A single tree in a field. Its branches full of leaves spread far from it’s trunk. They stooped from their own weight. No flower or fruit adorned the tree. A ring of shadow surrounded the tree like a halo. All around it the evening sun shown brightly. Beyond the shadow there was a lush outgrowth of weed. An oft-trodden path led the way from the tree to the village. Behind the village lined several trees providing shade to the huts, flower and fruit to the villagers and stood tall and erect.
I was so lost watching the scene unfold before me that I didn’t immediately notice my son Tinku pulling at my churidar. I looked at him and knew at once that he needed something to keep him from getting restless. Popcorn, potato chips, coke or whatever to take his mind off the boring documentary.
“We cannot go out now, beta. We need to wait until it is over.” He frowned in impatience and dropped his head on my lap. “Let’s go home then,” he said, tracing the gray and white pattern on my dress.
A group of women formed outside a hut. They were gesticulating towards the lone tree and spoke animatedly. I could not follow their language, but it became clear as they advanced in a single file towards the tree that something was the matter concerning this tree.
The women had their hair braided into knots over their head. Some had wild flowers stuck into the folds of the braids. A single cloth just covered their bosom and tied at the back. From below the navel hung a lainga that reached just over their shins.
“Why are they dressed like that, Ma? Chi! Shame, shame.” I hadn’t noticed when he started watching the film again. “They are tribals, Tinku. That is their dress. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
The women surrounded the single tree making sure they stood just outside its circle of shade. They spread themselves apart until they formed a ring round the tree. Then a curious thing happened. Even Tinku looked with his eyes wide open. There was not a sound in the theatre. Neither shuffling feet nor impatient fidgeting broke the silence.
The eyes of the women became red and opened fully. Their eyebrows came together, so close as to be almost touching each other. The muscles in their arms became taut. And in one voice they hailed the tree with a salvo of verbiage. Though the words failed to convey any meaning, even young Tinku did not miss the point of this verbal onslaught aimed at the tree. The voices rose in unison and in pitch, even as lethal doses of wrath issued from their hoarse cries.
“Why are they cursing the tree, Ma?” I shushed him with a wave of my hand.
As the wordage rose in volume and force, the leaves of the tree began to fold in, the branches drooped further and the tree seemed to shrink visibly. The shade round the tree shrank and the women advanced menacingly. Hurling abuses and madly gesticulating like one possessed, the women began closing in: the ring narrowed like a noose.
The tree lost its poise and pulled its branches in until some of them snapped. Then the leaves withered and the tree began to dry as though its sap were being drained somehow. The shadow round the tree now barely encircled the tree – it became a blotch on one side.
The women stopped their tirade as abruptly as they had begun and began to disperse. The sun went down the hills behind the village. Darkness crept stealthily down the hillsides as the women lit their lamps in the huts.
Tinku held my arm and drew closer. I was about to say something when suddenly the room darkened. Just for a moment. And light began to show again as dawn spread across the floor of the valley. The trees behind the village began to nod in the gentle morning breeze.
The field ahead of the village however lost its solitary occupant. A heap of mangled branches and a canopy of leaves lay like a shroud over the broken trunk of the single tree.
“Why are you crying, Ma?”
I realized that a tear ran down my cheek and hastened to wipe it off. I grabbed Tinku’s arm and we both hurried out of the hall.