The Banyan Tree
The Banyan Tree22 mins 249 22 mins 249
I saw the terror in their eyes, then; terror such as I have not seen to this day, nor hope to see again.
But let me begin at the beginning.
My name is Niyati. I don’t remember when my parents died. I must have been too young – two or three at the most. They died in a car accident, I was told, crushed to death by a speeding monster of a truck somewhere on the Goa-Belgaum highway. They were on their way to my aunt’s wedding - Aaiee’s younger sister – and died instantaneously, their bodies melding with the twisted metal of their brand new, dark red Maruti.
All this was told to me much later, when I was old enough to understand, by Aazo and Aajee, my grandparents on Baba’s side, who lived in the village of Mangeli in South Goa. They doted on me from the time I was born, as most grandparents do, and brought me up with loving care after my parents’ death. Indeed, I could not have hoped for a better mummy and daddy, and the bond between us was close, and strong, and unbreakable – until their death three months ago, first Aajee, then Aazo.
Strangely enough, they were both fit and spry almost till the time of their death, their bodies honed by work in the fields, though they were by then seventy-eight and eighty-three respectively. They seemed at least twenty years younger. I never ever thought of them as old, and Aajee often told me laughingly that it was my coming into their lives that had kept them young, bringing joy and laughter and giving them a sense of purpose and responsibility. But then Aajee contacted jaundice and never recovered, slipping away slowly until her untimely demise a month later. She could never keep a diet, not Aajee – my, how she loved to eat. And Aazo, who was devoted to her – they were distant cousins and had been married for nearly sixty years – never recovered from the shock of her death and slipped away quietly in his sleep only a week later.
I mourned their death silently and passionately and buried the ashes I had collected after their cremations at the foot of the ancient, gigantic banyan tree that grew barely fifty meters away from our house, adjoining our fields. I had kept the ashes in two exquisitely designed urns I had picked up in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh on my university tour the previous year. I had never thought I would find a use for them so soon.
The banyan tree had been our friend and place of retreat and fun and frolic, ever since I could remember, almost like a living, breathing human being, a close and trusted family member. It was the oldest and largest tree in the village, and truth to tell, I had not seen a bigger and nobler tree anywhere, in Goa or outside. Despite my relative youth, I have traveled to several places outside Goa – I had been a state-level football player in school and college and had participated in quite a few tournaments. In this, and in all my other endeavors, whether music or dance, I had always been greatly encouraged by Aazo and Aajee. They were tremendously proud of my achievements and chose to disregard the disapproving frowns of some of the other villagers who felt, perhaps, that young girls should not be given too much freedom or be involved in too many activities. Fortunately for me, Aazo and Aajee trusted me implicitly and did not share their sentiments, and as I placed the urns in the hole I had dug at the foot of the old banyan tree I sent up a silent, heartfelt prayer of gratitude for all that they had been to me and all that they had given me. And at that moment I could feel – actually feel their loving arms enfolding me, as they did when they were alive.
So here I was, twenty years of age, and twice orphaned. Aazo and Aajee had saved diligently over the years, often denying themselves certain comforts, and had kept aside a tidy little nest-egg for my use. This, together with the insurance money we had received on the death of my parents, which had appreciated over the years, not only ensured that I wouldn’t starve, but that I would have enough to study further should I wish to. I was, at the time of their death, doing my Masters in Psychology at Carmel College in Nuvem. I have wanted to learn and teach Psychology for as long as I can remember, preferably in a reputed college or university.
And so, life went on. I carried the memory of Aazo and Aajee with me wherever I went, and though my heart ached with the loss, I put on a brave face – for that is what they would have wanted me to do – and carried on with the business of living, as stoically as I could. After the first few months following their death, that was not too difficult to manage – I have always had a rather pragmatic bent of mind, and had decided to focus on the present and the future instead of dwelling on the past. That apart, I was enjoying my course and doing rather well, as usual. I had made several new friends and had kept in touch with a few of the older ones, and this helped me greatly in coping with my loss if at all it is possible for anyone to cope with such a loss as mine.
