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The Seventy-Year-Old Tree— Dr. Urmila Shirish

Oct 14, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

TRANSLATED FROM THE HINDI BY RITUPARNA MUKHERJEE

Urmila Shirish hindi fiction

Image Used For Representation

 

There was an empty field for as far as eyes could see. The field had coarse, sandy soil. A few pebbles were strewn here and there. People said that there used to be a settlement of around thirty-forty families here once. People of all caste, religion, and ethnicity used to dwell there, of all classes- the rich, the middle class and the poor. Prosperous people. The entire city had transformed into a crowd. There were men, women, children and the aged, wherever one looked. Highrises. Shanties in the street corners, dirty water flowing in the streets, drying ponds, shrinking rivers… shrivelled, falling trees… and the gradually deforested land. This tree was the only respite, underneath which people used to take shelter and rest. People like the shepherds out to graze their animals or travellers going long distances would seek the tree for some rest. The branches of this large tree spread far and wide, so sturdy and full that even if one tied ten swings to them, they would neither break nor budge. The shepherds and travellers named this tree ‘Old father’, named in keeping with the age of the tree. The tree wasn’t any less than a wise, old man. As time passed, ‘Old father’ along with being a tree, came to be considered as an old man. ‘Old Father’ had witnessed quite a length of time in its seventy-year lifetime. The developing cities, the changing villages, the construction of factories in the verdant crop fields, the chaotic lives of the people living inside the concrete apartments. Humans were not only building themselves homes but also snatching others’ lands. It had seen the young and old trees surrounding it being cut, stolen or burnt. ‘Old father’ merely stood rooted, helpless like a flightless bird. It wept whenever people cut trees and took away the corpses, growing steadily afflicted by the barbarity of the human race. The only consolation for this old tree was the menagerie of birds, sitting on its head and branches, otherwise it was quite lonesome and upsetting to see the field, once densely populated with plants, shorn into nothingness. Perhaps the thieves hadn’t cut him yet because they thought they would be caught if they were to harm such an old tree. ‘Old father’ recalled the clusters of dense Palash trees, Mahua trees, berries and pistachios. Alas! how ruthlessly had its community been diminished. 

“This is the only one left…”, Lalit said, observing ‘Old Father’ carefully.

“We will have to save it. If its not there, we won’t be able to come here wither. Where do we go? What do we do?”  

“How do we save it…? Have we written a pledge in its name?”

“There is a madam at a distance of three kilometres from here. She has built a hall. She stays there.”

“Alone? In this wilderness? Isn’t she scared?”

“She is apparently an artisan… no, she works with clay… makes utensils, toys and vases as well as flower pots. What if we talk to her?”

Kamal agreed with Lalit’s idea. “I have heard that wild animals roam the streets at night in search of water.”

“But we can’t sit in our homes fearing them!”

Finishing his night duty, Lalit went to meet the potter madam. He was a guard at the forest guesthouse and was well-versed with every corner of this place. 

“Do you stay here now Madam?”, Lalit asked, introducing himself.

“I come here to work. This is my land.”

“Why made you take this land? Nothing grows here aside from a few wild trees, and even they are not here anymore. I’m sure you have noticed it. The forest has receded a lot and the animals are out.”

“I can see that. People have cut thousands of trees illegally. You must know more about it than I.”

“Where do you get your drinking water?” Lalit asked, changing the conversation.

“From a tube well. I have had to get one dug.”

“How is the water here? Tube wells have been known to fail in this part of the land. Water doesn’t come out easily. That is why people don’t stay here for long.”

“But the water from the tube well is clean and of good quality.”

“You are fortunate then Madam that you have access to clean water.”

“You can take water from here of you need it.”

“That is why I was wondering why cows come and graze here…”

“Why? Didn’t they come here before?”

“No. Perhaps they come in hope of water.”

“Would you like to work here?” Madam asked, changing the topic.   

“Yes, surely. What kind of work Madam? I am free in the daytime so I will be able to work.”

“Its just cleaning the place, collecting the dried leaves, cutting the grass.”

“Are you starting something new here Madam?”, Lalit asked eagerly.

