Le Question: Did Indians do nothing but celebrate festivals?

A tree may be our  primary connection with the universe — but it will take us all our lives to acknowledge it
The Ficus virens that outgrew the shrine
Shashwat: Haven’t the Americans built big cities, warships, fighter jets and so on? 
Me:  I guess so.
Shashwat And the Germans have made very fine automobiles and autobahns?
Me: Yes, they have.
Shashwat: The French have the TGV!
Me: Yes, so?
Shashwat: So, in India, did we spend all our time celebrating festivals and meditating?
Me: Silence
The canopy, loved by both peacocks and Hanuman langurs
Five minutes later the hush still rules as fervent devotees accompany the lord through the city, drumbeats announcing the procession a kilometre away from where a Sunday morning chat is languishing for lack of words. Blame it on Discovery Channel.

The best I could do was distract him with a tale.

Once I saw a cobra make its way through the network of aerial roots

Back in my great-great-grandmother’s time, a young boy had the duty of striking the hour. One fateful day he may have dawdled after his morning smoke or perhaps gazed at a damsel too long – and missed striking an hour. This is where things get curious, for while he missed it, the hour was still struck. His inquiries failed to find the person who had struck the hour in his absence. The lad, true to instinct, concluded that it was none other than Lord Hanuman, whom he worshipped, who had done it on his behalf. Grateful to the Lord but mindful of the fact that he had inconvenienced Him, he gave up the job. He built a shrine, planted a Ficus sapling (Ficus virens) in front of it, and announced to all and sundry that from that day on, he will perform only the Lord’s duty. He had enough of l’affaires du monde.

Almost 150 years on my father has inherited the piece of land on which the tree stands. I discovered its charms early in life and, when I learned that my favorite pickle was made from its spring leaf-buds, our bond deepened considerably. Summer yielded an enchanting and often forbidden lesson of natural history. Lifting up the platform bricks revealed small snakes curled up below, making me wonder if they had grew up in that position. Young Hanuman langurs (Semnopithecus entellus) socialized under the watchful eyes of the matriarch. The monsoon invigorated grass, which on closer inspection revealed clutches of peacock eggs which I dutifully counted. I apprehensively spied a cobra make its way along the sinewy branches possibly preying on treepie nests. I watched squirrels chase each other in hormone-fuelled sprints, while my dog could only gaze longingly and salivate. Inconvenienced by the water I poured, mad-with-rage scorpions emerged from their narrow slit burrows straight to my waiting collection jar. Their rage, I imagined briefly, turned into puzzlement and then helplessness. The scorpions I was forced to part with — my grandma would have none of my entreaties to their being a part of my collection for the purpose of scientific research into scorpion sting antidote. I am sure her hand in their release was not due to any sympathy she may have felt at their cruel confinement.

Peacocks lay their eggs in the wild growth beneath the tree after the first monsoon showers

The platform around the tree cracked and fissured with every monsoon and life permeated through it till it became a semi-organic being, one with the tree itself, its living extension.

The tree’s local name is Pakadiya or Pakad. It is also known as Pilkhan in the north

The monitor lizards (Varanus bengalensis) were the ones that really troubled me. One year, while I was away at school between vacations, a couple of monitor lizards supposedly set up residence on the tree. This was fine, I had no issues sharing the tree. But a local friend who informed me about this latest addition to the tree’s denizens slipped in a cautionary note on their natural history. If I ever got bitten by one, my survival depended on peeing immediately and drinking it up before the lizard did it. Too terrified to even think of why the creature would indulge in such a horrifying practice, I spent many a sleepless summer night replaying the scenarios with only a mocking Great Bear for company. Even if I did manage a pee on demand, and that too after sustaining an excruciating bite from the reptile, I wasn’t exactly sure if I’d be able to slurp it up before the lizard did so. I made grudging peace with my unseen tormentor: I gave up climbing the tree. My world was diminished. It remains that way. Now, as I confess this, I have this nagging doubt that I was perhaps set up. 

Grandmothers are deceptively clever.
The tormentor I never saw — this one was photographed at Parambikulam

A feather, a question

As my patchwork memory metamorphoses into nostalgia, the next generation has befriended the tree. Shashwat and I visit it every day during our vacations and there is always something –  a feather, a scorpion scurrying for cover, a bird-call hitherto unheard.

The “wooden monkey” is a gift from two years ago and the Kukri snake (Oligodon arnensis), having been mistaken for a juvenile Russell’s Viper, was killed last year – I was too late to save it.

A dying Kukri snake, a victim of mistaken identity

The best lessons will be the ones he will learn on his own. I suspect he is already on the job. As for the question regarding the object of Indians’ passion for festivals through history, he will answer it for himself. Like every other race, we have a view regarding what drives the universe, but we have survived and that proves a lot.

The “Wooden Monkey”
Weaver ants have established a huge colony on the tree
The tree is nearly 150 years old and for me it’s been there for ever

By the way, Lord Hanuman, who never had the benefit of a proper prana-pratishtha, remains un-worshipped. He has managed keep the attention off Himself. I admire Him for that.

Text and photographs by Sahastrarashmi
Read more posts in our Le Question series

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