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    Posted on 28 December 2011
    ORIGINAL FICTIONS 4: ROMANCE  

    Rogue

    By SNEHA RAJARAM

    Illustration: Rishabh Arora

    ONCE fell in love with a tree. I was walking down the road to work, and some casuarina trees peered out at me from behind the Spiritosophical Society’s concrete wall. I wondered idly if rows of casuarinas were used as windbreaks. And then one of them, the one that leaned dangerously towards the wall, said to me, I WILL EAT YOU.

    It spoke quite clearly, and yet I didn’t hear it through my ears. I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at it. I remembered last night, when I’d been feeling mildly suicidal, and wondering morbidly what would become of me if I died. And here this tree was, telling me it would welcome my dead body by... what? Sucking my rotting corpse’s minerals up through its roots? I’d always been blessed with a wild imagination.

    A successful suicide is received with horror; a failed one with anger, relief and, maybe, contempt. But suicidal feelings are in serious need of good pR. They’re either too pathetic, too immature, too selfish, too self-aggrandising or too pathological to bear patient consideration.

    This is why I initially kept those casuarinas to myself. As they always did, the suicidal thoughts washed over me like an ocean breaker and ebbed away, and then there seemed even less reason to tell people. And the tree didn’t tell anybody either.

    Soon I began noticing things about the tree that had spoken to me. One of the tree’s branches bending towards me, over the Society’s wall, leaning ever so gently in my direction when I walked past. The dry, burnt pallor of its needle-leaves that April. And the branch bending away from the tree, pulling it downwards to a dangerous angle.

    When I passed it, I’d stand there pretending to look at the Society’s billboard. I’d talk to it. Not out loud. I’d think things at it, like, “Hi. It’s Iravathy. How are things? I really really don’t want to go to office today.”

    And then I’d feel guilty. I’d think, why the hell should it care about my sorry working life? I’m being really anthropo- ... let’s look that up. Anthropocentric.

    So I’d say, “Sorry. Can we start again?”

    A breeze would rush through it, making the exact sound of the sea.

    “I...” Don’t start with “I”, idiot. Talk about IT.

    Illustration: Rishabh Arora

    “How are you today?”

    Nothing.

    “You must be quite thirsty, what with summer and all. I wonder if you were even meant for this kind of climate. I mean, what with the needles and all, you look like a conifer of some kind.” Don’t rub the forced diaspora in, silly!

    Deep breath. “So... How is it, being planted in a row? Are you guys all evenly spaced? I mean, I can see your branches aren’t competing, but are the roots tangling with each other?” You pretentious idiot! What the hell do you even know about these things?”

    “You know, that day... when you said you’d eat me. I just want to say that it was a huge relief. I felt safe, dying. Afterlife and all that. It’s... Thank you. It was the exact right thing to say at the time.”

    “Oh. Right. You probably knew that.”

    By this time I was crying a little and embarrassing myself hugely with this intimidatingly self-possessed entity. And what if it really wanted to be left alone? Or not have its every desire extrapolated from just about nothing? Every interaction with it could be nonconsensual for all I knew. Except the first one.

    Thinking of that first one, I looked up at it. It undulated benignly in the breeze like a leviathan of the air, looking as thirsty as ever. Stop it, I told myself. Thirst comes from a throat. It doesn’t have one. Don’t be a nuisance. And my legs carried me far away from that place.

    ***

    That night I had another demonstration of what happens if you run around tacking qualities onto living things that are nothing of the sort.

    I lay in bed in the dusk after work, too lazy to turn on the light. And that’s when I saw it in my mind’s eye, flanked by the others of its species. And I gasped as I realised my solecism.

    If women are resentful of the men who make their lives miserable, if poor people are resentful of the rich who make their lives miserable, how much more must that be true of a tree! And I’d been forcing it into conversation, patronising it.

    Terror seized me, so abrupt I nearly rolled off the bed (what an action scene that would make!) The trees were no longer well-meaning benefactors but vengeful slaves, luring the occasional unsuspecting oppressor into their chained lairs. This tree hadn’t even minced its words. “I will eat you”? That’s as explicit as predator- speak can get! Only I would interpret it as a friendly overture.

    Oh dear god! They probably had secret superpowers. How else would they be able to voice-project inside my head?

    I picked up my mobile.

    ***

    “A tree.” My friend Manini’s tone was discouragingly discouraging.

    “Er... yes?”

    “Iru, I know you like to have imaginary friends and all. You used to do it when we were kids. But frankly I’m disappointed that you’re still doing it at 25.”

