The Last Banyan Tree

There used to be a Banyan Tree here and a few old men sitting under it. Now what remains is an emptiness staring into the open sky through the gap created by the uprooted tree and the missing conversations of a few all-weather friends. Sipping half-tea, sitting under the lone surviving Banyan tree in this lively part of Bangalore they had been discussing many a passionate topics over the last 10 years… By “they” I mean Iyengar, Krishnan, Sharma, Mani and a few other irregular members who comprised that informal sabha (or a group) of old men. Most of them, in their sweet seventies, did not have any major expectations out of their simple yet satisfying life. Each one of them eagerly looked forward to the daily late evening meetings when the make-shift chaat shops on push carts retrofitted with cycle tyres crowded the narrow lanes near the park below the Banyan Tree. Men and Women in all sizes and shapes assembled there to savour the spicy chaats (chaats – common name for snack items from North India). People from all walks of life, from the humble peon to the BMW riding real estate trader frequented this chaat-joint sharing the same rainbow coloured plastic plates. Eager kids, enthusiastic parents, cigarette smoking bunch of young men and women, newly married couples and many a hoi polloi visited here. Amidst this cacophony, these antique souls used to gather to discuss what they have heard through the grapevine. Crispy and spicy stories were shared with enthusiasm. But often mundane and boring issues used to surface in the sabha that needed to be debated nevertheless. However, every evening, invariably, the changing face of Bangalore and the invasion of the young brigade would feature in their lively discussions.

Sitting on the rectangle shaped boundary laid with granite slabs around the Banyan Tree, they would try to ingest the changing life before them. Iyengar’s newspaper stall used the north side as a ledge; the seniors used to occupy the west side facing the road; the south was unoccupied and East remained inaccessible. The Banyan Tree would optimistically stretch its aerial roots from the branches in an attempt to reach and root to the ground, for increasing its spread and stability. Tar roads were impenetrable and would never let it in. The roots which hovered over the shops and tea-stalls were hacked to facilitate hassle free trading. The great old tree stood trembling with failing age on the heavy main stem filled with the girth of experience, in many ways synonymous with the gaffers who sat underneath making it a regular member of the sabha!
I distinctly remember that day – the one before the Independence Day when the balloon-wala was selling our national flags and tricoloured balloons under the Banyan Tree setting his shop on the South side of the granite boundary.
Krishnan brooded, “Iyengar, monsoon has been weak till now. Government has already stated that there will be scheduled power cuts. Water supply too is going to be scarce. Did you ask your son to build the underground sump and get the inverter? What happened to that plan of rainwater harvesting that you have been talking about? Otherwise, it will be difficult for you this summer.” Iyengar, an L.I.C agent, a newspaper agent, a railway ticket-booking agent, the owner of the Xerox machine and many more small businesses, had his share of struggles as a young man before he could settle down in Bangalore. His son works with an IT company and his daughter is happily married off to an MBA graduate working with a foreign bank in M. G. Road.

“Krishnan, the other day I was walking by the Scientific Research Organization. Suddenly, I recalled that the building is standing on a lakebed. Do you all remember the huge lake that used to be there? Those buggers are filling all the water bodies and building huge IT parks on top of those. Tell me, how will it rain in Bangalore? Anyway, what is the point talking about that? Leave it. To answer you Krishnan, I have asked Ramesh to take care of the water problem and buy an inverter. He said that he would do it. Rainwater harvesting requires investment of almost a lakh. Ramesh says he will plan it for the next year. Seems he is short of funds. These days I continuously have to remind him of all the homely affairs. He is so busy with his work that I still have to handle everything at home. I hardly get to see him. I think that after recession his work pressure has doubled”, Iyengar sighed. Krishnan, a retired college professor, he was the eldest of the group. He was the most learned man of the group and an active participant in the local area affairs. He always used to take stock of what was happening in the households of his friends and keeps himself informed. He would give his sincere opinions and suggestions to the problems faced by his friends. Both his sons are settled in the US but he never yearned to join them. He was at peace with Bangalore.

Mani changed the topic abruptly, “Look at that girl having Pani-puri and the guy she is with. See where his hands are! These people do not seem to have any social manners. God knows whether their parents are aware of their conducts! Being so far from their homes and with nobody to keep a close watch on their activities, today’s kids are getting spoilt day by day.” The ever-critical Mani, a former employee with H.A.L. is always judgmental about the way his city has metamorphosed to.

“Obviously!” As always, Sharma wanted to have the last say in any topic. After all, he worked at the highest of the positions compared to all the others in the gang. He was the personal manager to the former director at B.E.L. His only son an electrical engineer runs a lucrative electrical parts supply business. “Did you hear about the murder in Ganga Nagar?” “These IT people are immature and do not have any values. Money has screwed up their heads. The love marriages that we often hear are mostly due to infatuation than true love. Educated and so-called sensible people are committing these brutal murders. I think Bangalore before IT was a lot better.” Consensus meant a long silence, and a sigh.

