The big and stately Gulmohar in our driveway hasn’t shed a leaf this winter. I hadn’t paid attention to its rebellion until I browsed through my Instagram photos. Two identical photos of the Gulmohar (one taken two years ago, and the other, three winters ago) caught my gaze and revived memories of winters bygone. In the photos, the tree is shorn of leaves, yet home to several restive crows that have taken shelter on its bare branches, waiting for the fog to disappear. Fluttering their cold wings, more crows look for room to land. A yellow moon, entangled in the Gulmohar’s branches, sees no hope of freedom. The Gulmohar is in pristine splendour, even when not abloom.
This winter, I waited for it to adorn the same bare look. December made way for January. February is dying. After months of hibernation, snails have come out to feed off the soft bark of trees. Their shells bear the first signs of spring. Next to the Gulmohar are its two companions: a Neem and the trunk of a smaller Gulmohar whose branches were chopped last summer. The management of our housing society claimed to have valid reasons for sending the tree to its afterlife. ‘The tree is diseased,’ some experts had rued. ‘It will infect other healthy trees, including the big Gulmohar, if left uncut. Look at its ulcerated bark, its worm-ridden leaves.’ The management had received the necessary permission for its felling from the concerned department of the government. The Green Tribunal had acquiesced after meticulously reviewing the ‘hopeless case’. The nod for felling the Gulmohar had been secured and its fate sealed. ‘Everything is being done in keeping with the established norms for dealing with decaying or diseased trees’, a management committee member, presenting the paperwork before some of the protesting residents, had argued. However, sensing the anger of some tree-loving residents, the felling had been called off. Instead, after a hard-fought battle with the management, the friends-of-trees group of residents had settled for getting rid of the Gulmohar’s diseased branches, sparing its trunk and roots. Perhaps they were hopeful of its revival.
‘How did this happen?’, a little girl had asked her mother upon being told of the Gulmohar’s incurable affliction. The gardener of our housing society had betrayed no emotion while watching the woodcutters animatedly strategise how best to finish the task with least inconvenience to the residents. He had no explanation for the girl’s questions. ‘Is it necessary to use an axe?’ the girl had sobbed. ‘Can’t they softly tear off the sick branches without hurting the tree? What if it dies? Wouldn’t this be murder?’
The small Gulmohar had made a loud noise on receiving the first blow of the axe. The woodcutters had assured the residents of finishing the task to their utmost satisfaction in minutes. Little did they know the tree wasn’t going to give up easy. The woodcutters had dealt blow after blow at the branches. Every blow had taken a toll on their bodies. They had to toil harder and harder and take turns to regain their energy. Some passersby had gathered to watch the axing, as if they wanted to know if the Gulmohar would run away at the sight of the axe-wielding humans. Everyone, except the morose little girl who was swiftly whisked away by her mother, had abandoned their daily chores that Sunday afternoon and made a beeline for the driveway just to see the act. Some residents had even instructed their children not to touch the leaves lest they contract the deadly infection. Flaunting their knowledge of getting-laborious-things-done-easily, some residents had even nagged the woodcutters to follow a certain order while cutting the branches. Sensing an opportunity to brandish their usefulness and ingenuity, the security guards, with the help of a contractor, had arranged a wheelbarrow to swiftly dispose off the deadwood in a barren plot of land not far from the apartment complex.
Towards the end of the massive open-air amputation, a few bystanders had even oddly cheered, not as much for the Gulmohar’s salvation as for a job well done by the team and for not causing any major disruptions to the routine human and vehicular movements in our driveway.
The Gulmohar’s near-rebellious yet commendable cooperation with the woodcutters had gone unnoticed.
The big Gulmohar and other trees had watched silently. It was, perhaps, at that moment that the big Gulmohar might have vowed to register its protest at the right time in future. None of us heard or understood its utterance at what had been done to its younger companion of years. Both the big and the small Gulmohars predate the apartment complex and all of us who live here. And, certainly, the big one would outlast all of us, and possibly the next few generations.
The driveway continues to wear an odd, imperfect look, even after two years of losing one of its oldest inhabitants.
Lately, I spotted a few green spots on the residual trunk of the Gulmohar. On moonless nights, some children have mistaken the trunk for a ghost with one arm spread out to ensnare pedestrians. It has been a silent witness to many events: the night guards’ huddle around a fire, their animated conversation about family affairs; the frenzy of stray dogs upon seeing a pack member forcibly dragged and driven away by two heartless men in a horrid municipality van; the birth of four beautiful puppies one night; and two lovers in an unending embrace on a bike.
Meanwhile, a small shrub has quietly sprung out of a narrow crevice in the cemented ledge of our balcony. Right next to where the air-conditioner is fitted into the window.
I don’t know why the big Gulmohar hasn’t shed its leaves this winter. Is it rebelling against the slothful winter or settling an old score with someone else? Has it forgotten the look of winter or perhaps chosen to forget it? Has it not felt the icy hush of winter this year?
The other day I whispered to it. ‘I know,’ it whispered back to me, ‘I didn’t feel the passing of autumn and the arrival of winter. It still feels like fall. Don’t you think so?’
The Gulmohar isn’t wrong. The woollen overcoat I had taken out at the onset of winter, with plans of wearing it during cold spells, is still wrapped in a plastic sheet in the cupboard. An unpleasant sight! Old clothes should never be made to wear plastic sheets.
I said to winter: ‘Have you lost your sheen? What has happened to you? When will you show us your old touch?’
Having forgotten all about the fog, crows and mynahs still sit atop the branches of the big Gulmohar in the mornings. They are happy that winter has been merciful this year. It’s good for their chicks. Many other long-tailed and colourful birds whose names I don’t know come for a rendezvous, too. The Seven Sisters, in particular, find the Gulmohar an ideal place to babble. Two gorgeous parakeets that seem to have flown from a far off place peep through the branches. Two squirrels hop from branch to branch in a dazzling display of acrobatics. Along with numerous other birds, they, too, will never make themselves scarce as long as the Gulmohar is around. It’s because of the Gulmohar that they are cheerful. Soon, its flame will invade the driveway and my balcony.
The moon blushes upon rising over the horizon in the evenings. She has no fear of getting caught in the Gulmohar’s branches for they aren’t bare any more.
First published in The Curlew, London
Siddhartha Gigoo’s books are The Garden of Solitude, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories and A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits (co-edited). In 2015, he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his short story The Umbrella Man. His two short films, The Last Day and Goodbye, Mayfly, were selected for several international film festivals. His writings are published in several literary magazines. He lives in New Delhi.