    “It spoke to me, I swear! And it doesn’t feel like an imaginary friend.”

    “Achha? And what does that feel like?”

    “I can’t explain ya! But seriously Maans, it’s stalking me! It’s evil. You have to help me.”

    “By?”

    “I don’t know... by telling me how you can help me?”

    Illustration: Rishabh Arora

    There was a long silence during which even the baby held its breath.

    “Remember Sushila, the male bear? You found her... him... one afternoon in the girl’s toilet. And then it was Sushila this, Sushila that for god knows how many months. And only you could see him, he wouldn’t appear to us because ‘he was shy’.”

    “What’s that got to do with this?”

    “Remember the day Sushila turned rogue? He chased you around the park and pushed you onto the seesaw? And you hurt your forehead.”

    I said nothing. Manini’s baby gloated and gurgled in the background.

    “The point is, you’ve always had imaginary friends who’ve turned hostile at some point in the relationship. There was that girl, poornima, who made you see her off at the station and then forced you to board the train. And that old man, what was his name? The one who told you your parents turned into ducks at night and swam around in the city sewers?”

    “Ranga thatha,” I said icily. I could see where this conversation was going. “I wish I hadn’t told you.”

    She sighed audibly. “Okay fine, I’ll drive you to your office, okay? But you have to babysit paapu for me. And you have to do the dirty work of babysitting, too.”

    “Oh god, thank you! I swear you’ll never see another piece of paapu’s potty ever again.”

    “Right. I’ll come in the morning at 8.45. Bye.”

    ***

    I was woken up at midnight by one of those 1000- bomb firecrackers. It went on and on, slicing all the time I could fit it my head into a thousand pieces. And it seemed to never end. I was caught in that loop of 1 to 1,000, counting, counting, and I thought, very originally — is this all my life is ever going to be?

    The thought that got me out of that particular rut was: it’s Diwali!

    And indeed it was Diwali eve. It had just started, with a bang AND a whimper.

    When I realised what that implied, I shot out of bed like a bow from an arrow.

    Okay, I wish I had. Instead there was an interval with much groaning and moaning and sluggish attempts at firing my neurons in the direction I wanted them to go. Or rather, in the direction I tried to want them to go.

    Finally, when I’d managed to press the eject button on my bed, I put on my floaters and ran out of the house in my maxi, just remembering to take the house key with me.

    And from then on it was Run Iru Run. I walked fast, jogged, then ran. I tore through those streets, I streaked past houses and beggars and the odd Diwali freak, I vaulted over the low wall of the Spiritosophical Society, realising belatedly that I’d just put my full weight on the broken glass cemented to the top of the wall.

    ‘You’ve always had imaginary friends who’ve turned hostile at some point in the relationship’

    And that was how I ended up sitting below that casuarina tree, hands bleeding and spread out uselessly in a gesture whose meaning I didn’t know. I gulped and looked at the tree.

    “I’m sorry you have to go through Diwali” seemed a bit tactless.

    “You must be really upset with all these rockets coming your way, you being flammable and immobile and all” didn’t seem much better.

    So I found a small ‘V’ between two of the roots, carefully palpated it for anthills, parthenium, spiderlairs etc., and folded my bony ass into it. And then I found a little hollow in which I could rest my head, and I leaned my strong back on that strong tree and sat there all night long.

    I reckoned I was doing the equivalent of handholding. Whenever a rocket flew overhead — and many did — I’d tense along with the tree.

    At least, I imagined it was tensing. Maybe it really didn’t care if it caught fire. No, that couldn’t be right. If there was anything I knew for sure about this tree it had to be fear of catching fire. Or dislike of catching fire. Or at the very least a generic, mild, almost-antipathy to it.

    There I went again, extrapolating.

    ***

    At what seemed like 7.00, I woke in the very same niche I’d sat in, my legs tangled with the roots exposed by that first revelation of evil in primary school, erosion. Huh? That couldn’t be right. I’d hardly seen any roots yesterday, but today they were well above ground. I blinked to clear my head. It had been pitch dark last night. What the hell was I thinking? At this rate I’d prove Manini right, with my new-found soil erosion paranoia.

    Manini!

    I untangled my legs from the roots, which seemed to have some sort of sticky sap on them that glued my skin to them. I unglued myself and made to heave my head and shoulders off the tree trunk. A wrenching sound gave me untimely warning of much hair being pulled out by the roots.

    After a rather grisly extrication, I turned around to see the rough bark, which had peeled off slightly nonchalantly, holding strands of my hair between its many many crevices.

