The tree had no idea that the twenty-first century was upon us. What have trees to do with centuries and millennia? Hundred years are a blink to a tree. Its daily routine remains the same, however old it is. Who ever heard of trees retiring! They house birds, give shelter to the weary, shed leaves to enrich the topsoil, manufacture seeds for the future greenery and contribute to the arts. Yes sir. The trees make music by letting the breeze play on their branches and leaves. A veritable orchestra; playing different ragas at different times of the day and the seasons. They are excellent perfumeries too. But not all fragrances reach the cussed humans. The fault lies not in the fragrance but our bewildered senses, afflicted by the stench of over consumption.
Our tree was a veteran, centuries old. Throughout the day, it practiced Yogic deep breathing. The breath it exhaled from the recesses of its lungs was called oxygen by the scientists. The practice of Yoga did not prevent it from noting the human antics beneath him; deep breathing was after all second nature to him. At nightfall, it recalled the funny, weird doings of humans and laughed to itself. The tepid breath it then exhaled was termed carbon dioxide.
The tree grew in girth and height with age but, its feet remained rooted at one place. It could not go gallivanting like the birds, which came to rest on its luxuriant boughs at eventide. They made up for its immobility by the zesty tales they told of their journeys. What gossips they were, worse than chattering old men and women. The tree knew, not all their tales were true. It might not have traveled in space but had traversed enough in time to sift the real from the imagined. So at nightfall, after the birds fell silent, it recalled the spicy details of their chatter and chuckled to itself.
In the winter months, the stories grew spicier as the migratory birds made their rounds. God knows where they flew to in the month of summer but they never forgot to return in the winter. That is how it is with nomads; however far they go, they do not lose the yearning to return, a nomad is not a mendicant you see. The stories, told by the birds from faraway lands were sometimes so strange, that the shock made him forget to laugh for a while. When he finally did, late at night, the chuckle turned into a fierce guffaw. No wonder, there were sudden spurts in the degree of carbon dioxide in the air during winter nights.
Not that the birds always brought distressing or comic news; there were times when they brought solace to the tree's distressed heart. Like the time the cuckoo returned from a three-month sojourn in the South of India in March. It talked of wide roads laid without cutting a single tree. Of four floor houses, letting tall trees go over the top through holes cut in the balconies. The tree felt so good that it forbore to laugh that night with a salubrious effect. The scientists, the world over, were bemused into thinking that some trees produced oxygen even at night.
It even took a short nap to the beat of the music, made by the breeze playing on its branches. But it did not stop breathing; not for a split second. That would have been catastrophic.
Time passed. The tree continued its work; it was time which turned treacherous. It turned footpath into lane; lane into road; road into highway; highway into fly over. Trees were pushed from the center to the margin. But their nature did not change. They carried on regardless. A tree, you see, is a little like god, with a beginning perhaps, but definitely without an end. Trees do not die unless uprooted. Even god would find it hard to survive if cast out from the roots.
As the roads grew wider and the buildings higher; an unfamiliar smell pervaded the atmosphere, the stench of loneliness. Had anyone talked of loneliness at the turn of the century, the tree would have retorted, how can a tree be lonely? There are trees upon trees far into the horizon. But now, sometimes there was no companion tree for a great distance. Our tree turned to the human beings passing below for company. Some walked, some ran, jogging they called it, and some just sat in the shade to rest their weary bodies. A new raga could be heard composed of the jugalbandi between people breathing at different beats and the breeze passing overhead.
What the tree liked best were the old folks out on walks with little children in tow. The older the guardian, the smaller the toddler he held by hand. The tree felt quite maternal when it saw the old folks bend double to suit the size of the infants. It gave expression to it the only way he knew how. By inhaling deep and exhaling a waft of cool breeze from the recesses of its lungs. The weather's suddenly improved, they exclaimed. The tree felt happy and exhaled with more gusto. In no time, he found that the toddlers had grown into youths and then into old folks, who had new infants in tow.
Time was passing at its usual pace when one day, a bird from far away China landed on the tree. The story it told! It was the only bird left in the whole of China, and that by pure chance, with the pellet from a catapult landing a hairbreadth away. It managed to fly out of the country by hiding in wide leafed trees at night and entered India.
"What about the other birds? Why were they killed?" the tree tried to revive her with oxygen from its lungs. As soon as it got its breath back it answered, "The rulers of China decreed that it was the duty of every Chinese citizen to kill as many birds as he could because they ate up grain. The citizens obeyed orders without question. They began to kill birds with such zeal that they were soon annihilated. But I managed to survive." Suddenly it chortled with glee.
Why the laughter, thought the tree. Again it had the answer ready.
"We took our revenge soon enough. One year went well without the birds but after that, the burgeoning population of worms and pests paid put to the harvest. There were no birds to control their numbers by making meals of them. Everyone knows birds prefer worms to grain any day."
Everyone except the rulers! Such stupid rulers! Not stupid, vain, explained the bird. Vanity draws a thick curtain between the future and the eyes of he who must be instantly obeyed, however idiotic his orders. The greater the compliance, the thicker the curtain grows. Megalomaniacs cannot see further than their noses. The despot said kill birds. Everyone ran helter-skelter, doing that. He grew vainer and more shortsighted with each kill, forgetting the natural order, which would strike at the hour of its choosing.
