I had the day off today, but the double-time pay tempted me to come. There was a graduation ceremony on the school campus. I don’t know why all the leaves have to be picked up before the ceremony.
If the school is deemed to be leaf-free, why not cut off the gigantic trees surrounding the school campus?
It was frigid for a graduation ceremony. The deep blue sky and the mild breeze was ruffling the rainbow of leaves on the ground. The birds chirped as I raked the dry leaves on the ground. The decorated open-air stage had been covered with dry leaves already. A large part of it was shaded by an enormous gnarled banyan tree. I did not rake the leaves from that section of the stage because the wind and dry leaves appeared to be in cahoots and would fill up the stage again.
That was an eerie spot, so leaving it to rake at the end was not unusual for me. The principal, Rajeshwar Baba, called me to stop by even on weekends, because he is not sure if I have a social life outside of work. Or as he says, “you always look beyond yourself and soul first, Harita.” I am not exactly a religious person, but I let him think that, because I didn’t want him to feel that I didn’t have a social life.
I shoveled the dry leaves in a large trash bag. I got startled by a ‘Hello’ and spun back, almost tripping over my rake. My initial worry was that the guests had arrived. Aparajit was standing just opposite the stage, clutching his burnt-orange notebook, a pen, and a burnt-orange color scarf around his neck. Although unusual for a male, Aparajit pulled it off very elegantly. I was freezing and had no gloves or scarf. My face felt numb.
“I scared you!” he said. “Sorry.”
“Haven’t seen you on a Sunday before,” Aparajit commented.
“I’m usually off on weekends.”
“And no one else could do it?” he surmised.
“Not the regular ones,” I agreed.
“Do you get paid extra?”
Forcing the chilled stiffness from my jaw, I managed to flash a grin. “I do.”
“And there’s an added bonus. You’re here.” I looked down and started inspecting my rake. I had never told him I liked him. I looked up to find him smiling shyly.
“If you are planning to sit over by the banyan tree, I haven’t raked that part yet. I save it for the last.”
Aparajit glanced at me. “I can help, if you like?”
“No way.” I immediately apologized, observing the hurt and twisted face of Aparajit. “I didn’t mean like that. I meant…you don’t work here.” Why couldn’t the chill have frozen my stupid tongue? “Sorry. I meant to say that you have come here to write in quiet and peace. Right?”
Aparajit flashed a tiny smile.
“I’ll clean up right away,” I said.
“No, I don’t mind the leaves. Come to me last. I mean, in that corner.” Aparajit pointed and hurried in that direction, before his face flushed crimson.
The rest of the raking seemed a lot less work. Once I had placed the bags of leaves behind the school, I went to the large banyan tree. The giant banyan tree was in fact the sole reason for the school’s presence. The large cemented part around the tree was chosen for students to mill around and have discussions on different matters.
Legend has it that a young man had operated a small school for under-privilaged village children for free, under that banyan tree. The Sarpanch, who had owned the land, wouldn’t let the young man have the space under the tree, and wanted to cut it down. But, the young man had climbed up the tree and wouldn’t let Sarpanch cut down the tree. The Sarpanch had finally declared that the tree would remain and he could continue teaching. The young man descended. Once he got to the ground, axes were raised to the trunk, but the young man had leapt forward to intercept the blow. He died. In atonement for his terrible death, the tree was spared and the school was erected.
Now, everyone who went near that banyan tree displayed a certain amount of weariness. Aparajit never seemed to mind the atmosphere around the tree.
Aparajit looked up as I arrived, and smiled. A notebook lay across his lap and a pencil rolled between his fingers. I yanked out a trash bag to fill up the dry leaves. I thumbed over my shoulder and got back to work. The wind had already piled up the dry leaves at one spot, making my work fairly easy.
Aparajit chuckled from under the tree.
“You,” I growled at him. “You could’ve helped, you know.”
“You should have taken my offer earlier.” He coughed, tapped his pencil on his notebook, and mumbled, “You are turning out to be a good character for my story.”
I snorted and turned around. At least he didn’t see the wild grin flashing all over my face again. For the next half hour, instead of raking I just crawled and kept picking the leaves and stuffing them in the bag. I tied the bag, wiping off the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. “Will you stay a little longer?” I asked.
“Great! I’ll just drop off this bag.”
As I walked away, I felt his gaze and wished for two things: One, I was wearing tidier clothes, and two, I had the guts to tell Aparajit how I felt about him. Mostly because of the impression I collected today that he might feel the same way about me.