    I shook my head briskly and stood up, my modern floaters absorbing weight in a satisfyingly civilised way. But my body ached from its awkward position, and my skin was covered with mosquito bites, even under the maxi.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d say I’d been given a date rape drug and couldn’t remember anything the morning after.

    Except that I felt wonderful.

    I smoothed my hair and, clutching my house keys, tried very hard to look like a maxi-clad housewife going vegetable shopping with money held in her iron fist.

    And I tried hard not to skip.

    I untangled my legs from the roots, which had some sticky sap on them that glued my skin to them

    ***

    I was bathed and breakfasted when Manini came to pick me up.

    “What happened to your face?”

    “Oh... my All-Out ran out yesterday.”

    “Wow. Remind me to buy a refill for the baby’s room.”

    “Okay. Come, let’s go. I’m ready.”

    In the car Manini said, “So? We’re taking the long route?”

    “Yeah. Left here. And just be ready for a left turn soon.”

    “This is just a short-term solution, you know. You can’t be scared of that tree in broad daylight.”

    I winced when she said “that tree”. That’s what it was in broad daylight, “that tree”. Which is why I didn’t want to see it under the sun. “Just for a few days, okay, Maans? Left here.”

    She wound the steering wheel, looking inscrutably over it, not missing a beat. “How many days is ‘a few days’?”

    “Okay... how about till Saturday? I can go one hour late on Saturday, so you can come at 9.45.”

    “Okay ma. I was just wondering. Oh, okay, here’s the highway. I know the way from here.”

    ***

    Nothing much seemed to happen at the office all day, except for the “office slut”, who usually ignored me, giving me a knowing smile. After a moment’s thought, I raised my brows in what I hoped was comical confusion. Whereupon she went right back to ignoring me.

    ***

    I knew I was going back that night. But I sternly told myself I was coming back soon and sleeping in a bed like a civilised person.

    When I slipped over the glass-tipped wall, this time having brought a stiff pillow to catch the broken ends, I saw a rocket had landed right under my tree. It was slowly fizzling out in the soil, and not really touching the roots. The blanket of dry needle-leaves it had fallen on hadn’t caught fire, because the dying embers were facing upwards. But I just went ballistic. I yelled and ran up to it and stomped on it with a battle cry guaranteed to curdle any old burnt-out rocket’s blood. I did more harm than good, sending sparks flying, but apparently my star was shining right overhead, because I was allowed to retain the illusion that I was defending my loved one.

    I turned around when I was done. My loved one was a positive tower of stony silent gratitude.

    I sank into my niche and leaned my head on the same spot of peeling bark, feeling its immediate grip on my hair.

    ***

    That night I dreamt I was sitting under the stars in my little niche at the bottom of the tree. Fingers gripped my hair from behind and pulled, until my head sank back right into the liquid tree trunk. The sudden rush of sap was the last thing I heard before I was rabbitholed, head first, into the ground.

    I struck match upon match in a pyromaniac frenzy

    After that somebody pressed the mute button, and I silently slithered down the large main root lower and lower into the damp soil, so moist, in fact, that it was dark, almost black. It was churning, eddying away like the water being drained away in a washing machine.

    And in that whirlpool I finally spotted the perfectly camouflaged black frog, its skin slimy. I reached out over — below — my head to pick it up, and whoosh! I was sucked into the vortex.

    As soon as I was sucked, it seemed, I was being belched out, frog in hand, into an upside-down landscape.

    I righted myself (re-oriented, really) and found I was floating, floating off the ground. Manini floated past very suddenly, dressed in her hospital maternity gown. I clasped her around the waist and we floated along together for a while.

    Then we were losing altitude and landing on grassy ground. I was beginning to be spooked by Manini just lying there, staring glassy-eyed into space, when she gently started to float away again. She held out her hand, and I reached up and handed her the frog.

    I woke up in bed, sweating profusely. I looked up at the unmoving ceiling fan. No current!

    Opening the window, I caught a glimpse of shadows waving gently on the frosted glass. It was daybreak, as they say, a sort of precursor to dawn. My eyes focussed in readiness for the undisturbed view of the house’s tiny backyard, with its little potted plants and oldfashioned washing stone.

    And that’s when I had my stand-up-smack-down- Jack-’n’-the-beanstalk moment.

    My tree stood right at the window!

    In fact, as I stood there, my pacemaker making feeble attempts to get my heart going, some silky-smooth reptile-cold needle-leaves brushed my cheek.

