by Smit Zaveri
Her feet dangled from the branch. The anklets around them made a slight sound, a sound you would miss if you weren’t listening for it. Like a piece of thin cloth loosely hung and flying in the wind, her body swayed slightly from side to side, her face resting against the graininess of the banyan tree, her hands wrapped around the roots. Her eyes weren’t open but she was awake, the most awake she had been in the entire day which would be over in less than an hour.
“I can’t decide if I should go or not. I don’t want to leave Amma all alone with Paati. How will she take care of the house and Paati’s health and the shop? I owe her. I need to be there to help her like she has always helped me. But if I go, I will be able to send Amma lots of money and she can finally pay off Appa’s debts. I only have three days to make up my mind and I am not even close to a reaching a solution. She thinks I don’t care about her and that I can’t take care of myself. But what does she know? I am doing all of this for her. Amma won’t even listen to Paati, that woman is stubborn!”
She ranted to the tree about her problem, waiting for it to absorb it completely. The problem now attached to the tree by the root, hung from the top most branches and didn’t budge even when the wind tried to blow it. She thought to herself about what she had just said, thinking if she had anymore to add to it before she went to bed, problem-free. She knew the importance of her ritual too well to do it hastily or half-heartedly. Her Paati used to sing the rhyme every night before she put her to sleep:Your mind is a maze dark and deep,
A solitary place with its own secrets to keep.
Dream and be fearless, open and free,
Don’t sleep on your thoughts, leave them on the tree.
“Shravya…” a shivering voice called her name from below and she saw Paati standing, a little figure in her yellow cotton saree and maroon blouse which hung loosely at her arms, supported by the trunk of the tree. Even from up close, the old woman, stooped at her spine with hardly any hair on her head, was no more than five feet tall.
Her mother had once told her a story about Paati’s hair. Back when she was younger, she went by the name of Neelamma and had jet black hair. Hair as thick as the root of the young banyan tree in their backyard. She had two daughters, both in their teens and ready to be married. Paati was the wisest of all the women in their community — she would sit under the banyan tree in the evenings, when the light was too bad to work and the air too suffocating to breathe in the house. Women would come to her from near and far, and cry by her feet, narrating their stories, seeking solutions from someone wiser than them. She helped every soul who came to her, offering them a glass of water and then a piece of advice, a solution that was always given, never traded or sold. With every piece of wisdom she gave
away, one strand (sometimes half depending on the problem) frayed at the tip and turned white. Amma, had watched her mother from the verandah, sitting at the banyan… watched her mother’s hair fraying over time. This made her worry greatly. She would oil and massage Paati’s hair every night, scrubbing her hair with a desperate force as if trying to remove the white that had settled deep into each strand. But no matter what she tried — oil, herbal powder, hibiscus paste — the whites multiplied. By the time Shravya was born, every strand on Paati’s hair was white.
Amma was secretly happy. She believed that with every strand being white there was no more wisdom left for her mother to hand out because there was not a single patch of hair that was black, but she was wrong. Wisdom now fell and lay on the floor, one strand at a time. And Shravya knew that Paati would leave them the day she found Paati’s last strand of hair on the floor.
She jumped down from the tree, and led her Paati inside the house. The television was flickering in the other room as Shravya oiled Paati’s hair and put her to sleep. She kissed her forehead and slept next to her, their heads next to each others, connected by the pillow underneath.
She woke up early next morning to collect her problem, hoping that the tree had found her a solution or lost her problem during the rains last night, even though she knew in the back of her mind that it was impossible. She climbed it, passing the smaller branches. The branches were thin and barren towards the beginning; having carried her throughout her childhood and helping her grow. She reached yesterday’s problem, astonished to see that it hadn’t moved an inch. It was weighing the root down. She stayed there for a couple of hours, not knowing how the time passed.
Her mother ran towards the tree and called her out, “Shravya, come quick!” and sprinted back into the house, looking back occasionally to see if Shravya had gotten off the tree. Shravya followed her mother into the room and saw them. Paati sleeping on her side of the bed, Amma standing by her feet. Paati only had one more strand of hair on her head. Shravya sat next to Paati, her mother leaving the two of them alone.
Before she could say a word or shed a tear, Paati said, “Never forget all that I have taught you.” Shravya nodded her head, promising to remember. Paati continued, “I want my last piece of wisdom to go to you and no one else.”
She then closed her eyes and chanted,The banyan’s heart is in its root,
naked and exposed yet strong and eternal.
Learn from the wise one.
Don’t hide your heart where
people get lost finding it.
Wear it like the banyan.
The whole house remained still for a while, waiting for something to happen. Shravya then got up, the bed creaking under her. She picked up Paati’s last strand from the pillow and coiled it around her little finger. She placed it in the centre sheet of her notebook; the white hair forming lines around her Paati’s words which were written in dark blue ink. She closed the book and locked it inside the closet before leaving the room, shutting the door behind her. ****