed it from her scalp right down to the edge of the farthest strands. She would take her time with the cleaning and would decide what to cook. The gentle whirr of the fan would put her to sleep at times, but she had enough time for that too. Especially in the summers when she would rather leave late when the sun had done its worst. Only today, she was in a bit of a rush.

Having returned the keys to the old landlord who looked a little surprised at seeing her leave so early, she started her walk back to the bus-stop. It was early in the evening, and very hot. The summers in Murshidabad were no less fierce. But somehow, they felt harsher here. And she was now asking herself if she had done the right thing by leaving early, and that too on an empty stomach. For though the landlord had suspected her of not completing her work, she had actually saved time by giving up on her lunch and that hour under the fan. And now she was wondering if she should find a spot in the park on the other side of the road to rest in, despite Mrs Sujala’s warning about the park being the haunt of out-of-job men who spent their days here gambling and smoking. She was still making up her mind when she heard the iron-gates of the house she was crossing now creak open, and a woman’s voice calling out to her.

“You! There!”

She stopped and walked up the house. She stole a glance at the plate on the gate. It said House №339. The number the maids in the locality had warned her about. So this must be that lady. Every maid who had worked here had left the moment she got paid, and never returned. And the few who went there despite the warnings from others did so because they were in need of money. But the day they found work in some other house, they left. She hadn’t been in such a situation before, nor now. So she could easily say no and walk on.

“Why are you saying no? Aren’t you free for an hour every day?”

“Sorry madam, I am not. I work in that house over there, and I came away early today. On other days I finish by late evening. Won’t have the time to work for you.”

The lady was about to shut the gate, when she seemed to think of something and called her back.

“My maid left without telling me, and there are some dishes to be washed. Can you just do that much today? I will pay you for a day’s work before you leave.”

She was about to refuse, but then the kitchen on this house looked like a better refuge than the park, and besides, that little money might just cover up the cost of the litchies. She nodded and followed the woman inside.

The kitchen sink was loaded. Either the family had had many guests over for lunch, or the maid had been absconding for more than two days at least. But the water was cold to the touch and the kitchen in the farthest corner of the house where the sun didn’t reach. She went to work, humming that song left unfinished from her cut-short stay in the previous house. Meanwhile, the lady of the house kept a strict watch on her from over her shoulders, noticing with some satisfaction the strong, sturdy hands of a girl in her youth running over the dishes, that only a few minutes back she had resigned herself to doing.

“Once you are done with the dishes, just mop up the kitchen sink and the counter with that cloth and spread it in the backyard to dry.”

The girl was almost through by now, and she nodded at this little addition to her work. She wondered how much money she was to get for this ad-hoc work, and decided that it can’t be too much, or the other maids would have stayed back. Still, by the time she would leave, the sun would have travelled over the high-rises on the other side of the city, and she would have some time and money to look for the fruit that she had spent the day thinking of.

“Which way to the backyard?” She was done with her work, and the only thing that remained between her and the little money the lady of the house was holding in her fist was this cloth that she had to take out to dry.

“That door over there.”

The woman had used the other hand to point out the door at the far end of the room adjoining the kitchen. She followed her direction, pushed the door open, and stepped out into the quiet little backyard that was tucked away from the main street, a narrow strip of a lawn between the wall of the kitchen and the tall boundary wall that separated this house from the one on the other side. And at the very centre of this lawn stood a litchi tree.

The tree wasn’t very tall, nor very wide, at least not as wide as these trees are known to grow. It could have been because of the little space it could draw sunlight and rain from, or because the owners of the house got it regularly pruned, to make it stay away from the walls on either side of it. But despite the smaller frame, the heavy trunk bore the thin, scrawny twigs that reached out like an old man’s hand holding out treats for the children. And under this tree, in the shade that it afforded and in the hope that it offered, stood the young girl suddenly feeling like those miles between here and home, and those months between today and then, fold up like a carpet, and she could almost hear her mother shouting out to her to come back home before she got swollen up by wasp-bites.

She reached up and touched the lowest hanging litchi. It would be some time before it ripened, though it would never attain the size and the juiciness of the litchis from her town. But then, these were still litchis from a tree, and not from a cart. These were still litchis that were made sweeter because they were plucked, and not bought. These were litchis that would catch the rain, and not the water from the seller’s bucket.

“I am ready to work here, madam. If you would like me to.”

The lady had come looking for her when she hadn’t returned, and found her here, looking up at the tree that her father had planted long before the houses came springing up all around them. She had seen her reach out to a litchi and was about to shout out to her to stop her from plucking it, when she saw that the young girl’s fingers just caressed the green peel that was yet to turn red, and then drop her hands by her side.

“Do you have a litchi tree back home too?”

“Yes madam. Not one, but many.”

She was talking to the lady, but looking up at the tree, breathing in the smells, taking in the shifting sun-rays that slanted in from between the leaves that were shaking lightly under a gentle evening breeze that was hot everywhere but here. The lady knew why she was ready to work here. But the litchi season lasted only for two months at the most. With the last of the fruit, she would be gone too.

“You can come from tomorrow. But what about the other houses you work at?”

Still looking up, now at an ant that was scouting out for a fruit on the highest reaches of the tree that might have turned sweet because of being closer to the sun, she said she would leave one of the two places she worked at.

“But what if you leave in a month or two? They might not take you back.”

“I wouldn’t.”

The litchi season was around only for two months, or three. But once the last of the fruit fell down, it was time to rummage around the base of the tree for the fallen seeds and the puckered peels, both of which were excellent manure for the very tree it came down from. And then the long winters when the tree’s branches had to be shorn of their leaves so that the trunk below could breathe. And then would come spring, and with it would come new leaves, and the little brown baur — the small, little flowers that would turn to fruits. And if the base of the tree was watered well, and daily, then the litchis next year would not be the small, tightly bound spheres that hung up now, but would be like the ones she had grown up seeing and plucking.

“I wouldn’t, madam,” she repeated, as she took her eyes off the tree and started walking towards the kitchen on her way out.

“Wait! Here’s your money for today.”

She stopped, having forgotten the clenched fist. And then she smiled and shook her head. She didn’t need it now.

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