Wow, thought the tree, you are a wise one. It vowed to take special care of the bird, even refraining from laughing at night when it was tucked under the leaves, just in case it fluttered down and was hit by the carbon dioxide drifting downward. It fervently hoped it would soon learn to philosophize; not forget the tragedy but make a shrine for her grief and move on. If only it could find a mate; no one should be alone. Why if it nested here, it might start a whole new breed of birds
But the bird did not mate or nest. Wise it might have been, but not equal to her grief. She willed itself to live for some more time; then one day, willed itself out of life and became one with the earth in the new land.
The tree grew afraid. Had the bird found the courage to go on and start a new life and breed, it would have geared himself to fight any bestiality. But why call it bestiality? Beasts can never be as devastating in their tyranny as humans. Even when housed in the biggest of forests, the sphere of their influence was limited. Only humans could increase it enough to destroy whole cities and forests at one stroke. Save us from future humanism god, not bestiality. But they say god is dead. No, he cannot be. That is a canard spread by the humans. God must not die. He has to live for the sake of the trees. Then only can they unite against the inexorable march of humanism.
The fear of death of god added to the fear that had taken hold of its heart with the death of the bird, so he forgot to let out the last intake of breath. Trees are not allowed to be afraid. If they are, the disgruntled souls of the disinherited of the earth grow over assertive. They suck the oxygen from the air and anything could happen then, even the unthinkable. As it did then.
The wind turned into a whirlwind for a brief moment, while the tree seeped in fear held its breath. As if the disconsolate soul of the dead bird had whirled it up. The stunned elder tree saw to its utter mortification that the lofty and robust young tree, which had stood by its side for years had fallen, uprooted on the ground.
Dear god, that young one was like its own son. How could this happen! The storm was hardly anything to speak of. The wind was just a trifle swifter than normal breeze, though full of poignant gloom. They had both weathered much wilder storms. What happened today? Such irrational death! Oh my son, my very own beloved, my young one! You who were so full of the zest for life and the hauteur of youth; so brave and fearless, eager to reach the sky; how could you be struck down by a mere wisp of a wind?
How often had I tried to tell you, do not let your height go out of hand? Concentrate more on building the strength of the trunk. But you were bent upon competing with the sky. Whenever I reiterated, what is the point of growing tall like the date palm if the fruit remains out of reach, you laughed saying, have you lost your memory, old one? I am not a fruit- bearing tree, remember? What about offering shade to the travelers; my insistence made you break into guffaws. Am I not giving it to the denizens of the fifth floor? See, the ground has climbed to the fifth floor; the travelers now pace on the roof- tops. Do not laugh so much; never laugh during the day, it pollutes the air. You paid no heed, muttering, save me from the sermons of the old. I wanted to tell you that trees do not grow old but I did not want to offend you or did I grow impatient? I did tell you, if you must laugh, do so at night when everything is at rest and the sarcastic air does them no harm. But when you paid no attention, I stopped preaching. I should have continued to offer advice; I had the benefit of the traditional knowledge of centuries. If only I had not given up so easily! You might have heeded me at last and not grown quite so spindly and tall. With a stout trunk, you might have withstood the onslaught of the grieving wind, eager to transport the soul of the bird quickly to paradise.
The storm abated. The breeze stopped its wailing and began to sob. Had the bird regained paradise? What about the young one? When the birds homed to the tree that evening, they forbore from chattering in deference to his loss. The birds, which used to nest in the branches of the young dead, also flew to the old one and joined in the mourning. Some time passed in silence. Two deaths, coming close together had struck them dumb. Then as happens in common expressions of grief, the birds started consoling each other, as they looked on the corpse of the young tree, cradling the alien bird in its arms.
The tree heard them tell each other, it is horrible how so many young trees have fallen foul of the wind lately. It is the doing of the myopic rulers. Roads have gained precedence upon trees so that they forget to leave enough breathing space, when laying the concrete slabs, around their roots. Without mother earth to sustain them, they can barely breathe. The urban trees are like consumptives; untimely death claiming them for its own with a whiff of a storm.
Oh my God, the tree sighed in remorse, how obtuse of it to blame the lad for not heeding its advice. With exemplary fortitude, it had overcome the deficiency of its lungs to invent its own oxygenated breeze. What could it do but laugh at the irony?
It was not yet fully dawn, when the tree was surprised to see a whole gang of men and women descend on the dead and set to tearing his limbs apart. He well knew that this was how the last rites of trees were performed but surely not with such callousness? Did they not have one little dirge to sing for the lusty, strapping, beauteous tree which met an untimely death! Was it an accident or just the fumbling of blind fate!
The night was over. The day was upon them. The time had come for the tree to take deep breaths and breathe out oxygen. But his agony made it impossible to breathe. All it could was to let out dismal sighs. There was no breeze now. Only noise and a stifling stink from the mounds of rotting garbage. Should it try to conjure up a breeze or give up? It was still ruminating when the noise took shape in words. They were everywhere, reverberating in the graveyard of trees.
Save the Environment! Grow more Trees!
The irony of the slogans made it burst out laughing and it laughed through the day, holding its breath as if it would never breathe again. The day the tree laughed for the first time before nightfall in living memory, was the dawn of the twenty-first century.