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Mother Tree

A Short Story by Nuggehalli Pankaja

The noise began like a wail,begging her,entreating her,then rose into a sea-roar, deafening her ears, and blinding her eyes with a veil of mist.

Her mind raced back.

Sushila looked at him shyly,sweetly,and smiled.The smile spread a sort of moonlight before Mahadev’s eyes; Taking a step forward, he caught her hands.

The boughs rose and fell, the leaves brushing their faces in an intimate way. A red ripe fruit fell on their clasped hands.

“See!A blessing!The tree has blessed us!”-Mahadev exclaimed joyously, squeezing the juice over Sushila’s palm………

“Red for love,
Forget me not my dove………-“ He whispered,in a tremulous voice-“ Remember this fruit,remember this tree,and you will always remember me………. This tree is the living witness to our engagement."

Thus began the halo round the tree. It became a sacred spot to them, a sort of shrine, and they met daily under it to renew touching vows.

One fine day Mahadev bought the entire site, and commenced building a house with the tree overlooking their nest, caressing their bedroom windowpane with its tapering foliage.

The house was planned by them both; First few months saw them devoting plenty of time towards developing a beautiful garden. Flowers of every kind and hue crowned the place. Butterflies swarmed around them. In the middle towered the mother tree, its wiry branches waving to all the passers-by. As Mahadev put it-“Like our guardian angel, bless her.”

That spring brought them a new neighbor. “Oh look at it, how pretty!”-Exclaimed Sushila pointing at the multicolored pair perched on the uppermost bough.

“Seems to be another happy couple like us”-Mahadev told his wife-“Wonder if they mean to settle down?”

That they did. A snug nest was soon formed, fledglings cropped up, then grandchildren…….soon the tree was a miniature city!The noise lent a sort of peaceful beauty to the place, their presence-finishing touch to the superb work of nature.

“See how happy that pair is”_Mahadev remarked one evening, then added wistfully-“It would have been nice if we too had an offspring”.

Yes, he had voiced Sushila’s yearning. How often had she not prayed?

“Mother tree”-She murmured that night, stroking its shimmering leaves-“You have made the nest of that pair warm; Why have you not shown the same consideration towards us? Bless us also with a child, mother…………..”

The prayer bore fruit!

The first thing Sushila heard on that memorable day was the gentle tapping of the boughs on the window; The first thing she saw on opening her eyes was its leafy crest bending its brow so proudly over her baby,and the first thing she touched were its lovely leaves brushing her cheeks with motherly gentleness.

“I love you,our dear mother tree!”-She whispered-“ We thank you like anything! You have been very very good to us, bless you."

“Vasant”- Mahadev called his chubby infant after his favorite season-‘ Spring’-,when their beloved mother tree had also entered their life. “This Vasant will be the sunshine of our lives”-He told the proud mother. The child gurgled happily as though it understood its parent’s desire and concurred. Also spent most of its time playing under the tree while the mother lay sprawled by the trunk stiching-reading as time permitted. Mahadev also joined them there for tea.

Time flitted like seconds.

Vasant grew up to be a promising lad.The lad developed into a robust man with admirable principles and goal. He was the centre of their hopes-future.

"I am indeed very lucky to have such a son!”-Mahadev exclaimed joyfully the day Vasant came through his course in flying colors and secured a very good job-“May he always be lucky like this!”

Next day Mahadev was dead!

Sushila shed not a tear. Everybody wondered- worried; The tears simply would not come forth; Maybe because they had drunk their share of happiness too well to sour it with even a tinge of sorrow, or the shock of separation had hit the lone woman’s tender heart so much as to render it expressionless.

The tree was her only friend now; Her only solace. Deep mournful sighs had emanated from it while the body was being carried away. The foliage had dropped as though convulsed with sobs.

Leaning her head against the trunk,Sushila-now Sushilabai, gained immense strength;. Could it be that the tree was whispering soothing words to her? Scenes of past would stride past her;Bliss,remorse,pang-they would all simultaneously overwhelm her, the glossy foliage fanned her, and the loving neighbor-family rocked her to sleep with their sweet lullabies.

One day Vasant brought his girl home; To be seen and judged by the mother.; Sushilabai did the former, but not the latter, her mind running back to that poignant period in her life………. When she and Mahadev had loved each other, and the travail of suspense following the usual snag-opposition of parents.

“If you love her, go ahead and marry her”-Sushilabai advised her son-“Don’t worry about caste, and all that. The girl seems to be nice, and if she keeps you happy, I am also happy”.

Prem, the bride, was all that Sushilabai could wish for, and bit by bit,she handed over the charge to the newcomer.

A girl nicely equipped with ultramodern ideas backed by College education,Prem lost no time in reorganizing the household. Bells were installed at every corner, and tick-tock of the clock commanded every movement, each gesture in the house, while dances and parties invaded the place. Not once did Sushilabai raise her voice in protest.

