Things in India have a queer way of functioning. Primarily, there is an unparalleled disdain towards time, and appointments are more or less matters of formality. Such is the way this country and its countrymen have operated for aeons. It is our tradition to take time for granted even when we have been taught that time is of the essence.


So there I was, at 10.50 am, for a meeting with the psychiatrist fixed for 11.00. Now, why was I there, you’ll be curious. Well, we all could do with some external help to iron out the wrinkles created by the rough and tumble of our lives. Nothing unoffficial about it. So let us stop overreacting/judging/raising a brow and start treating mental health like any other common issue. We are all equally seeking sanity and sleep, so let’s not build back stories and bad guesses. Let’s just focus on running our lives on track.


Now back to my narrative.


It took a while for me to sum up that half of those who were seated in the waiting room were escorts. Sons, parents, spouses all accompanying turbulent minds of their loved ones. I was amazed at how deceptive appearances could be. Here was a group of people weathering storms of unspecified nature, and there was not a hint of it on their faces and even if there was, it was so adeptly disguised. We were born with cover-up techniques. That the mask became essential with the pandemic is only a coincidence that added credence to our camouflage.


The appointments were already running way behind schedule. Some people needed more than the allotted 15 minutes to offload their woes. A random entry by a severely affected person threw the appointments further off kilter. The delay slowly began to fray nerves in the waiting room. An old lady next to me began to demur in an obvious display of her disquiet. Her son, probably in his late 20s tried to calm her, alternating between soothing words and slight reprimands. She was hungry, she was edgy, she kept asking when her turn would come. I turned to look at them and gave the son a smile of empathy and understanding.


It was enough to trigger a conversation.


I was surprised at the ease with which he elaborated his aged mother’s condition to me. I gulped emptily and somewhat succeeded in showing equanimity when he mentioned she had recently attempted to kill herself. I struggled to link the lady with the extreme act. As if to placate myself, I at once put a hand on her lap and said that the doctor would call her in shortly. She nodded as if assuaged by my words.


I gathered that they were last in queue, after me. The rate at which things were going it would take at least an hour, I surmised, and that wouldn’t be endured easily by the old lady. She had become very fidgety.


Two hand half hours had elapsed since I arrived, and the heat wasn’t making our waiting any easier.


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Several years ago, there were two mango trees, a jack fruit tree and five coconut trees in the little yard around our house in Kerala.


I say that in the past tense because the jack fruit tree barely lived till its prime before it was felled. The mango trees lived longer, feeding us and other creatures for a few years before they too were axed down. I vaguely remember a dead stump sticking out where one of the mango trees stood, but now even they are gone. As if realizing how redundant they had become, they probably decided to withdraw deep into the annals of the earth. Their spirits must be still alive, looking for an opportunity to sprout somewhere. Or are basil, jasmine and hibiscus that now abundantly grace the periphery of the eight cents of land their repeated incarnations?


It is strange how we never realize the scope of a seed when we plant it in the earth: how big a sapling will grow, how far its roots will travel and in what ways it can impact us in time. That we were nourishing danger with every inch the eight enormous trees grew, that their roots were extending a vice grip around the modest structure of our house was not known until the cracks in the walls and the floor were revealed in time. But then, trees are bohemian souls. They know no frontiers - neither above them nor below. You can't stop them from finding their way, you can’t restrain them. All you can do when they become footloose is hack them to pieces.


So, when they began to threaten our safety, we took the extreme decision to eliminate the jack fruit and mango trees first. Two of the coconut trees too became things of the past in due course because coconut trees were ruthless in their rooting, they said. They are slender but strong. They can carpet bomb the base of our building and reduce it to ruins.


The taming of the trees over, the house that once feared it might crumble unceremoniously one day began to look sturdier, but the backyard was ripped of its sprawling parasols. Summers dared to beat down on us more severely. That spot where I used to sit and scribble my early writings more than three decades ago looked bare and full of piercing glare. I condoned my remorse with the thought that anything that brought more distress than joy wasn’t worth keeping in life.


It is preposterous that in the years that followed, two new hybrid coconut saplings gained acceptance in our compound. Then why on earth we axed the other two, I still can't fathom. Part of man's nature to behave arbitrarily, I presume. We will never get rid of our habit to act in haste and regret at leisure. Nevertheless, I was happy that the old souls had found their way back in our soil.


