It was around 11 at night when I felt his arms around me. He whispered gently, “I cannot let you go without a fight! Please forgive me if I fail!” I wanted to hug him back and tell him it was alright and that I have resigned myself to my fate! You are not to blame. Varma must have felt my thoughts, for he heaved a sigh and gently patted me.
I looked at Varma, a frail, short, bearded septuagenarian, sincerely pasting ‘please spare me’ ‘do not kill me’ ‘I breathe too’ placards around me in a vain attempt to prevent what he thinks is certain doom. Bless his soul!! I felt deeply touched by his noble and selfless act. He was a jaunty young lad when I first laid my eyes on him. His jauntiness and the sparkle in his eyes have in fact increased manifold with advancing age. I couldn’t stop him even if I wanted to. Though I don’t mind breathing this air for a few more years, I am fine with what lies in store for me.
My thoughts drifted to my eventful past. I was just a sapling when I came here. It was the head priest who brought me to this place. He was a very young man at that time; barely out of his teens, newly employed at the small wayside temple. He planted me at the Kavala with such love and tenderness that I had never experienced before. I grew up under his care and shade. “Go and pay your obeisance to the arayaal at the Kavala”, he would instruct the smattering of devotees who stopped by the GOD at the crossroad, as though seeking the company of a kindred soul who knew what it is like to be at a ‘crossroad’ himself. “He is going to be the pride of this Kavala one day. He will protect you from all evils and bad times. So take good care of him”, Namboodhiri chettan, as he was fondly called, would appeal to each devotee. And so began my tryst with the people of Nalavoor!
Many who passed by me, made sure they sought a ‘session’ with ‘kavalayile arayaal’. They would pour me some water along with their hearts’ contents. I guess this act of dousing me with water and tears must have been very therapeutic for them, for, they went back with a relaxed frame and often came back with a smile. I always suspected that it was Namboodhiri chettan’s way of making sure that I was taken care of!! Well, both kinds of ‘pouring out’ must have had some nourishing effect for I soon became the most strapping young tree of Nalavoor (that’s what people said of me)! I had now grown sturdy with branches full of leaves. People of all sorts started taking refuge in me. They sought my shade, come summer or rain! Some chose to sit under my shade and read aloud a good book or two, discuss current affairs and of course sleep at ease. Along came the birds, the barbets, bulbuls, sparrows, parrots, owls and the raptors who preferred to perch on me to rest or to relish a meal. They called out to their mate in joy, sang their day’s tale and showed me the world through their eyes. I may have been sedentary, but, thanks to them, I was abreast with the happenings around the globe!! There was never a dull moment in my life.
Changes were taking place in Namboodhiri chettan’s life too. He found himself a petite wife, Radha, a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart. After almost two decades of marriage, they added one tiny soul into their lives!! Radha aedathi would bring the little child with her to the temple every day. There was no one to look after the baby at home. So, while she worked tirelessly to keep the temple’s small ambience tidy and sacred, the little fellow, Kochunamboodhiri, as he was called, would be at my feet, bundled up in a basket bed. I loved to have him around. When the sun shone hard, I would make sure that it did not scorch him. He literally grew up under my shade. I remember how he used to give me a hug and call out ‘aalaa’ and would pat me with his teeny weeny hands. He clearly loved me and he without doubt was my favourite.
He found in me the perfect friend with whom he could share many secrets. He had said so himself. He would bare his heart to me, share his anger towards his father for being impoverished and not being able to afford or appreciate the ‘good things’ in life, and talk about his dreams of becoming rich by any means. The only person other than me with whom he seemed to be close was Varma. It was through Kochunamboodhiri that I met Varma. One afternoon, when the village slept, they bunked their classes to smoke a beedi stealthily, away from the prying eyes of their parents. My enlarging girth would provide them the perfect cover! Not a done thing that, you know, me being sacred and all that!
Varma had impressed me even back then. He had a diminutive frame but was in no way a small person. He stood tall among his peers with his well grounded views on life and the affirmative actions he took against anything he considered unjust. It was no wonder then that he decided to take up law as a profession. He was a good and smart lawyer, I heard. He was a regular at the temple for a long time. He would dutifully pay his respects to the deity without fail. Soon, his visits also became infrequent. He would visit the temple once in a while with his wife Shyamala and his children Appu and Nimmy. Whenever he came to the temple, he would always make it a point to stop by and spend some time admiring my size and foliage. With little Nimmy gripped firmly in his hand, he would give her a tour around me telling her why the arayaal is so important to human existence.
He would explain to her about the oxygen I breathed out and the relaxing effect it had on people who spent time under my shade. I began to understand now why some people who stopped by to cry out their burden to me felt at peace with themselves after a while. I learnt so much from him and felt proud of this unique lad.
I have seen many lads. Generations have come and gone right under my branches. The dhoti clad children moved over to vallikalasam and then of course later came the pants and the jeans and the hip hop youth. There was a time when the villagers relied on Chootu and pantham to negotiate the dark nights. Then came the lamplighters laboriously lighting each lamp on the street at dusk and extinguishing them at dawn. And now we have the mercury and sodium vapour lamps spreading delight and illuminating this beautiful town. The small vendors have given way to massive malls. The small village of Nalavoor grew into a township and has a new nomenclature too- North Nalavoor. Yes, I have seen it all.