I was also fortunate in getting the company of Durga, our neighbor, and close family friend after Aajee and Aazo had passed away. Durga’s husband had died of some liver ailment (he was a chronic alcoholic) soon after Aajee’s death, leaving her widowed at thirty-six and with an eight-year-old daughter, Damini, to look after. Her loss was my gain. I was finding it rather difficult to manage the cooking and housework along with my studies, and Durga came in when I needed her most. She used to help Aajee with the housework even earlier when they were alive. She offered to take over the cooking and cleaning for me in return for a very reasonable monthly remuneration, and also to spend the nights at my house together with Damini. This was an arrangement that suited both of us perfectly. It is rather risky for a young girl such as myself to stay on her own, even in a village.
I also kept closely in touch with my cousins on my mother’s side, Shalini and Prateik, and their parents. Shalini was my own age – twenty – while Prateik was two years younger. They had been living in Mumbai at the time of my parents’ death, but had moved back to Goa, and were now settled in Margao for the past seven or eight years. I got along famously with my cousins and mama and maushi, and enjoyed spending weekends and holidays in their two-bedroom flat in Comba, Margao. But no matter how much time I spent with them and how much fun we had, I was always glad to come back to my little village. Mangeli was my home, it was as simple as that. And Aazo and Aajee were there still, I knew that with complete certainty. I spent a lot of time after their death at the foot of the old banyan tree, as we used to in happier times, conversing with them and just being with them. I could always feel their presence in that special place of ours, always.
And so, I resisted the well-meaning efforts of my loving cousins and aunt and uncle to move to Margao and stay with them in their little flat. I’m not too sure they understood why I chose to continue to live in Mangeli, especially after Aazo and Aajee’s death – the charms of a tiny village held little fascination for them, the afterlife in Mumbai, and now Margao – but they respected my decision and have always been there for me should I need help, so this way I get the best of both worlds, which suits me fine. I have always been rather independent by nature. Aazo and Aajee, while showering me with the utmost love and affection, took care not to smother me and gave me the liberty, rather unusual in a small village, of making my own decisions once I was old enough to know my own mind.
So I was happy enough in my little village, traveling to Margao most days for my classes and spending the weekends at Maushi’s place in Comba. Thanks to Aazo and Aajee, and the standing they had enjoyed in the village, I was accorded the same measure of respect and affection that was bestowed on me while they were alive. I was, after all, the daughter of the village.
I did, however, miss Sachin, my childhood friend, and schoolmate, also a resident of Mangeli, who had gone to the States on a scholarship for two years. There was no internet connection in Mangeli, so it was difficult to keep in touch. There had been so many unspoken words between us and so many unexpressed feelings. But I consoled myself with the thought that the months would fly and he would be back before I knew it. Maybe he would say something then. In the meanwhile, I kept myself busy and was content.
There was, however, as they're usually is, a fly in the ointment, in the form of three of the most obnoxious men I have ever encountered. Three men who had no fear of God or respect for culture or tradition - whose lustful glances in my direction and crass, often lewd comments were unsettling, to say the least.
The first among them was Ramdas Gaude, who owned and ran the small general store and chai-shop at the Mangeli bus-stop on the main road, a kilometer away from my house, which is located pretty much in the interior. He was what is colloquially known as a “history-sheeter”, with several cases registered against him for crimes ranging from petty theft and extortion to murder. He had, in fact, been released from jail only the previous year for stabbing to death an acquaintance in a drunken brawl at the local bar. He was around forty and wore his unkempt hair down to his shoulders in the style that was probably fashionable in the sixties and seventies. He was strongly built, with the coldest eyes I have ever seen. I am a sportswoman, mind you, and no pushover, as many men have discovered to their chagrin – but this man scared me all the same, with his cold eyes, stony face and unflinching stare.
Everyone in the village was terrified of him and walked around him like a cat on hot bricks. It was common knowledge that he was close to Ramakant Shetye, the P.W.D. minister, who was back in power after a long hiatus. To put it simply, he was his henchman – a goonda who could not be touched. A kind of scary ghost. A living horror.
Hanging around him a lot of the time was Basappa, another goonda. This one was from Karnataka, a huge, dark-skinned mountain of a man, with powerful sloping shoulders, a thick, drooping moustache and eyes that were perpetually bloodshot. They were as thick as thieves, these two, though what they saw in each other was beyond me. Evil attracts evil, I suppose, it’s as simple as that. Basappa, too, had served time in Karnataka for seven years, for rape, so they said. Now in Goa for the past three years or so, he had hooked up with Gaude. The two of them, it was said, formed the core of Ramakant Shetye’s army of goons. One glance at the two of them was like reading a scary story.
