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Assassins in the Garden

March 24, 2011 02:22 IST

With the felling of the mango tree at his home, Bijoy Venugopal lost more than just a tree.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

'The mango trees are in flower,' my father said two weeks ago with an ache in his voice. I caught my breath. On my way to Parambikulam last month, so close to the village in northeastern Kerala where I spent the summer vacations of my childhood, I had noticed that the orchard trees we passed wore glossy crowns of red leaves adorned with sprays of new flowers. Usually, I would have reported that to my father. This time I didn't, because I knew it would break his heart.

My father's love for mangoes borders on the pathological -- though he has no other vices, mangoes weaken his hold on his wallet. He spends like a gambler, seeking out the last fruit from the market long after the season has officially ended. He would save the seeds from the best mangos (after chafing off the last of the flesh) and encourage them to germinate. His experiments didn't quite bear fruit.

Twenty years ago he brought home a sapling and planted it a few feet away from the western compound wall. He tended it lovingly until it asserted its place in the garden. It occupied a flank between the vegetable patch and the little copse formed by the pomegranate tree next to it, separated from the underground sump by a compost pit.

In the shade of the neighbour's gooseberry tree, which hogged most of the sky, the sapling remained stunted and undernourished.

A thicket of plantains, nearly always burdened with fruit, flourished nearby.

Many summers passed. The house next door changed owners and the gooseberry tree became a casualty of renovation activity.

Thriving on the sudden gift of sun our tree grew taller than the house. The bedroom upstairs, where I slept, offered a vantage into its dark canopy. From this comfortable indoor hide I'd watch tailorbirds and warblers flick away the dead bark for insects.

Slithery vines gripped the trunk, threatening to strangle it, but the tree held its own. Columns of weaver ants marched along the boughs, their translucent bodies glistening a threatening shade of orange-red.

Koels took refuge from crows after violating their nests. Shikras perched in the tangle of branches, dismembering rodents, lizards and the occasional pigeon.

Squirrels raised broods of fluffy youngsters that chased each others' tails through the jungle-gym of boughs. Rats used it as an escape route. One year, a storm-tossed male Paradise Flycatcher strayed into our garden and flitted about the tree. Crows were already mobbing it.

Even as other mango trees flowered in the neighbourhood, our tree remained fallow. With homemade vegetable compost my father encouraged the tree to fruit, but to no luck.

One day he wondered aloud if it was time to cut down the mango tree. The tree heard him. That year it flowered. Just a few, scattered blooms but enough to evoke a celebration.

We had no fruits, but the following year we got a handful of mangoes after the birds and squirrels had eaten their fill. The yield got better with the years and my father proudly gifted his hard-won mangoes to friends and relatives.

A few Bonnet Macaques trooped in once and polished off a few but we still had enough to spare.

A tree plunges roots, seeking out water veins. A crack in the wall of the sump demonstrated that our tree was rather thirsty. Roots were also wedged in the foundation of the house, threatening its durability. After years of painful procrastination, my father made a decision: The tree would have to go.

Last year it fruited copiously. We ate its offering with guilty gratitude, quiet but for noisily licking the dense yellow juice as it dribbled over our fingers.

That, as it were, was the funeral feast.

A party of three hired assassins arrived to cut the tree. One was punch-drunk, as executioners often are. Hacking, sawing, chopping... they went about their jobs with businesslike detachment, but not before offering obsequies to the spirit of the tree they were about to fell.

Still, the job took four days to accomplish. As the assassins invaded the tree with axes and picks, its defenders burst out in a last savage attack to defend its sovereignty.

The men hollered with pain as the weaver ants set upon them, stinging as if there was no tomorrow. In fact, there wasn't. Stung to sobriety, the men relented.

In due course, the canopy came crashing down. Then the trunk was hewn away and eventually, the stump was hacked off.

I could not but be reminded of Gieve Patel's immemorial poem, On Killing A Tree:

It takes much time to kill a tree,

Not a simple jab of the knife

Will do it.

It has grown

Slowly consuming the earth,

Rising out if it, feeding

Upon its crust, absorbing

Years of sunlight, air, water,

And out of its leprous hide

Sprouting leaves...

Coward that I am, I stayed away from the gruesome scene, pretending to be otherwise occupied. My father phoned when the end came. I shut my eyes and let the truth sink in, and allowed a swathe of childhood to slip into the dark swirl of memory. This year the mango tree will flower in our consciences alone.

The writer is part of The Green Ogre team, which includes three other nature enthusiasts and photographers/ diarists.

Thegreenogre.blogspot.com has been ranked among the Top 300 birding blogs by birding blog index Fat Birder and among the top blogs in the Environment category by the Indian blog network Blogjunta

Bijoy Venugopal