“Yes, I want to plant a thousand trees in this entire area…”

“One thousand… A thousand! A thousand?” Lalit repeated thrice.

“Yes. What’s surprising about this? You work in the forest department so you must be connected to plants.”

“Madam, planting trees in this soil… I will have to toil a lot in order to dig deep trenches… there are rocks everywhere. And we will have to plant them during the rains otherwise the animals will chomp them off.”

“No problem. We will do everything. When I have resolved, I will definitely do it.”

“Which trees do you want to plant Madam?”

“Rose wood, custard apples, neem, mangoes and many others, beautifully arranged in rows.”

“I think you don’t know much about this place… thieves will loot the plants overnight. They will make a run for it.” Both of them kept explaining things to one another.

“Madam, do you know, animals come here at night.”

“I know. I am constructing a pond for the animals.”

“Is she a woman or a sorceress? Isn’t she scared of anything?” Kamal whispered in Lalit’s ears.

“Do you see that old tree over there…?”, Madam said, pointing at the tree.

“Yes Madam. ‘Old Father!’ we call it the ‘old father’ here…” Both of them spoke to Madam openly now. 

“The tree is like our old father! I have come here on its bequest.”

“I think she is a witch of some sort” Lalit whispered… “She must be mad. How does one establish a relation to a tree?”

“I have purchased this field or this piece of land, whatever you call it, because of it.”

“Why Madam, what’s so special about it?”

“It’s because my ancestors had planted that tree and look how lonely it is at present. The thieves have cut and killed its family…”, said Madam thoughtfully, her voice awash with pity.

“Madam, do you believe in ghosts and spirits?”

“Yes… do spirits come here? Tell me if they come… I would like to meet them”, said Madam, laughing.

Lalit started getting subdued. If ‘Old father’ was really Madam’s ancestor, then she must be a witch…

“No, no… divine spirits”, said Kamal softly.

“Madam, are you alone or….”

“There are others.”

“Then its fine because its dangerous to stay alone here.”
“Listen, bring all the people who are free around here. I need a lot of people who can work here. I have heard that people in the neighbouring villages get drunk on local booze and lie around, unemployed. Convince them to come and work in the Old father’s garden here. Will you two have water or tea?”

“Water, please.”

Kamal and Lalit looked around with frightened eyes… they did hear that someone had purchased this land. They also knew that there was a bungalow inside the forest where people came and stayed and went for rides in the forest. But making a home in this forest, constructing a hall in this wilderness was nothing short of madness! Madam would understand that as soon as she settled down here. People had come and left this place before as well… madam would leave as well. Old father… Kamal and Lalit took their lunch boxes going to it, along with their towels, handkerchiefs and sticks and in a gesture of veneration, they said— “Really, Old father… you really turned out to be our ancestor… may you always stand here like this so that your green family gets to have your company… and we get our living. Protect Madam Old father.” But Kamal was still sceptical whether Madam’s words were real or just a fantasy! 


Also, read Road and other poems by Yatish Kumar, translated from the Hindi by Subha Sundar Ghosh, and published in The Antonym:

Road & Other Poems— Yatish Kumar


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Urmila Shirish

Urmila Shirish

Born in 1959, Dr. Urmila Shirish has authored nineteen short story anthologies and three novels in her literary career along with several edited anthologies. She has been published in reputed magazines and journals and her stories have been translated in Urdu, Bengali, Kannada, Sindhi, Marathi, Punjabi and English languages. She has been the recipient of several regional and national literary awards and her story “Patthar ki Lakeer” has been adapted for a tele-series in Doordarshan. Presently, she is a member of the General Council of Central sahitya Akademi, New Delhi and has retired from the administrative post in the higher education department of Madhya Pradesh to actively pursue her writing career. 

Rituparna Mukherjee

Rituparna Mukherjee

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, Kolkata. She did her MA in English literature and currently pursuing a Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in west African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. Her areas of interest include African and Indian literature and Post-colonial and Feminist theories as well as English Language Teaching, Second Language Acquisition, and Communication studies. She works as an ELT consultant, translator, and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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