Making up the trio was a slim, weaselly man in his late twenties named George. No one seemed to know exactly who he was or where he came from. He was very fair, almost like an albino, with blond hair bleached almost white, sandy eyebrows, a small, wispy tuft of a beard and colorless eyes that seemed to gobble you up when he looked at you. He was an Anglo-Indian, I believe. It was rumored that he dealt in drugs and was a close associate of the son of a top politician who, it was said, was a kingpin in the drug racket himself. How he came to be associated with the other two, and what their connection was, and why he chose to make his home in Mangeli of all places – all this I neither knew nor cared. I only knew that he scared me to death, with his flat, colorless eyes and spooky, lopsided smirk.
I have been aware for quite some time that I’m considered rather pretty in most circles, with an athlete’s slim but robust figure, long straight hair falling down to my shoulders, and a clear, fair complexion … but I have never given undue importance to my looks, and have usually had no difficulty in dealing with the unwanted overtures of all kinds of men. But these three men scared me, they were so much a law unto themselves, with scant respect for anyone or anything. They would huddle together outside Ramdas’ shop in the mornings when I arrived to catch the bus to Ponda, and fix their eyes on me until the bus arrived, passing the most offensive and outrageous comments all the while. I had considered filing a police complaint on more than one occasion but refrained from doing so not only because I was advised it would be futile, given the political influence they enjoyed, but also because I knew it would only make matters worse and spur them on to bolder action.
So I suffered their crass comments in silence, which was extremely difficult for someone of my temperament, and consoled myself with the thought that I was not the only girl in the village who was singled out for this kind of indignity – though it did seem to me that they paid special attention to my goings and comings, and seemed to know my itinerary as well as I did. In any case, I told myself, there wasn’t much more they could do, with the whole village looking on.
The rains came, bringing with them a whiff of much-needed freshness, a respite from the cloying heat of summer. I always enjoyed the rains, despite the attendant problems – frequent power disruptions, puddles on the roads, mud stains on freshly-washed and ironed clothes, gusty winds and umbrellas turning inside-out, the unpleasant feeling of being soaked to the skin and having to endure the clamminess of wet fabric through much of the day – all these paled when compared to the benefits that the rains brought, especially in a village-like Mangeli. Oh, the clear, crisp, clean air in the mornings when I stepped out of the house to spend time with Aazo and Aajee at the foot of the old banyan tree before I left to catch the bus to Ponda. Oh, the green, green stalks of rice waving out to me as I walked to the bus-stop, smiling at the folk along the way and acknowledging their greetings. And the canopy of green shrouding the hills, plains, and valleys – everything! I loved the rains.
The monsoons came and went, and it was now October. I had endured the filthy comments of the three loafers at the bus-stop throughout the rains until at last my patience snapped and I accosted them.
“What the hell is wrong with you men?” I asked George, “Have you no sense of decency at all?”
He looked at me with those haunted, colorless eyes of his and gave that hateful, lopsided smirk.
“We’ll get you, you bitch!” he said, in a flat, emotionless voice, and the other two just smiled.
I knew then that I had made a bad mistake, and that same evening I went with my mama and Prateik to the Margao police station to lodge a police complaint. I was dismayed, however, when the station officer in charge looked at me warily the moment I mentioned their names, the shutters coming down over his eyes instantly. Pushing the logbook away, he toyed with his pen for a moment, before saying, without meeting my eyes, ”Why don’t you compromise, madam?”
His idea of ‘compromise’ was an apology from my side. He was actually suggesting that I go up to my three nightmares and apologize to them for daring to question them. This, he assured me, was for my own benefit.
”To avoid further complications, Madam,” he explained.
I stalked out of the police station in a huff, Mama, and Prateik in tow. I was simmering with rage, and already thinking what my next step would be. A colleague and close friend of mine, also doing her Masters with me, had a father who was close to the P.A of the Chief Minister. She had mentioned this to me once. That would be the route to take, I had already decided.
