The sprawling banyan tree stood in the middle of the huge open ground outside the small village for decades. Like an aged and fatherly centurion, it stood there as a sentinel, as if protecting the little village and allowed kids to prance around its innumerable branches and hanging roots. Due to its opportune vantage point, it had seen hundreds of weddings and deaths. It had seen people arriving and leaving the village, animated with different emotions. Their happiness and grief had scarred its gnarled bark and had made it a contemplative philosopher.
Lakkhu was not a philosopher. One cannot afford this luxury, when one has to toil in a ‘two-bullock’ field from sunrise to sunset. He was an unimaginative farmer and didn’t deal in hypothesis. He only understood actuals and dealt in facts. He was sitting on one of the lower branches of the banyan tree, his feet dangling, and was lost in deep thoughts. This tree was his favorite place where he used to sit and brood upon the inequities of the life. The banyan tree was rumored to be haunted, so no one ventured near it after dark. Lakkhu didn’t believe in rumors. Since last year, he had spent many nights sitting in its branches and has never encountered any ghosts or spirits. Hogwash! He thought bitterly! The greatest devils in the world are one’s own kin, who will rob the skin off a person, if they get half a chance!
Today he came here just before the sunset and sat on one of the lower branches. He saw both of his younger brothers walking towards the tree, talking earnestly. Lakkhu was sure that they cannot spot him in the fading daylight, still he hid himself behind dense foliage to ensure that he’s not seen by them. He was curious to hear what these vermin were plotting. Lakkhu knew that they had their eyes on his small land and his house. They hated his guts and wanted his kids to starve. His elder daughter Gauri was of marriageable age and Lakkhu was worried. He didn’t even have enough money at home to decently feed and clothe them. Now, these monsters were planning to sell his only source of survival! He invoked all the ghosts and spirits to attack and destroy these fiends. But, like gods, even spirits have a selfish trait and help only those, who don’t require it. The needy are always ignored.
His brothers approached the tree. Girdhar, the elder of the two was laughing. “Did you see Lakkhu’s wife crib for that sack of grains? That woman will never learn!”
Madho, the younger one smiled. “Bhaiya, it’s all Lakkhu’s doing. He has trained her to be like that. What can we do?”
Lakkhu’s blood boiled after hearing this. He wanted to jump off the branches and smash their heads together till they split like rotten melons, but he controlled himself. There was more, he was sure and he wanted to hear it all. He wanted to see how low his brothers could sink in their avariciousness for his lands.
The younger brother cleaned the ground below one of the many roots of the banyan and both brothers sat their comfortably. The elder lit his beedi and resumed.
“Madho, yesterday I talked to the sarpanch about the lands. We will have to pay Rs. 5,000 to him and he will change the title. Once it’s done, the rest is easy. We have to close the sale by the end of this week or it’ll be too late.”
“Bhaiya, are you sure to do this without arousing anyone’s suspicion? You know what big mouths we have in this village! Nothing is secret!”
Oh! So, that’s the plan! Plague take such brothers! Lakkhu was shaking in rage. They wanted to turn his land in their own name! Wow! Some brothers! The Ramayana needs to be rewritten to accommodate such saintly souls! His hands shook in anger and the foliage rustled. Girdhar looked up warily and tried to peer in the gathering gloom.
“Is someone up there?” He asked suspiciously.
“No, bhaiya. May be a stray buffet of wind. It’s considered to be a haunted tree. Who will come here in their right mind? People here are so superstitious! Last month Hari Mallah passed by and was down with fever for a week. Claimed that he saw a chudail here and she was dancing and beckoning him. I advised him that he should have gone with her. She being the only female, which showed any interest in him!”
Madho guffawed and Girdhar joined him, shaking his head at the follies of his illiterate brethren. “We are more than a match for those spirits, Madho!”
You are not a match for Lakkhu, you bastards! Lakkhu thought viciously. Let me unearth your full plan once, then I will ensure that you two will haunt this tree till the Apocalypse!
Girdhar lighted another bidi and became serious. Madho asked, “Do you know what’s the full amount we need?”
“It’s around Rs 30,000.”
“Did you try to talk to them? I mean, even they should understand the severity of the situation and should show some empathy!”
Girdhar spat on the ground. “This is after including their empathy. They were asking for 50. I showed them the entire papers and explained the situation. Then they agreed for 30. We also need around Rs 15,000 to pay to the landlord, which is owed. We will get around Rs 40,000 by selling the lands. God knows how we will manage!” He added morosely.
“Don’t worry bhaiya. God is great!” Madho said.
In your case, it’d be the devil, wouldn’t it? Lakkhu was fuming in the gathering darkness.
Madho said, “I don’t really feel good about all this selling business, bhaiya! Why don’t we sell Lakkhu’s land? Anyway, it’s his problem! Why are you selling ours? God knows that the crop wasn’t much this year!”
Girdhar picked up a pebble and threw it in the gathering darkness. “We can sell his land, Madho, but what will his family eat? Lakkhu already sold most of his fields due to his addiction to drinking and gambling. If we sell this remaining piece of land, how will his family survive?” He was sad. “I know that he never trusted us and always spurned us, but after all he’s our own kin! And, what if we sell a parcel of our lands to tide his family over? At least, let his daughter get married peacefully! As long as they retain that small land, his sons can fend off for themselves. Tomorrow I’m selling off my that useless field and you go and pay the Rs. 30,000 dowry. Let’s close it. I will meet the landlord and pay Rs. 10,000 debt and ask for some time for the remaining.”
Lakkhu was stunned! So, they were selling off their own lands so that they can pay off his debts and get his daughter married? We usually tend to misjudge people in what we construe a righteous anger over imagined facts. In this trait, we aren’t any better than animals. If one tries to save a snake from drowning, the snake will never appreciate this and will invariably end up biting the savior. It will always use its narrow perspective to judge the situation. Just like that snake, we humans are also prejudiced based upon our past experiences or our own reactions to similar circumstances. The only saving grace is, some of us retain the humility to be abashed and ashamed, when we are exposed to the truth.
Lakkhu felt ashamed! He jumped off the tree to apologize for his suspicions.
“I’m sorry, my brothers.” Lakkhu began humbly with folded hands, “I always misunderstood your care as avarice. You have treated my family as yours, still I thought of you as thieves! Please forgive me!”
The brothers ignored him and continued talking. Lakkhu stood with folded hands and bowed head.
“Sometimes, I wish he didn’t drink so much to die of cirrhosis! It has been one year since his death! You are right, bhaiya. Money is not everything, wish it could bring our dead brother back! I’m unable to see the never-ending misery in the eyes of his widow.”, Madho said sadly.
Like a wise old sage, the banyan tree stood gravely, looking at the two living and one ghost brothers. The evening breeze rustled its leaves gently. It couldn’t speak to the living ones, but caressed Lakkhu and beckoned him back on its branches lovingly. Although it was a tree and devoid of any feelings, it had seen and absorbed enough emotions of the humankind in the past decades to understand the upheaval going through this sobbing and penitent ghost. It knew that this tortured soul needs love as never before, because it is hurting with the knowledge of its own injustice towards others. The brothers walked away in the darkness, hands on each other’s shoulders. The hanging roots of the banyan tree gathered a sobbing ghost and deposited it on one of the lower branches, where it sat sadly, dangling its legs, lost in deep thoughts.
Another notch was carved on its scarred bark.