    I knew it was my tree. Not just the fact that there were no trees in that little backyard. In that moment, those velvety-flexible non-mammalian, invertebrate, body-cavity-less, non-animal needles seemed like the only rightful form flesh could take. They were the first hand I’d ever known in my life, and I put up my own to feel them.

    It took a while to remember my own hand, and when I did, it was a clumsy, shapeless bag of goo, not unlike a jellyfish.

    I flexed my fingers, and that broke the spell. I brou - ght the window-pane crashing down on the branch, breaking it in two. After cowering in the opposite cor - ner of the room for a while, screaming the short sharp screams of hysteria, I dragged myself out of that room, remembering to grab the stiff pillow on the floor, and shot out of there faster than a cannon-ball.

    ***

    The missing tree at the Spiritosophical Society was somehow more disturbing, but I took it more calmly. You can’t really question a tree that’s standing right there, whereas a deep hole in the ground where a tree was six hours ago is a very different puzzle.

    I climbed back out of that compound and leaned against the wall in the eldritch light of the sodium lamp (and very appropriate it was, too). You could say my world had been uprooted, alright. The words had been plucked right out of my brain. Maybe some sinister agency had planted the seed of this hallucination into my brain. Oh, oh, I’d just been rooted to the spot. Wait! You could’ve knocked me down with a feather...-y light palm of needles...

    I slumped down to the footpath. I’d walk to Manini’s house. It wasn’t too far away. But not just yet. Maybe I’d doze off for a bit.

    ***

    “Gross, what is that?” Manini broke the awkward silence.

    “I sort of ended up bringing it here.”

    “You can keep your amphibians to yourself.”

    “I had this nightmare,” I shuddered.

    She lifted a canny eyebrow. “Tree gone rogue on you now?” She picked up my hand. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

    ***

    “Gross, what is that?” Manini peered bleary-eyed through the front-door chain.

    “I sort of ended up bringing it here. Er... let’s say it was a pillow in a car accident. With much breaking of windshields.”

    Manini pursed her lips at me. “Let me guess. And you want me to be its mummy?”

    “Not really.” I put the pillow down. “Can I borrow a punjabi suit from you? I can’t go to the office like this.”

    “And... why can’t you go to your house again?”

    “I’m scared...?”

    More lip-pursing. “You can use the outside bathroom.”

    ***

    I was mentally prepped when I came home. So it was kind of an anti-climax to see no tree at all. I paused when I saw the unbroken skyline. Was this good or bad?

    When I saw the broken-off end of a casuarina branch below my bedroom window, I decided it was bad.

    So as soon as it was reasonably dark I slipped into a maxi. I stopped at the front door to grab something the neighbour had left on our common wall.

    This time I had to climb the wall without the pillow. The tree was there. It stood right there as if it had never been gone, and I would’ve believed it if I hadn’t seen the tell-tale signs: my niche facing a different direction, the disturbed soil all around the roots.

    I sat with that tree all night, and I won’t lie to you: I kissed it and rubbed it and exchanged materials with it, some solid, some liquid. I stayed with it throughout that night of 100- and 1000- bombs, bhoomi chakras and flower pots, fireworks and rockets.

    When I could feel daylight breaking, I swung to my feet and groped in my maxi for the matchbox I’d swiped from my smoker neighbour.

    God, I loved that tree. I loved it to death. If it breathed, I’d want to bear-hug it, rend it limb from unknowable limb. There was only one thing I definitely knew about it, the only way I could know for sure I was affecting it. This was the connection I could forge.

    The first match I held to my own hair on the bark, watching it sluggishly come to life, and then I lost patience. I struck match upon match in a sort of pyromaniac frenzy, until it all roared and blazed at me, the utter helplessness of burning wood reflected in my greasy spectacles.

    ***

    The newspaper and milk were waiting on my doorstep when I got home.

    I was sure the newspaper would carry a Diwali-induced fire story tomorrow. But I... I just had a long hot bath and made tea for Manini, who turned up exactly at 8.45.

    As we turned onto the highway, she said, “So tomorrow, 9.45 instead, right?”

    “Oh it’s okay, don’t come tomorrow,” I said.

    “What, so you’re okay now?”

    “I’m okay,” I said, absently putting a hand up to rub my untouched jelly cheek.

    SNEHA RAJARAM

    SNEHA RAJARAM lives in Pune. Her writing has appeared in TimeOut Bengaluru and Penguin’s First Proof 7. She likes to read and write fantasy. Her latest ambition is to be a warg.

    Original Fictions 1

    Original Fictions 2

    Original Fictions 3


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    Posted on 28 December 2011
 

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