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The International Writers Magazine

The Coconut Tree

It must have been less than a year since Uncle passed away. Yes, it was late spring last year and its still early spring and feeling hotter then ever. A warm start to spring makes the entire city look colorful with the leafless magnificent blooms, the pinks, yellows, and purples of the Jacaranda… Uncle enjoyed plants, trees, and gardening so much that he was struck by a fatal heart attack when he was clearing the caterpillars off the jasmine creeper, on his rooftop.

Uncle and Aunty lived next door. It’s a habit in this city to refer to unrelated older acquaintances as Uncle and Aunty, while the related uncles and aunts are called so with the local language (Chika-appa and Chika-amma). We moved into this area quite recently, about four five years ago. From the day of the Grahapravesham (house warming) Aunty and Uncle were warm, even though they had some issues with our house plan not leaving enough space between our houses. Uncle was retired by the time I got to know him, always a jovial man, tending to his garden and making conversation with all the neighbors and the school kids going by. Aunty would be seen haggling with street venders or going round and round Tulasi plant in front of her house or chit chatting with the neighbors. They looked like a happy contented couple. They had two grown up children who were settled in the States. Aunt and Uncle looked forward for the occasional summers when the grand children visited them. They made occasional trips abroad and spent time with their children, even though they missed their local social circles.

I would see them almost everyday. A morning conversation with Uncle as I pulled out my car, was always a good start to my day. Aunty visited us on most yele-adike (Beetle leaf – Social/religious) occasions and sang one or two of Dasas kritis. In her days, it was a necessity for young Brahmin girls to be taught music or at least some songs. Aunty was only taught Dasara kritis, and she could sing them well in the traditional way, with full alignment to sruti and laya, without the need for a drone or keeping tala. It’s this kind of oral teaching practice that seems to have kept the Indian tradition alive for more than five thousand years. Aunty is unaware of the technical details of the melody, yet she is doing a fantastic job of presenting the kriti. On one such occasion, Uncle walked in with a few big, red, freshly picked, ripe coconuts from his treasured tree that stood at the corner of his house. It was a tall tree, about thirty years old, of a special variety; red in color and the water inside was sweet as sugar syrup (kenda yelaneeru).

They were the first to build a house in this locality, about thirty years ago. Uncle was employed as an officer at a scientific research institute. I have heard them talk about, long walk to their house from the last bus stop, two to three kilometers away, through uninhabited neighborhoods. Those were not days of home-loans and one had to strive hard to save money to construct a home. Aunty and Uncle were proud of how they had worked together through those hard times and raised their kids, who now were happily settled in the Americas.

The coconut tree occupied a very special place in Uncle’s heart. I remember hearing him, talk about it with a broad smile and nostalgia. Uncle’s great granddad was awarded the post of Shanubogha (A person who keeps land and tax records in the village. This was abolished in 1974.) and some land by the Mysore kings, in recognition of his righteousness and piety. In later years, with the good will of the kings he was able to collect special coconut tree samples from the royal orchard and create an orchard of his own. By the time Uncle was five, all the lands were sold and the family had moved into the city sighting English education and employment as reasons. Uncle had fond memories of these early years in the village. After he had managed to buy the site and build his house, he had traveled back to his village found his ancestors land and managed to get coconut seeds from the trees planted by his great granddad. He had managed to grow one tall tree out of those, which yielded the special coconuts. His attachment and affection to the tree, seems to have enriched the nectar that formed the sap to create such sweet fruits. Over the years the tree had yielded many fruits, which had nourished countless Gods and humans alike, its leaves had provided for the green chapara sheltering countless newly wed couples. It lived true to its name, a "Kalpavriksha".

On this early spring day, I step out of the house with my bag and lunch to find Aunty at the compound talking to a few rough clothed workers. As I greet her with a smile, I find her looking up with her hands shading her eyes from the Sun. I was puzzled to find the leaves of the Kalpavriksha strewn all over the ground. Reluctantly, I looked up to find that all the leaves of the Kalpavriksha were chopped off and a top less man was hugging the tree just below the last of the leaves and chopping the tree. I was witness to a slaughter, with Aunty making sure it happened the right way and the pieces did not fall and disturb the equilibrium of the surroundings.

My presence seemed like the first outlet for Aunty to dust off her guilt (and grief?). She started out saying; "He loved these (plants and trees) so much that he gave up his life tending to them. I have been chosen to destroy his most cherished tree, within a year of him passing away. I remember how much he toiled to get this seedling and we saw it grow inch by inch for years. What can I do? I tried to convince my children that the new house that they want built could still accommodate the tree. But they were convinced that the tree does not suit the new layout and styling. They hardly come and stay here anymore, but they want a new house built while there is some one here who can handle the construction duties. Avaru (He) would have never allowed this. He is no more, I have to do what the children want."

To me an era had come to an end. It was not just a coconut tree that was getting chopped, but also an outlook to life, a way of life, a reverence to other forms of life around us. As time moves on, I will get used to the sight of a cement structure, in place of a green coconut tree. The taste of the nectar from the Kalpavriksha and the narratives from Uncle will remain with me, to be narrated to the coming generation as fairy tales!
© Kiran March 2007

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