The youth that used to wait for their lasses under my shade to whistle or to drool now no longer need me to hover over them. The fancy bus stops provide them with fiberglass canopies that are more foolproof than what I had to offer.
Namboodhiri Chettan passed on leaving behind a wife and a son in late teens. Radha aedathi left the village with Kochunamboodhiri to live with her distant uncle who I heard was an affluent man. When Namboodhiri Chettan was alive he was able to attract more people to this small temple. I always felt it was his persona and sincerity that brought people to this otherwise nondescript temple. Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying that the deity did not have any charm! HE certainly lost a lot of charm after what happened to Namboodhiri Chettan.
On a summer night, Namboodhiri Chettan was mowed down by a speeding vehicle. He was in a critical condition for two weeks. Kochunamboodhiri used to come every day to pray to the deity for his father’s recovery. He used to come rushing to me too with his prayers. I could not help him nor could the GOD on the other side of the road. I have never seen the boy after that.
The smattering of people who continued to visit the temple slowly faded into oblivion. With no one to take care, the deity at the crossroads remained sidelined, neglected and dilapidated as years went by. One day the land HE occupied was taken over by a landlord. Some people tried to make a noise, but those with money muscle won the tussle. The local rumor has it that Kochunamboodhiri had bought the land, but nobody was sure about it. With the LORD curtailed behind the four walls, I remained out of bounds.
As years rolled on, my growth became a major roadblock to the growth of Nalavoor. Once upon a time, I was the one to whom all would run for safety. Now they say I endanger them. They are unable to draw the electric cables, build structures and so went on the list. Petitions and counter petitions were submitted to decide on my fate. Those who wanted me out could prove that I had dried up and am not a safe bet anymore!! And so now I stand at this hour, musing over my past.
I was jolted into the present when the Owl perched heavily on me. I could sense that the usually collected Owl was unsettled tonight. I soon understood why. The wise Owl hooted his displeasure over bringing me down. ‘You are a sacred tree. There is a procedure to follow. They have to follow the rituals. They have to cremate you like they do the humans.’ He went on and on pouring out his anguish at what he considered was injustice and inappropriate. I listened patiently as I always do. I did not tell him that I was aware of the customs and rituals related to cutting of a tree like me. I told him, ‘Don’t fret over this. If this is the way I have to go, then so be it.’ He did not respond, he sat staring into the night. His visit today is very prophetic. My life is going to change forever and my existence as I am today is coming to an end and who but the owl could be a befitting companion on the last night of my life? The soft wind blew, caressing me in an attempt to soothe me. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I am fine, don’t worry about me’.
Varma stood staring at me for a while and slowly turned away to fade into the night. ‘Bless you, Varma, for your kind act. You tried hard, you did. But it’s my time to go and I am ready to leave,’ I whispered to the retreating good soul. I was fine with all this, I really was. Each of us has a reason for our existence, a time given to us on this good earth. Some live their lives as though there is no reason to live at all while others go down a fast lane and live it in a hurry as though there is no time at all. There are still others who understand the reason and accept the time given. They live life with purpose and poise. I guess I have lived my life with purpose and poise. I have served my purpose and so my time.
I waited for the night to fade into a bright day.
The sun rose as though he was reluctant to start the day, in an attempt to stall the inevitable. I took a deep breath. The reluctance of my dear friend though, did not blemish to his splendour. The songbirds arrived earlier than usual to bid me adieu. ‘I’ll miss you my friend’ said the Robin. ‘This is so unfair. How can they do this to you?’ He was pretty restless. He darted from one branch to the other. ‘Pipe down Robin. Life’s like that… it goes on. I am going to be OK! I am going to meet the good Lord. Remember what HE said, ‘Among all trees I am the Peepal’!! ‘I have given my due and now let me pass, dear Robin. Don’t worry, change is good… you should know that more than anyone else.’
He stood still for a moment and flew away.
As the day progressed, a lot of nervous activity was going on around me. Men with chainsaws were the first to arrive. Then came the truck that would carry me away. Men and women stood ready to help load me on to the truck. A small crowd had gathered around to witness the event. All of them were waiting for the boss to arrive. They could not go ahead without his nod. A lot of chatter was going around. After an hour or so a big red car drove up and parked a few meters from me. Kochunamboodhiri stepped out of it. He looked no different from his father and yet he was the antithesis of that man who rooted me. I was not surprised. Perhaps this is the way to go. No rationalizations, no tears, no regrets!! He is the conduit for the release of my soul.
The men got their signals to start the work. Then came a flurry of activities that numbed my senses. My death is not in vain after all. Many men and women would have earned a living today for sure. I might end up being a support to many homes, or maybe even decorate them and yes, you are sure to find me at the soles of your feet today when you walk this ground. I am content and I am proud!!
Kavala – crossroads
Kavalayile arayaal – Peepal at the crossroads
Chettan – elder brother
Aedathi – sister/sister in law
Dhoti – a garment worn by males, consisting of a piece of material tied around the waist and extending to cover most of the legs.
Vallikalasam -suspender shorts
Chootu – torch made from dry palm leaves
Pantham -torch made of cloth
Beedi- is a thin, Indian cigarette filled with tobacco flake and wrapped in a leaf tied with a string at one end.