Story: The Banyan Tree
By: Adreyo Sen
When I was a boy, my mother was the district magistrate of a tiny little corner of India.
Magisterially disapproving of my tendency to disappear in my books and diaries, she’d take me with her on her week-long visits to the village she was surveying, a place called Anjaan.
I was a sickly child, an epileptic, and severely asthmatic. My mother was often impatient with me.
Anjaan was the sort of village that must have looked the same for eternity. It had cement houses now, but it was still guarded fiercely by its weeping banyan trees. And every evening, fierce sandstorms tore up the little squares like dervishes, calming only when the gypsies arrived with their colourful shawls and wooden owls and ravens.
I loved to watch the gypsies hawk their goods in their raucous voices, their sarees a storm of yellows and reds. And I often stole into the houses to watch the girls play with their dolls. I was fascinated by their intricate games. Each of the dolls had a complex history, a glorious past as soldier or buccaneer.
But the girls never had much time for me. And my mother would discover me and push me towards the boys playing under the banyan trees, an old scarf tucked under my arm as a comfort blanket.
The boys would push me around and mock me as I failed miserably at their games. They were a terrifying, rowdy bunch.
Their leader was a dark, unsmiling little Sikh boy, perennially dressed in the same shapeless blue shirt and black pajamas, his hair tightly coiled into a bun above his head. But lustrous tendrils would occasionally peek out. He was always devising new storylines for them. Some days, they were policemen, others thieves, but always a bellicose brotherhood of ardent swains, recklessly devoted to each other.
He was scarcely ever violent to me, preferring to ignore me. But he would often deride my manhood in his curiously musical voice. “Hijra!” he would spit out. Hijras were the wandering eunuchs who would arrive, large and desperate, to extort money from the frequent marriage and birth parties.
But then, curiously tender, he would take me into his taut arms that stank of onions and cooking oil.
“Don’t worry,” he would tell me, “When I grow up, I’ll travel the seven seas. And I will bring you a corner of the moon and the Queen of Jhansi’s silver sword.”
I resented this arrogant Sinbad. I often longed for the courage to punch him.
But I realized there was a reason for his curious sense of self-entitlement. He was the only boy in a large family of broad and quarrelsome women given to hooch, a changeling apparently, who’d been taken in when their last girl died.
One day, when Sinbad was a villainous old thief lord presiding in his den over a gang of roustabouts, one of the boys took offence at his high handed ways and lunged at him.
Sinbad tried to defend himself, but his little turban came loose and lustrous hair came tumbling down till it formed a gentle halo over his face.
The boys looked at him in horror.
“Whore!” spat one of the boys, “Little whore. Pretending to be one of us, eh? Stick to your little clay dolls.”
And the boys smeared sand onto his face and ran away laughing.
I looked at the sobbing figure on the ground with triumphant disgust. But then my vanquished tormentor seized me with a strange tenderness.
I hugged her tentatively. “Don’t worry,” I said, “When I grow up, I’ll marry you.”
And I arranged my stained scarf around her neck in the fashion I’d seen the village girls gaily wear.
But Sinbad only scrabbled at the scarf with her curiously slender fingers as if it were a noose.