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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

That Great Banyan Tree

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I am going to talk about the same type of tree in which Robinson Crusoe, in the eponymous 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe makes his home. Yes, the same giant tree which covers half of the globe in Hothouse, the novel by Brian Aldiss, … about the same sacred tree which in Hindu mythology is thought of as perfectly symbolizing eternal life due to its seemingly unending expansion, … about the same tree which was planted for the first time in U.S. by Thomas Alva Edison in Fort Myers, Florida.

Banyan tree is the tree of life as a number of living beings depend on it for their life. It is the fruit tree that is grown by nature to feed many different life forms created by it. It has been the preferred avenue tree since the time of Ashoka.Not only it feeds birds, squirrels and other animals; it provides good shelter as well. Hundreds of birds roost on it spend safe nights and move for their destinations in the morning to come back again in the evening.

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Banyan trees have been providing lovely shades to villagers who have been assembling under its shade to discuss village affairs and to listen to religious stories and preaching. Banyan trees have been providing protection against scorching sun and rain showers to travelers and shades to marriage parties in rural settings.

 In my childhood, there was a big Banyan tree outside my village under the shade of which farmers used to take rest during summers. Hundreds of birds used to take shelter in its dense canopy. Its red sweet fruits were delicious food for them. A number of squirrels too used to sniff its fruits, pluck the ripest ones and eat comfortably holding the same between both of their palms. One could easily guess about the sweetness of banyan fruits by seeing wasps sucking the juice from the fruits fallen on ground. A  village Purohit, sitting on a high platform made of wood and decorated with flowers, used to read lines of Shrimadbhagawat, the great Hindu Text, and its Hindi translation while villagers comprising farmers and old ladies sitting on the ground ,used to hear him with great devotion. Some ladies used to bring jute-sheets with them to sit on during the religious preaching. This was done regularly in every evening starting before dusk to about seven P.M. during summer season. This programme usually lasted up to fifteen days. A lantern was lit on the platform where the purohit sat when it became dark and he felt difficulty in reading the text. The lantern and the kerosene oil for it were arranged by the village head. However, the remuneration or Dakshina for the priest was collected from every household.

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The majestic banyan tree stood in the western part of a big open and plain ground which joined a good road with its eastern border. Some farmers used to store farm produce in different parts of the ground for threshing. The whole ground used to remain covered with husks that escaped from the threshing machines. The threshing of wheat continued round the clock and threshers were fueled by diesel. But the whole ground was made clean and clear after threshing was completed.

 Every marriage party was made to stay under the banyan tree in a big open tent, in the big open ground. The banyan tree was a silent witness to hundreds of marriages that were arranged up to that time. From that time, I mean the time till I remained in my village, going to a school located at one and half kilometer from my house in the village. Petromaxes were arranged to light the area during nights. These were, as these still are the pressure lamps that worked on as these still work on vaporized paraffin or kerosene. For making a lamp to produce light, it was preheated with methylated spirit. The mantle fitted in the petromax burns in gas and produces light. This was a strange experience for me and for other children of my age too, and many of us used to see curiously when someone started the process of burning a petromax. Many teenagers and even adults too were very fond of burning a petromax, taking care of it while it produced light and replacing its mantle when it got broken in wind.


Image 3: The Petromax of my childhood
To continue the story, let us move with the marriage parties that stayed under the banyan tree. Now, every marriage party that came to marry a girl in the cluster of villages near the field with the majestic banyan tree, was supposed to bring a dance party with it to recreate the villagers who used to wait for it since they knew about the settlement of any marriage of a girl in any of the cluster of villages. Children used to count days very anxiously and guess about the dance party that was about to come with the marriage party.

 The dancers in these dance parties used to be boys only. Ladies in those days were not thought to join a dance party. Some dance parties used to keep lady dancers but such dance partied were seen in the marriage parties of rich people only. In those days two farmer families in that area were considered as rich due to the fact that those families had men employed in cities. The village head was a rich person as one of his sons was an engineer in Bokaro Steel Plant. Villagers used to talk that a M.P. of his own caste who belonged to the Congress Party, and who was then considered as the right hand of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India; had made arrangements for his employment. The other rich farmer family was rather less rich than that of the village head. It was rich because of inflow of money from Calcutta where a man of that family did some type of business about which do body knew clearly.

Villagers from distant places used to go under the banyan tree I am talking about, to see dance at nights. Smart boys dressed as ladies used to dance in these dance parties and the affluent viewers used to offer Bank Notes to them as rewards. Offering bank note to dancers were matters of pride those days and I do not know whether it is still the same in modern time when here is no scarcity of ladies to join as dancers in dance parties. Boys and even adults in villages used to remain so fond of dances that they walked even up to two or three miles to reach to the place walking in the dark through harvested fields without any type of fear. Dance parties and of course its dancers, used to remain hot topics of discussion among boys till they became able to see dances of another party.

Many of us in those days did not have footwear and walked on barefoot. If there was a pair of footwear, it was meant for the use while we had to go to our school. While rushing to a dance party under the banyan tree many of us crossed harvested fields of wheat and arhar and most often got our feet badly injured but this was far less important than seeing dances of beautiful dancers. No one could ever tried to accept the dancers as boys, and the dancers decorated and painted properly had acquired enough to deceive the viewers.

When a marriage party departed, the whole ground appeared sad and viewers used to look around the empty ground under the banyan tree with a high degree of sadness, so wretched as if some one had disappeared with their souls and hearts and the sorrow used to continue till another party arrived on the same place. The banyan tree too looked like lamenting and the sad viewers used to sat under it discussing all the lovely moments they had spent viewing dances, and hearing sweet songs of beautiful dancers. In their acute pain and agony the banyan tree remained the only companion.

Days, months and years passed like seconds, minutes and hours. I left the area after I passed my High School Examination and got admitted in a good college in a city area. Gradually the study became so important that I could hardly find some time to visit my home where my parents lived. My father used to come to city to see me but my mother, being a traditional housewife could not even imagine going to the city to see me. She used to count days as per the information she could receive from my father about my programme of visiting her. On that day she used to stand at the gate staring towards the road till he became successful in locating my image on the road. The road, I think, could not be visible to her through her tear filled eyes she used to wipe by the help of the corner of her cotton sari. When ever I went to her I found her standing at the gate with eyes open and tears running down to her chin. She is no more to weep for me now. When she became too old, I brought her along with my father to live with them in the rented flat in the city where I am employed.

 Currently, we are living with my father only. As My father had some land there in the village, he once asked me to go there and to come back with some news about the area. So I had to go. I went to my parental home. As soon as I stepped down the bus on the road, my eyes started moving towards the majestic banyan tree, the witness of my childhood and of all those I have already told you about. The whole scene had disappeared and it seemed as if I had landed in some new location. The people on the road recognized me and tried to ask many questions about me but in stead of answering them, I asked, “What has happened? Where is the field and where is the majestic banyan tree?”
“Son, the younger son of the village head has opened a big school in the ground, see that is the gate. Though the school is not yet recognized, about one hundred boys and girls are on roll.” replied an old man who recognized me.
“But what happened with the banyan tree under which marriage parties used to stay? … And where do the farmers keep their farm produce now? Where are threshers? Where do you people do threshing? ”
“Babu, the path to your home goes through the southern boundary of the school. You look tired and hungry too. Go now. We don’t dare to tell you more” replied the old man.