That day happened to be Prateik’s nineteenth birthday, and since he had been unable to celebrate his coming of age the previous year, having been out of Goa on a tour, he had left no stone unturned to ensure his birthday would be celebrated in style this year. So I had come prepared, bringing my party clothes with me, my only condition being that they would not press me to spend the night in Margao. I had an important presentation the following day and had had very little time to prepare. I planned to stay up most of the night. Were it not for the fact that I would have found it impossible to focus on my paper with a party going on around me, I’d have stayed at Margao itself. It was much closer to my college in Nuvem than Mangeli.
Prateik’s birthday celebrations were “a real blast”, as my friend, Nina, would have said, the only dampener being the unseasonal shower, the leftover rains so to speak, that began when the party started and increased in strength as the party gained momentum, turning into a full-fledged storm by 8.30 pm. Prateik had made arrangements for one of his friends, Hrithik, to drop me home after the party, but I looked at Hrithik’s eyes and thought better of it. He had already had a little too much to drink and was in no condition to drive. Raj’s condition wasn’t much better, and the other boys had come by bike, which wasn’t an option in this weather.
So my practical mind taking over, I persuaded Raj, who was the soberer of the two, to give me a lift to the Margao K.T.C bus-stand. From there, I reasoned, I would catch the last bus home, which left for Mangeli at 8.40 pm. Over-riding the protests of my aunt, uncle, and cousins, who were understandably concerned for my safety and well-being, I got into Raj’s new Wagon R.
I caught the last bus by the skin of my teeth, and after indicating to Raj that he was free to go back to his party and his drinks, I settled comfortably in my seat. The bus was half-empty and I was dog-tired, having not slept well at all the previous night, worrying about how to handle my three nightmares. I didn’t relish the prospect of keeping awake half the night to prepare for my presentation, that too, on my own – Durga and Damini were at a relative’s place in Mardol - but what the hell! “C’est la vie”, as they say in French. I closed my eyes and dozed off.
Sometime later, I was conscious that something was wrong. I jerked awake, only to discover that the bus was no longer moving.
Apparently, it had broken down and Suresh, the conductor, and Vinod, the driver, both from Mangeli, set to work immediately to pinpoint the source of the problem and get the bus back on the road. We were still a good six or seven kilometers from Mangeli.
I took out my mobile to call Mama and Maushi but then changed my mind. They would only worry unnecessarily and send someone to pick me up – I didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced to that extent, especially in this weather. It was still pouring cats and dogs, with lightning and thunder threw in for good measure, July weather rather than October. It was probably the dying gasp of the monsoons and a pretty dramatic one at that.
Eventually, they succeeded in repairing the bus, but it took the better part of an hour, and by the time we reached the last stop at Mangeli it was almost 11.30 pm and I was the only passenger left.
I got off the bus, aching in every joint, and feeling more tired and listless than I had ever felt in my life. I thought I might be coming down with the ‘flu. I felt restless and feverish, and an insistent voice in my head was trying to tell me something, but I was too tired to hear.
The wind was howling like seven demons, and the road ahead was in pitch darkness, the power supply, as usual, having failed completely. Clutching the thin, hooded jacket I had hastily borrowed from Shalini tightly around me, and wishing I had brought something heavier, I made my way gingerly forward, shivering as the icy wind sliced through the jacket and freezing pellets of rain-water battered my face and the unprotected parts of my body.
And then I saw them. At first, I thought it was a trick of light and shadow, but as they moved out of the darkness of the shop and into the comparative grayness of the street outside, I saw them and my heart did a rapid somersault. For a brief moment, a flash of lightning flickered on their faces, and I could see them clearly. Ramdas. Basappa. And George. Their faces set in stone. They had been waiting for me, for God knows how many hours.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Fear lent her wings.” So I flew forward, more by instinct than anything else, the rain hammering down, hammering down, the all-encompassing darkness a foe rather than a friend. Forgetting my tiredness and the aches and pains in my joints, I put my head down and flew. Fear lent me wings. I knew that if they caught up with me, I was finished. So I ran, faster than I had ever run in my life. I ran for my life.
But they ran too. As fast as I did. If fear lent me wings, then lust, I suppose, gave them theirs. Or a desire for revenge. Or an urge to demonstrate their power. I don’t know – you tell me, what impels such men, and even so-called civilized ones, to behave the way they do?
