(Dedicated to all the trees that are leaving as part of National Highway widening drive)
Sodden with the fragrance of ripe mangoes the evening breeze gusts in to tell the news. It is time for the tree across the alley to go. I took a deep breath. Mango breath. I don’t know what to say, or how to respond, whether to wax eloquently on it or to puff out my chest to face the certain loss like a man.
If I go out and check, I may still catch my childhood friends hanging down like bats in the moonlight from its crown, hooking their spindly legs around branches, screeching to one another in ecstasy.
(It was the 80s. Summer vacation. Climbing trees was the only school that remained open. The other was so distant, closed eons ago, and didn’t seem like opening anytime soon. It was considered criminal to even think of it at that point of time).
See! Where the cool mango shade falls on the alley, Saiju and me, fleet-footed friends from childhood, stretch, hold and veer a bed of sack around to catch mangoes in time as they fall, snipped by a friend who wields a long pole that tapers and suddenly twists to become a hook of a knife. “Catch Saiju, catch!” I yell and put the anchor down my side, letting my friend captain the ship and swerve around with the loose end of the sack to catch the mangoes dropping from heaven. One, two, three…uh oh! The fourth one misses the bed and falls smothering its protruded nose on the hard ground. We drop the sack, yelp, blaming each other for not cooperating enough, for not precisely following the trajectory of the missile, for not making that last minute dive. Then we stop and break out into an irrepressible bout of laughter holding our aching sides with both arms. As we finally scoop the mango up for the bite white flesh could be popping out through the splintered green skin.
Do tender memories percolate in your mouth my friend, when your mind occasionally slips and drifts continents and decades back to this patch of earth where we were born, where we blissfully pressed our hungry teeth into the shredded meat of mangoes freckled with the red of chilli powder, a glimmer of oil and a few whispers of table salt?
The tree is going.
Along with other mundane accounts from your office do you tell your wife about an affair you had with a mango tree back at home? Noting your glassy gaze that comes from unbelievable distance have your boys ever felt a chip missing from their father? Do the eyes of your little girls sparkle as they slowly trace out a tree from words you carefully pick for a long evening by a fireplace (tell them relationships can be made outside the human world also. Convince them with your childhood account).
Well, the tree is going; it has now reached the threshold but all buried in weeds and callous freckles (the very reason why it must go, says its owner). Only a razor thin gap remains between for the mango tree to make that effortless leap across and declare itself weeds. See, how emaciated the branches from where we dangled down now are! Not even our fond reminiscences could find a pleasant perch on them (even birds balance with their wings spread and ready for the bounce). Whatever made this figure a mango tree once – birds, children, memories – have all been drifting out floe by floe. But red ants still visit, strike mango leaves among the weeds and twirl them into queer boat-shaped abodes. And like old days they still could play that old game of coming off instead of mangoes throwing consternation on the eager boys on the ground (but no boys cull mangoes anymore, so no ant-colonies drop in place of mangoes). Squirrels though a bit upset at the beginning somehow learned a way through the weeds. The more burly palm civets continue their traffic along a network of mango branches to raid our roofs in our colony. I could even hear birdsongs from the riotous green. But how long I am not sure (My grandmother who used to quip every flowering season that one should not build castles in the air seeing mango buds and babies is long gone).
When breezes thicken mangoes still fall unripe without you or me. Without the nudge of a knife-edged pole or a bed to ease off their hard plunge, they fall when breezes knock, or gravity calls. But no children storm out of any houses in our neighbourhood to beat their friends to collect them and then merrily share the spoils with their beaten opponents.
When mangoes fall mangoes fall.
Mangoes fall. There is a thud and then a great silence.
The ritual in the following morning: Sullen-faced maids emerge from various houses with brooms and rake the fruits up along with the fallen leaves into a little pile. But not even the fire they kindle licks into their pulpy wound and releases the agony of a fallen and unclaimed mango.
The tree is going.
You are so far away that you wont hear the thud when it finally falls.
But watch out for the silence that follows. It may find you and stay with you for the rest of your life. That’s all a mango tree from childhood can do.
Credits for photographs: