Under the Gulmohar

Short Story by Vidya Panicker

The Gulmohar tree in the South-East corner of the corporate sponsored public park has a history that not many people are familiar with. It was planted over the dead body of a native man who was killed by a British Sahib over a century ago when his only daughter took fancy on the ill-fated brown man. The sapling was the last act by the grieving memsahib before she was shipped back to London. It is ironical that over generations, the Gulmohar stood witness to love in its many forms – proposals, stolen kisses, treacheries, breakups and reunions. It was a silent partner who watched without judgments and emotions, and embraced without terms and conditions.

It was under this splendid specimen that Mythreyan first proposed to Ambika Devi. In spite of all its oddities, it was a moment of truth for Mythreyan, who without a plan or intent invited Ambika to his life. His offer was duly rejected, as it would be, several times in the next 3 years.  Today, he asked to meet her a final time and to his surprise, she complied. Nearing the solstice, when the days are much longer than the night, the sun shone bright late in the evening, Mythreyan chose the Gulmohar to seek solace from the rays that followed him everywhere and glared right into his eyes, piercing the thin veil of stifled tears. Sitting under the shade of a tree that hardly ever shed its leaves, he thought about Ambika Devi and their brief eventful history.

His first memory of her were the pigtails. The neatly parted and combed thick black hair, tied into pony-tails with green ribbons gave way to plaits as she grew older, but the bright face and sparkling smile remained a permanent fixture. Mythreyan knew Ambika as the eldest daughter of the temple priest and this placed her at a stature above the rest of them in their dispersed, yet closeted Brahmin community. A fascination which later grew into an infatuation, finally resulting in a state of perpetual adoration was unexpectedly and prematurely shattered when Ambika Devi was married off to a lawyer practicing in Chennai. Without even a proper farewell, she disappeared from his life, though like a shadow she lingered in the background, haunting him in spurts and jitters. Just as she was fading away like a distant anathema, he heard news of Ambika Devi’s husband being killed in an accident, leaving his widow and their child to fend for themselves in a large city where she had no friends or relatives. She still persevered, not willing to go back to the care of her father and brothers who had progressed to the subsequent phases of their lives that did not include her. Perhaps it was the knowledge that his lost love was floundering alone in the metro that prompted Maithreyan to choose his location preference as Chennai after the training period in a bank where he was selected as a probationary officer.

Maithreyan never once attempted to meet Ambika; without her address or any other details, it would not have been possible even if he had wanted to. But 4 months later, when Ambika sat in front of his desk, inquiring about a vehicle loan, Maithreyan knew that fate had scripted this scene and was prompting him to act the role he had avoided in all these years.

“Do you remember me Ambika?” he asked.

Ambika did remember him, she asked him about his parents’ well-being, his wife and children, and when informed that he was still a bachelor, expressed the fair amount of astonishment that was due. She also shared with him the updates in her life, about her son and the job in a nearby school which helped the family survive.

Maithreyan visited the 1bhk apartment where the widow and her son lived. Ambika welcomed him into her house formally and with all the restraint that was expected from a so-called unfortunate female like her, whom the Gods had apparently cursed for some ill deeds of the past lives. The friendship blossomed over intermittent cups of coffee and reminiscences of a glorious, carefree childhood.

Numerous times, Ambika demanded to know the reason behind Maithreyan’s blithe responses to any marriage proposals that reached him from his mother through envelopes which he rarely opened.

“Do you have anyone else in your mind?” she asked.
“Something like that”, he responded.

She could not wheedle out from him the name of woman who owned his heart, until he proposed her under the Gulmohar tree on one of their causal evening walks, munching on peanuts. Ambika smiled and shrugged it off, as if there was an offensive insect tottering somewhere on the bare back of her saree blouse. She did not make one serious remark in response, not one sound which was not neutral and managed to break Maithreyan’s heart again.

He persisted. Several times in the next 3 years, he tried and lost

Now, devoid of all choices, Maithreyan finally had to agree to a relation that his mother chose for him. But he was not ready to give up, not yet. One last attempt would convince him of his choices in life and today he was waiting for Ambika to make the final decision for him.

She walked towards him a few minutes after their appointed hour, smiling and elegant as always. Maithreyan stood up from the park bench and greeted her.

“I am getting married”, he told her, without an introduction and very little emotion.

“That is great news Maithreyan, when is it?” she asked.

“Two weeks from today, thaalikettu  in Chottanikkara Devi temple, followed by the rest of the ceremonies in the temple devaswom  auditorium”

“And the lunch?” she asked.

“In the same place”, he replied, frustrated at the direction that the discussion was taking.

“If you can talk to the caterers”, she went on, “you should ask them to make some banana payasam  for the feast, it is really good, with the slight sourness of ripe bananas merging with the intense sweetness of jaggery”.

He stared at her, unbelieving, looking for signs of grief, or regret on her face.

He found none.

The short story Under the Gulmohar continued here........