I didn’t try and analyze any of that. I just ran for my life, the wind howling around me and tearing at my clothes, the rain beating down with tremendous force, combining with the darkness to obliterate the path before me. And still, I ran, oblivious to the thunder and rain, conscious only of the ragged animal panting behind me, close at my heels, close at my heels.
It didn’t even occur to me to scream. I didn’t have the time, for one thing, and no-one would have heard me, anyway, above the raging of the storm. And no-one would have dared to confront these men in any case.
Just once I risked a glance behind me, and it was precisely at this time that a streak of lightning sizzled downwards to illuminate the faces behind me. I saw the cold ferocity in their eyes, the single-minded look of purpose and the open, panting mouths, and I put my head down and ran harder.
But they would not be denied their prey. I felt the hot, animal breath on my neck and the fingers tearing at the neck of my kurta top – whether George’s, Ramdas’or Basappa’s, I don’t know - and I ran harder.
We had by now almost reached the old banyan tree, fifty meters from my home. If I could just reach the house, maybe I could open the door with the key. But where was the key? In my bag. And where was the bag? Fallen by the wayside somewhere, at some point during the chase.
In the last few frantic moments, I had gained a few valuable yards, but now the reality of my situation hit me like a thunderbolt and a sense of utter hopelessness washed over me. Reaching the beloved banyan tree, I put my hand against its trunk for a moment. I was utterly spent.
“Help me, Aaja. Help me, Aayee,” I gasped, then ran again towards the house. Barely out of the clearing, my foot caught on a root and I went sprawling.
I lay there on the ground, the rain beating down remorselessly on my back, waiting for the inevitable. Waiting for the crushing weight of one of those men on my body. Waiting for God knows what.
And then I heard the sound. At first, it sounded like the gentle swishing of leaves, the swishing of a thousand leaves, of ten thousand leaves, as if every leaf of every tree in the village had come together in a sort of macabre dance.
Then it grew to a crescendo, resembling the rustling of every leaf of every tree in the world, drowning out even the screaming, screaming wail of the banshee wind.
And above that clamor, above that bedlam, I could hear the most horrible noise imaginable – the terrible gurgling and choking of human throats, human, yet not human at the same time.
I pushed myself up on my hands and knees and risked a quick glance backward. A bolt of lightning split the sky in two at precisely that moment, lighting up the scene before my horrified eyes, etching every detail into my mind, burning them into my brain as though with red -hot iron. What I saw I will never forget in a thousand years, in ten thousand years! I saw the three men being lifted up by the thick branches of the banyan tree, the tree that belonged to Aazo and Aajee and me, the tree at whose foot their ashes were interred. I saw them dangling in the air, saw them struggling, struggling, and gasping for life, their eyes bulging out of their sockets as the vines of the tree wound themselves inexorably around their throats.
I saw the terror in their eyes, then; terror such as I have not seen to this day, nor hope to see again. And shutting my ears to the horrible choking, gasping sounds, I ran towards the house and flung myself onto the floor of the verandah. I lay there for a long, long moment, catching my breath and closing my ears to the sounds around me. I dared not look behind me.
Then, getting to my feet, I scrabbled around for the spare house key in the third flower-pot to the left of the porch. Opening the door, I entered my room and flinging myself on the bed I slept the sleep of the dead. Rather, of the one saved from a fate worse than death.
Five years have passed since that day. I try not to think of it too often. The nightmares have passed, disappearing completely from the time Chutki was born. Her name is Tavishi, actually, but Sachin and I call her Chutki because she resembles so much the little girl from the T.V. serial Chhota Bheem. She will complete three in December and is already quite a handful. Truly her mother’s daughter.
Her favorite spot is the clearing around the old banyan tree. We spend a lot of time there, the three of us. I talk to her about Aazo and Aajee, and small though she is she seems to understand, and in a strange way know them already.
And me, I’m happy and fulfilled. Teaching at Carmel’s takes up a lot of my time and energy, but in my absence, Sachin’s parents are there to take care of Chutki. They stay with us, you see.
I look at Chutki and I smile. And I look at our beloved banyan tree, and I feel safe. Thank you, Aaja. Thank you, Aayee. Thank you for everything.