One of the beauties of childhood is that you believe in too many things. You believe that one day you can fly if someone gave you enough bird feathers or you can swim if you ate ants or that all people are good (only demons are bad). You believe that baby-stealers are just outside that dark window, ready to pull you out gently from between your sleeping parents at night and chop off your tongue (so that you couldn’t take your parent’s name or tell others that you are stolen) to make you beg on the street. And that belief, though it seems so stupid afterwards, shapes a significant part of you. And sometimes your destiny.
During the slow old days, on the way to my village, just after the town lights died down and the hustle and bustle was left an inaudible distance behind, a deformed banyan tree by the road side took over our consciousness. It wasn’t a regular symmetrical tree like most banyan trees are – like let’s say the shape of a nuclear explosion cloud – with roots hanging on all sides à la Dabur logo. Rather, it grew only towards the road, rising from the ground like a single extended palm. In the spooky darkness of the night, it looked like a severed hand dripping blood.
The tree stood on the bank of a pond covered with water-lily leaves. At night, creamy white lilies pushed through the floating leaves to taste the silvery moonlight. On moonlit nights, reflection of light from the pond coupled with clear silhouetted image of the tree looked eerily beautiful, but only to the eyes of the brave. For us, while sitting astride the carrier of our father’s bicycle, it called for shutting the eyes eyelid-wrinkling tight. We desperately clung to the belly of father, burying our faces into his sweaty back, guessing the location of the turtle-paced cycle in relation to the tree. We opened our eyes only after we were relatively certain that we had crossed the perimeter of the dweller’s influence.
My elder sister was the first to tell me who lived there. The tree had a hollow that by a sadistic twist of fate faced the approach so that it was impossible not to look at the inky abyss of the hole and pray the Gods that nothing suddenly jumped out of it. My sister told me that the hole was just a door to an entire world of apparitions, led by a pitiless old Brahma Rakshashi. Behind the hole and under the root of the tree was a labyrinth populated by an assortment of non-living beauties. Daahani (you call them Daayan in Hindi), Pishachini, Pretatma, Chirguni, Bhootuni, Jogini, Asuruni.
One of the advantages of being an elder is that you can make a fool out of your younger sibling. I, of course, dutifully passed on the stories to my younger sister who gobbled them up like sponge does to water.
I have heard that people pedaled furiously while passing under the three. Fools! Can you really outrun a bodiless soul who could simply materialize out of thin air and suck the wind from your windpipe? I also heard that some people left their cycles, got off the road and ran for dear life amid spiky dry paddy stubs when confronted with just her outline. Others traveled only in pairs or triplets and talked loudly while passing under. Or didn’t take that road at all. Many left their work in the town unfinished and returned home before darkness changed the tree for the worse.
One day, a distant uncle reached our home all sweating, panting and unable to speak properly. After getting back control over his vocal cords he told us that while passing below the tree his cycle felt heavy, as if someone was sitting behind. When he looked back he felt that someone was holding his handle instead (as if the Brahma-rakshashi was playing Ringa Ringa Roses with him).
The tree was the reason I had to learn Hanuman Chalisa in my childhood, none of whose lines I really understood or sang correctly. I only hoped that Hanuman understood I was singing something in his praise and bailed me out timely.
There were countless nights when I had clung to my mother at night, scared by my sister’s stories that often at night, the dwellers descended from the tree and ran towards the village with their hair loose and mouth open. They pulled babies from their mothers surreptitiously and rubbed salt on them. Then they congregated on the edge of the village behind the secluded pump house and ate their spoils, their hideous laughter pricking holes in the silent sheet of the night.
We left the village long back and for years I didn’t have to pass under the tree. On my last visit home, I took that road again to see how the village was doing. The road is much wider now, concrete and busy. The pond has long dried up and would never have sparkling water or bobbing lilies in it. In place of the vast paddy field on either side of the road, today there is the Birla tyre factory and an Indian Railways container depot. Bright neon lights flood the entire area and trucks carry containers and oil day and night. Nothing much is left of the tree, though (albeit sadly) it looks more symmetrical now.
I imagine no one talking about the Rakshashi now. Hardly anyone cycles under the tree these days anyway. The old lady is probably too old to catch internal combustion engines. The silence she thrived on is long gone. I imagine her entire troupe having deserted the place. For another deserted place, leaving behind a little of themselves in my heart and my imagination. Until probably the tree is entirely gone to widen the road further.