The Peepal Tree-Part 2
by Radha Bantwal
Return to - The Peepal Tree- Part I
Now that Pallavi was pregnant, the whole household was relieved. She too was thrilled. This was to be her elevation to motherhood and her rightful place in her husband’s household. In a few months, she will be a proud mother. With her little child in her arms, Pallavi was confident that she would win everybody's esteem - perhaps even Nagesh's love. She smiled to herself. How handsome her husband was, just like a film hero! Suddenly her smile vanished. There was Nagesh, roaring off on his bike. After that terrible row a week ago, he had not so much as glanced at her.
The row was, in a way, her own doing. Emboldened by her prospective status as the mother of Nagesh’s son, she expressed a wish that had in mind for a long time. Pallavi chose a moment when Nagesh was resting after dinner.
“ Next week is my twenty-first birthday and also the last day of the Dasara festival.”
“So what?” Nagesh snapped.
“ I was thinking… we … I mean, you and I ….”
There was no response. Pallavi hesitated; then bravely continued.
“We could go to Mysore for a couple of days, to the same spots we visited for the first time as husband and wife.”
Nagesh looked up and shouted “Have you lost your mind? How dare you tell me what I should do?”
Pallavi was in tears. She gently replied “I am only requesting you.”
Wistfully she added “We have not gone together anywhere for three years.”
Nagesh stood up in a fury. His fingers gripped her by the hair.
“How dare you accuse me! If you were not carrying my child, I would thrash you this minute.”
His voice hit the roof. Everybody within earshot came running. Shanthamma raised her voice.
“We should have given her a taste of the stick right from the day this witch came into our house. But we have been too soft. Let her be for now, Nagesha. I’ll deal with her.”
Nagesh dropped his hand and stomped off to bed. Shanthamma ordered Pallavi out of the room. She pointed to a mat and told to sleep next to the old woman who cooked and cleaned for them. As a punishment for her insolence Pallavi had to sleep there for eight days. She bit her lip and stifled a sob. A cheerful mood was important for the baby to grow well. She hid her face and tried to make herself comfortable on the hard floor.
Every morning Pallavi sought refuge under her peepal tree. She was getting heavier and less active. Having rested a bit, with her hand on its trunk she pulled herself up, brushed the grass from her sari and hurried back to the house. Her daily chores had to be done. If she finished soon enough, she got another chance to slip out to the tree before the sun set. She would sit awhile and hum a favourite tune to soothe herself and her baby, till dinner time. Shanthamma stood over her to ensure that Pallavi ate well, for her grandson could be fed only through the mother. Otherwise Pallavi was left to herself. She didn’t mind it. This is how it was in her husband’s house.
One day, there was a discussion behind closed doors. Pallavi heard her name and tried to listen. They were talking about a test to determine the sex of her unborn baby. Shanthamma loudly insisted that no test was
necessary. As far back as three generations, the first child born in the family was a boy. Nagesh had the last word: “In that case, let us confirm it anyway.'' They took Pallavi to an obliging doctor for a clandestine PSD test. Although she knew from her biology classes that amniocentesis could be dangerous for the baby, she dared not protest. The next three days were tense. Will she pass or fail?
When Nagesh set out to the doctor’s clinic to bring the report, the entire household seemed to collectively hold its breath. The motorbike came zooming back. Nagesh was tight-lipped as he got off the bike and strode up the steps. "It is a girl." he spat out. Ignoring the tumbler of buttermilk that Pallavi proffered, he marched into the bedroom and banged the door shut. Shanthamma glared at Pallavi and turned away without a word.
That night, Pallavi tossed and turned restlessly. Random sounds and visions flitted through her brain. Carefree laughter as she played with her friends in Mandya. Nagesh’s arm around her as they drove to Mysore on their honeymoon. The painful test procedure at the clinic. Her mother oiling her long silky hair. The gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the peepal tree. Shanthamma’s angry voice berating her. Her father’s grave look as he gave his blessing after her wedding. Nagesh’s averted face. Pallavi awoke with a start and felt the baby moving within her. She curled up on her side, hugged her stomach and fell into a troubled sleep.
Days and weeks passed. Shathamma no longer bothered with Pallavi’s diet. Nagesh ignored her. The old cook coaxed her to eat, but eventually gave up. The radiant bloom of pregnancy began to fade. Pallavi grew listless. Early in her ninth month, she went into labour. They took her to the hospital where she gave birth. The premature baby was extremely delicate. Her face, framed in a pink bonnet, was beautiful. Pallavi held her little girl close as they went back to the house.
Nobody was at the door to receive her. No hands reached out to bless the newborn baby. Pallavi was distraught. Clutching the frail little bundle, she slunk into the bedroom. Nagesh had already left on work. She lay down and suckled the baby. Both mother and child slept in exhaustion. Within twenty-four hours the baby was dead. Perfunctionary last rites were performed. Life went on in the house, as if nothing untoward had happened.
Pallavi became withdrawn and pale. She rarely left her room. She liked to sit at the window looking out at the peepal tree standing strong and upright in the sunlight. Her baby’s little pink bonnet was always with her.
A fortnight later, there was unusual hustle and bustle in the house. Nagesh’s second marriage was fixed. Pallavi’s father was summoned to take her away. He came the very next day. Silently he picked up her suitcase and led her out of the house. Abruptly Pallavi stopped and walked towards the peepal tree. She scooped out some soil at the spot where she used to sit and placed the little bonnet in the hollow. She carefully covered it up with grass, filling up the hollow with soil to form a tiny mound. Tearlessly she stood up, touched the tree trunk and walked away. There was no sound except the wind mourning softly through its branches. When Pallavi looked back for the last time, a single peepal leaf had drifted down and fallen on the mound.The End