What was supposed to grow fast and fructify took a vexingly long time to mature, thanks to the electricity board which found one of the trees clashing with the power lines. Man-nature conflict in its barest form was in full display. Month after month, the fronds that sprung out of the tree’s heart were chopped mercilessly and unable to witness the repeated torture it was subjected to, we took a hard decision to relieve it of its pain. They call it euthanasia when it is done to humans. How does one describe it when it is done to trees? For that matter how does one explain the chopping down we had indulged in earlier because they posed a genuine threat? Capital punishment? Murder? Or an act of self-defence? I have always struggled to answer questions of moral nature like this one.


It was during one of my vacations that the ‘problematic tree’ was brought down. I refused to watch the violence with my eyes but with every blow that echoed in my ears, I made a resolve. I shall not allow another tree in my compound to be axed. I may not be able to grow a forest, but I shall not aid the elimination of another canopy on this earth.


The other four coconut trees are still around, causing occasional inconveniences. Every time there is a discussion on their nuisance value, I veto any suggestion to bring them down. They are now permanent fixtures in our landscape. Last week, before I left for Dubai, as I slurped up tender coconut water to drench a parched throat, I squinted up and said, ‘thank you,’ to which the trees swayed in gleeful acknowledgment, happy to be alive and serving us with manna and more.

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(LIFE column in Khaleej Times dated 29 March, 2022)


Several years ago, there were two mango trees, a jack fruit tree and five coconut trees in the little yard around our house in Kerala.


I say that in the past tense because the jack fruit tree barely lived till its prime before it was felled. The mango trees lived longer, feeding us and other creatures for a few years before they too were axed down. I vaguely remember a dead stump sticking out where one of the mango trees stood, but now even they are gone. As if realizing how redundant they had become, they probably decided to withdraw deep into the annals of the earth. Their spirits must be still alive, looking for an opportunity to sprout somewhere. Or are basil, jasmine and hibiscus that now abundantly grace the periphery of the eight cents of land their repeated incarnations?


It is strange how we never realize the scope of a seed when we plant it in the earth: how big a sapling will grow, how far its roots will travel and in what ways it can impact us in time. That we were nourishing danger with every inch the eight enormous trees grew, that their roots were extending a vice grip around the modest structure of our house was not known until the cracks in the walls and the floor were revealed in time. But then, trees are bohemian souls. They know no frontiers - neither above them nor below. You can't stop them from finding their way, you can’t restrain them. All you can do when they become footloose is hack them to pieces.


So, when they began to threaten our safety, we took the extreme decision to eliminate the jack fruit and mango trees first. Two of the coconut trees too became things of the past in due course because coconut trees were ruthless in their rooting, they said. They are slender but strong. They can carpet bomb the base of our building and reduce it to ruins.


The taming of the trees over, the house that once feared it might crumble unceremoniously one day began to look sturdier, but the backyard was ripped of its sprawling parasols. Summers dared to beat down on us more severely. That spot where I used to sit and scribble my early writings more than three decades ago looked bare and full of piercing glare. I condoned my remorse with the thought that anything that brought more distress than joy wasn’t worth keeping in life.


It is preposterous that in the years that followed, two new hybrid coconut saplings gained acceptance in our compound. Then why on earth we axed the other two, I still can't fathom. Part of man's nature to behave arbitrarily, I presume. We will never get rid of our habit to act in haste and regret at leisure. Nevertheless, I was happy that the old souls had found their way back in our soil.


What was supposed to grow fast and fructify took a vexingly long time to mature, thanks to the electricity board which found one of the trees clashing with the power lines. Man-nature conflict in its barest form was in full display. Month after month, the fronds that sprung out of the tree’s heart were chopped mercilessly and unable to witness the repeated torture it was subjected to, we took a hard decision to relieve it of its pain. They call it euthanasia when it is done to humans. How does one describe it when it is done to trees? For that matter how does one explain the chopping down we had indulged in earlier because they posed a genuine threat? Capital punishment? Murder? Or an act of self-defence? I have always struggled to answer questions of moral nature like this one.


It was during one of my vacations that the ‘problematic tree’ was brought down. I refused to watch the violence with my eyes but with every blow that echoed in my ears, I made a resolve. I shall not allow another tree in my compound to be axed. I may not be able to grow a forest, but I shall not aid the elimination of another canopy on this earth.


The other four coconut trees are still around, causing occasional inconveniences. Every time there is a discussion on their nuisance value, I veto any suggestion to bring them down. They are now permanent fixtures in our landscape. Last week, before I left for Dubai, as I slurped up tender coconut water to drench a parched throat, I squinted up and said, ‘thank you,’ to which the trees swayed in gleeful acknowledgment, happy to be alive and serving us with manna and more.



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