Monday, December 21, 2009

Under the Banyan Tree

Even though my cousin had forewarned me that our ancestral place had changed beyond recognition, I had not prepared myself for the shock that awaited me as I approached the village after a long interval. The place, where once a mighty branching banyan tree stood, was now a bare expanse of paddies. The tree was very much a part of the lives of the villagers, who loved and venerated it. On summer days the ground under the tree resonated with the din kicked up by the children from the nearby school during the recess hour. The noise of the children matched the ongoing racket of the birds in the branches. After the children went back to their classrooms, the cowherd boy took out his flute and played melodious tunes as the cattle grazed the nearby fields. Weary travellers passing through the village rested or slept under the canopy, their heads pillowed on the gnarled roots of the banyan. Peasants took a break from their day’s work and relished their mid-day meals in its cool shade.

All these activities ceased as night fell, wrapping the whole tree in misty darkness. The oversized canopy, the myriad aerial roots and the medley of bird sounds rendered the atmosphere eerie. No one came near the tree during the night. The only exceptions were the nights of celebration. The annual village drama was staged on the make-shift podium built under the banyan tree. The same platform also doubled as a Durga Puja pandal. On those festive days the whole area became a small fair ground, complete with shops, food outlets and the like.

Once, an itinerant circus had pitched its tent under the tree. It became an instant hit in the locality. People from all corners flocked to the ground. But the show was cut short, when tragedy struck. A female trapeze artiste lost balance and fell to her death during one of her performances. The circus vanished from the village, with the dead body, before the police arrived the next day. The incident caused a great emotional turmoil among the villagers, who arranged a puja few days later to purify the banyan tree and also to placate the dead girl’s spirit.

A villager, passing through the ground late one evening, reported having seen a woman weeping under the banyan tree. Everyone agreed it was the ghost of the circus girl. The hue and cry over the sighting of the female ghost petered out, when it was discovered that the woman was indeed a housewife from a neighbouring village, driven out by her husband. She hid somewhere during the day and wept as she took shelter under the banyan tree during the night. The matter ended to everyone’s satisfaction when our mukhiya called forth his counterpart from the other village along with the contrite husband, and amicably settled the issue in the presence of village elders.

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