In the front yard of our neighbour’s house was a lush neem tree, wearing a green, which was almost fluorescent. The tree trunk was of an unnatural girth, like the rounded body of a pregnant woman. Dark and curvaceous, the neem tree rose to the sky in a winding, vertical path. Rooted exactly opposite the front door of the house, the solitary neem tree was a formidable dwarapalaka standing guard over the house.
Our neighbour and we belonged to two parallel streets. Their backyard and ours used to meet over a fence which was anything but a fence. “Good fences make good neighbours” didn’t stand good as an advice for Sitamma or our friendly neighbour. The barbed wire, which had seen better days, was torn down in places. Children of both houses used to skip across the fence gaily, feeling equally free in both houses. There was good traffic coming and going between the two houses by the adults too.
The neem tree’s shade was an important hang out for us children. The shade stretched to around 15-20 meters on all sides. The farther we played from the trunk, the greater the chance of us being left in peace, for the main trunk was considered sacred. Every Tuesday and Friday, the neem tree enjoyed special attention. The trunk was reverently splashed with water and milk. Sitamma then anointed the tree’s mainframe with sandal, turmeric and kumkum. Some flowers, agarbathis and a lamp were also placed beneath the tree. Some even circumambulated and prostrated themselves before the neem tree. We children were encouraged to do the same, but we usually stood at the shade’s periphery and watched. Our only interest was the jaggery and puffed rice that would come at the end of the ritual.
“Mahamayi is housed in this tree,” Sitamma used to whisper.
“Can I see her?” I asked.
“Ssh. Come away. When night falls, don’t go near the tree,” she used to murmur.
Sure enough the tree seemed to whoosh with a frenzied intensity during nights, verily like the possessed, dancing hysterically, their hair flying this way and that. Once a visitor planted a coir cot beneath the tree and fell asleep. Well past midnight, he shrieked for help. He tumbled out of the cot, ran into the house and gasped that some invisible thing had pressed him on the chest, choking him.
“Oh! Come on now, it must have been the heavy volume of oxygen exhaled by the tree,” said an elder.
But Sitamma felt differently. “Mahamayi is a protective deity. She does her rounds after all her children fall asleep. She does not like intrusion into her space during nights. We must keep away from the tree after dusk falls. Did I not tell you?” she asked. The visitor was finally cajoled to sleep on the floor between two of his cousins (he wouldn’t dream of sleeping on a cot again, even under a fan!)
“Pick one,” Sitamma used to say softly. It meant she was in a dilemma. Not for her, a rational weighing of pros and cons or arriving at a solution using her objectivity. She always operated between extremes of “yes” or “no” for any given predicament. Writing yes/no, on two chits of paper, she rolled them at the neem’s tree’s feet. Calling any child within earshot, she used to ask the child to “pick one”. If the answer was unfavourable, she would sigh, ever so briefly, but recover almost immediately. It was infinitely more important to obey Mahamayi’s dictum. Her desires could wait or be quelled. However if a “yes” was drawn, she would smile her bright toothless smile, lighting up the entire vicinity. The point here is, the neem tree was not a tree which had to be watered, fenced and tended for, instead, She was the protector, the guide and of course God herself.
Then came a day when our neighbours bought their own tiny flat and decided to move out. Much tears and hugs were exchanged. One of our sons and one of their daughters fell in love and got married. It was a happy ending for the two families. But not for the neem tree. When the original owner came with plans for expanding the house, he felt the neem tree had to go. The roots were digging deep into the ground, too close to the foundation, too close for comfort. Lorries of gravel, sand and stone arrived. First things first, a good sturdy fence was erected between the two houses.
When the first stroke of the axe struck on the neem tree, Sitamma couldn’t contain herself. She walked up to the new neighbour and pleaded. “Sir this is not an ordinary tree. She has been standing guard over your house. We have been worshipping Her for years. Can’t you see the nests she holds?” I think she began to cry. The embarrassed gentleman was polite but seemed helpless.
That night Sitamma had a dream. An old lady, white haired, deeply beautiful wearing a simple cotton sari like the way they wear in interior Tamil Nadu appeared. Quite stoically she spoke, “It is better I do not leave.” That was all.
But who can stop houses being expanded, that too for the sake of a tree?
The tree went. None of us opened our back door for days. We did not want to hear the sound of the axe falling, or see that Amazon of a woman being carted away.
Shortly thereafter, there were some tragic incidents which touched the new owner’s life. Till date, Sitamma believes it is because the Neem tree was cut down.
“She was protecting the house from all ills, he would not listen,” she cried.
The tree is long gone. But I have never forgotten her, the coolness of her shade, the puffed rice and jaggery she yielded every Tuesday and Friday and the numerous games she allowed us to play under her watchful eye.
When the neem tree spoke was published in The Hindu on Sunday April 20th 2003.
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