“Krishnan, day after tomorrow is Avani Avittam. Vadiyar (priest) came to give the hymn booklet, Darba (special grass) and the Poonal (holy thread), didn’t he?” Mani wanted to make sure that the Darba and Poonal are ready for the upcoming occasion. (Avani Avittam or Yajur Upakarma is an annual ceremony when Brahmins change their holy thread, chant vedas and pay homage to one’s ancestors) “Good that you reminded me Mani. I have to get a few extra sets of Poonal. My relatives will be there this time.” “Next week my pension will get deposited. After that, I am planning to book a trip to Kasi and Haridwar, then take a break and go to Rameswaram. I have never been to any of these places. Vivekananda Travels is organizing a tour to these places. I am planning to block my seat tomorrow. Who all are joining me?” Krishnan’s face brightened as it looked quizzically at others for an answer.

Each of them wanted to join him but then they all came up with some excuse. Besides, none of them trusted their health fully to embark upon such a long and tedious pilgrimage. Krishnan had the tough job of convincing each one of them. With much difficulty, he managed to coax everyone into the trip. The toughest part was not about convincing his friends, but them getting permission from their kids. Come to think of it, a few decades back their kids used to beg for consent from them to play in the fields, to go for an excursion, to buy a new property and what not. It was all the reverse. Getting a few thousand rupees for personal endeavours was becoming tough. Nevertheless, they all decided to give it a shot. As expected, Iyengar initially backed out since he had a shop and a business to care of. However, Sharma suggested his driver; a trustworthy fellow could be assigned the job of handling the shop in his absence. “After all, there is mobile phone to contact him in case of any issues,” Krishnan reassured Iyengar. They were all excited. Their excitement could only be compared to that of school kids planning their first outing. They decided to meet the next day evening to discuss the status, schedule and further details after getting their “freedom” back from their kids. Though none spoke about it, at the back of their mind they all realized that this might be their first and last trip together.

Mani had no one to convince except for his wife. Once he informed her about the trip, she argued that either she would accompany him or he had to drop the plan. He felt it unsafe to leave her alone in the duplex house. He decided to take his wife along with him if only he could arrange for some money. Sharma’s son wouldn’t care about his father’s friends or their emotions. He rejected the whole idea and told his dad that if he wanted to visit the places then he would take him by flight but would not let him travel in the train. God forbid – but what if anything happens to him? After much thought, Iyengar too decided to drop the trip due to some religious reasons. All throughout the night, the three of them thought about how to convey their decision and problems to Krishnan without hurting him. Everyone respected him so much. They considered him as their elder brother. To say NO to him was simply unthinkable.

It poured that night. Rains continued unabated all throughout the night. Gale winds knocked many a trees down. Chilly winds crept into their houses through half closed windows and crevices never seen earlier. The city slept uncomfortable and disturbed but sleep deserted Iyengar, Mani and Sharma.

It was nearing six in the evening. After their usual evening walks, one by one, they reached the banyan tree only to find the great old Banyan tree lying on the ground, half uprooted and the granite slabs where they used to hold the meeting completely dislodged. Corporation workers were using an earth mover to sever the tree off completely off the ground. However, the deep roots refused to come off. Three of them found a low wall of a clinic nearby and sat there waiting for Krishnan. They felt distressed when the fallen tree fought the machines trying to uproot it completely from the ground.

An hour and a half passed by without any sign of Krishnan. Concerned, they decided to visit him at his house. After a five-minute walk, they reached his house only to find the gate locked from outside. On enquiring with the neighbours, they came to know that their friend Krishnan was admitted last night into the Ramaiyah Hospital with some respiratory sickness. The previous night he had suddenly developed some breathing problem and had to be hospitalized. The three looked among themselves. Old age and respiratory infection did not augur good news. They immediately called up their acquaintance in the hospital and enquired about Krishnan. They heard “Sorry” on the other side and a long, painful pause. His body was already on its way back from the hospital. He breathed his last in the ICU an hour back, they were informed. They all recalled his smiling and beaming face from yesterday evening, his eyes were gleaming with the expectation of a trip with his beloved friends. He had left them with an incomplete dream. A vacant seat remained. One down from the group. There was an hour before his body arrived. They returned to the low wall never wanting to believe the news.

Iyengar felt his prosthetic leg. He shuddered imagining an engine horn from a distant past – a Railway crossing, forty plus years ago, the accident where he had lost one of his legs but had found 3 new pairs – brave Krishnan who had pulled him away from the speeding train risking his own life, Sharma’s Rs. 10,000, Mani’s A+ blood and a priceless friendship of more than forty years. He turned around and looked at Mani and Sharma. He saw the same scenes rolling in the moisture laden eyes of his friends.

“Krishnan never took a ‘No’ for an answer. He didn’t let us disappoint him. He didn’t wait for our No.”, Iyengar suspired. There, they vowed, come what may happen they would go for this pilgrimage as homage to Krishnan. His soul will now accompany them. The Banyan tree finally gave away completely and kissed the longing earth. An ambulance siren echoed in the distance and the friends started walking towards Krishnan’s house to pay their last respects.

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