“Still in their heyday of life;Let them enjoy life the way they want-as myself and Mahadev did. They are trying to keep apace with the modern trend see?”-She would confide to her mothertree, and relax in the armchair, now a permanent fixture there. The sun may blaze for all she cared, the clouds glitter with silver edgings-a distant rumble threaten,but she would be sitting there as in a trance.
One day alas, that tranquility was rent apart!

“What’s that awful tree over there?”-She heard her daughter-in-law exclaim.

“That? Oh,It is an old old tree;As old as the house,I should say. Don’t know the name” -Sushilabai heard her son’s reply.

“Then it cannot be worth knowing;Bah,how monstrous it looks! Vasant,why have you allowed it to occupy such a lot of space marring the beauty of the house?”

What Vasant replied, Sushilabai heard not; Her eyes opened wide, and her heart began to pound-with fright, anger, and bewilderment..

“What did Prem mean by talking so? Is ‘Awful’ the name for my beautiful tree? Far from being a blemish,has it not lent celestial charm to the house?”

Yes, she felt terribly hurt,and strangely afraid………afraid to leave the tree alone even for a minute. She would not get up even for food, or her night sleep, lest some harm come to her tree.

Prem and Vasant could not help laughing when they saw her concern.

“Absolutely no flowers, no fragrance, no fruit! What do you see in that tree mother?” -Prem,the daughter-in-law derided her mother-in-law.

“It gives a fruit-a small red fruit………….” Sushilabai replied defiantely”her mind dwelling upon that significant red juice squeezed over her palm with so much ardor-

‘Red for love,

Forget me not, my dove…………

Remember this fruit-remember this tree,

And you will forever remember me…….”

“Ugh,quite unpalatable too! Even the birds don’t munch that berry!” Prem laughed, and tapped the bark.” The fuel will fetch a good price”.

“F…u…e….l! Price! Are you thinking of cutting it down?”- Sushilabai stood frozen-“ My tree! Never! I won’t allow it! No, I won’t ever- never allow it………”

“Don’t be so sentimental mother! There is absolutely no place for sentiments these days. The tree is a real nuisance, swallowing up a lot of space; And that when people are simply crying for accommodation! You know what….”-Prem had a sudden bright idea-

“We will build a small house there, a tiny one-and that will go to our little Manu. Won’t it,Manu darling? Don’t you want a tiny tiny house of yours sweetie? From your dear granny?”And pinched the child’s cheeks.
“Yes granny, I want my house------tiny tiny house….”-The child shouted in glee-“I will keep my doggie in it”.

Sushilabai gazed stunned-at the child, her pet grandson…with resentment .

Her mind flew back to that golden evening when she and Mahadev had sealed their lives together under this very tree. Could she ever erase that picture from her mind? Not in this life! Existence would be nothing without it, without the constant scenes of their whispered talk-hard times shared together, fought together. What did these chits, all newcomers-Prem and Manu, even Vasant know about it? Razing her tree to the ground meant erasing that important phase of her life from her memory! Could she bear it?

Should she suffer it?

Mahadev had bought the site expressly for her, not for this Prem or Manu. Both of them had planned the house in association with the tree……. They had planned their life under it,-why, they had spent half a century enclosed in its umbrageous bosom! As such, what right had these petty newcomers, especially Prem,to talk so lightly of their tree? Make way for Manu’s house indeed! Who was Manu?

One morning Sushilabai noticed white patches on the tree; Sure, the bark had been peeled away-deliberately!

An enraged mother-in-law encountered Prem.

“Yes amma,It was I who ordered it”-Prem admitted ,wincing not a bit-“ Today is your husband’s death anniversary, don’t you remember? There was a slight shortage of fuel, so I had this bark utilized to heat Vasan’t bath; The good-for nothing pet of yours has become useful for once.”

How ironica!Mahadev’s death anniversary………and the son was bathing in the water warmed by the skin of his father’s beloved shrine-to perform the rites.

Clasping the trunk, she burst into heartrending sobs.

Her vigilance increased.

This rigorous watch and concern of granny became a source of delight to the mischievous children around. They would flock about the forbidden spot, deliberately pluck this leaf or twig, and romp out of the place, while the enraged woman chased them with her cane.

“This is becoming a ludicrous scene!”- Feeling humiliated, Vasant confided to his wife-“I can’t stand it anymore”.

“Yes”-Prem agreed -“Getting on my nerves too! That man,he offers quite a big sum for the tree; And you know we need the cash urgently……. A lot of bother will be wiped away……………..”

“But amma. . . . . .
“ ……………….”
“Tut, ignore the doddering woman………these old people-they are all the same; sentimental, conservative, stubborn; Refusing to keep pace with time. Typical frog in the well!”_Prem laughed deriseyly-“Don’t worry, she will get over it….she has to”.

So, the deal was made; The deed began to be executed the very next morning.

Continued here.......