(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.