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 men in this world are good (only demons are bad). You believe that baby-stealers will take you away if you didn’t sleep immediately. 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 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. 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 deposited a severe chill in our spine, making us shut out eyes so tight that the eyelids wrinkled. 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 being relatively certain that we had crossed the perimeter of the dweller’s influence. This was the only time we prayed our Gods with some decent devotion (other times, especially while accompanying our grandmother for an evening bhajan, we only synced lips and winked at each other).
My elder sister was the first to tell me who lived there. The tree had a hollow that, by a sadistic twist of fate, so strategically faced the approach road that it was impossible not to look into the inky abyss. We prayed that nothing in a white robe suddenly jumped out of it. My sister said 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 (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 to water, and stayed scared for a reasonably long amount of time.
We heard that people pedaled furiously while passing under the tree. Fools! Can you really outrun a bodiless soul who could simply materialize out of thin air and suck the wind from your windpipe? We 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, an uncle reached home all sweating and panting, unable to utter anything coherent. After getting back his vocal cords, he hissed that while passing under the tree, his cycle felt heavy, as if someone was sitting behind. When he looked back, it was his handle instead, that felt unwieldy (as if the Brahma-rakshashi was playing Ringa Ringa Roses with him!).
The tree was the reason I had to learn Hanuman Chalisa, none of whose lines I really understood or sang correctly. I only hoped that Hanuman, given the over-sized heart that he has, understood what I was muttering and timely bailed me out.
There were countless nights when I had dearly clung to my mother, 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 kids 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 that tree. On my last visit home, I took that road again to see how my old 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 place of the vast paddy field on either side of the road, today there are a huge tyre factory and an Indian Railways container depot. Bright neon lights, strung around a circle and hauled up tall, shining towers, flood the entire area. Trucks carry containers all day and night. Nothing much is left of the tree, though (albeit sadly) it looks more symmetrical now.
I assume no one talks 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 imagination. Until the tree is entirely gone to widen the road further.