When I came back, Aparajit was sitting cross-legged, his closed notebook lying beside him.
“You aren’t writing! Isn’t your character inspirational anymore?”
As I dropped to my knees, he shook his head slowly and smiled. I tilted my head to glance at his eyes, not sure what color they were.
“Blue,” Aparajit murmured. “And your’s are green.”
I nodded, because any vocal answer would have sounded like a croak.
“You look tired, Harita, now that you are sitting. I could have helped. Why don’t you rest on weekends?”
Aparajit cocked his head, but I wasn’t ready to give the explanation so I said, “Seeing you…well, I enjoy your company.”
Somehow I was able to hold his gaze. A smile spread all over his face that told me I wasn’t barking completely up the wrong tree. “What’s your story about?” I asked before he could say anything. “It’s not about some silly, nitwit leaf-raking-lady, right?”
Aparajit looked down at his notebook. “A leaf-raking-lady perhaps. But not a silly nitwit.” He didn’t lift his gaze, but ran his finger around the edge of his notebook.
Just then, the wind blew and leaves rustled overhead. One fire-red leaf fell on my shoulder. Aparajit stared. “Sorry,” I mumbled, fingering the leaf. “It feels eerie here.”
“Does it?” Aparajit asked. “How so?”
I spun the leaf by its stem and shrugged. “Not sure. It’s as if the wind and trees work in harmony.” It sounded weird when I said it aloud. “Sad sometimes, and lonely. This is the only banyan tree here and feels lonely, hungry for company.”
I felt Aparajit would leave any moment. My peripheral vision showed movement, and I turned back to beg Aparajit to stay.
He held out his scarf to me. “You’re shivering. Take this.”
“Then you’ll shiver.”
He tugged his coat’s collar up. “My coat is more decent than yours. Go on.”
I took the scarf, and wrapped it around my neck, trying to hide how pleased I was. “At least a reason to get to see you again,” I said. “Because I can’t keep the scarf.”
Aparajit shrugged, but seemed very pleased. “Can I have that?”
I picked up the banyan leaf, twirled it, and held it out, as if I was holding out my heart to him.
“Of course you can have it.”
“So we have something of each other’s now,” he murmured, bringing the leaf close to his nose.
I had obviously got the better part of the exchange, but Aparajit acted as if he had got it. I rose stiffly as Aparajit was about to leave, waving his hand with a big grin. I moved forward, touched his arm, trying to get a good glimpse of his blue eyes. Before I could chicken out, I kissed his cheeks.
“Thanks for the scarf,” I mumbled and hurried away. I didn’t dare look back, thinking I would see Aparajit wiping the kiss off his cheeks with a disgusted expression on his face.
Just then the school’s principal arrived. He waved and asked, “who were you talking to under the banyan?”
“Oh, Aparajit. He comes to write here everyday. He says the calmness helps him muse.”
“Aparajit?” the principal cocked his head.
“Have you ever talked to him, sir?” I asked, because I felt he was assessing me for my craziness. “In fact, I kind of like Aparajit.”
“Harita Saini, there is something I want you to know.” Although the principal’s tone was neutral, using my surname gave me the impression that I was doing something wrong and I needed to stop. I did not have the courage to tell him that Aparajit and I had taken a step towards something.
“Why? Did Aparajit do something?”
“No, you’ll see in a minute. Follow me.”
I followed him. The principal bent over a large stone lying next to the banyan. He looked up at my gaping face and said, “painted cleverly, right? Read this inscription.”
I dutifully moved around beside him.
Aparajit Anand gave his soul to this giant banyan tree so that it might live. We place this stone so that it protects both soul and banyan. 1832.
I stood gawking at the inscription. “No way! The Aparajit I am in love with is the same one?”
“He obviously didn’t tell you,” the principal said.
I stared at the principal. “You must be joking! Sir, there is…” I stammered as my brain became overloaded. “He likes to sit under the tree.” I read the inscription again. “It always felt spooky, the leaves, the tree and all…I told him it feels lonely here,” I shrugged a deep breath. Suddenly those thoughts made really freaky sense to me. “OMG, you are not telling me that he is the banyan? Sir, please…”
“He is not the banyan, Harita,” the principal said, rubbing his fingers over the inscription. “This is just another form of spiritual peace for people who felt guilty. But Aparajit definitely manifests.”
The principal’s tone made me look at him. “You couldn’t see him, could you?” He seemed in two minds, but finally shook his head. “Stories of seeing Aparajit are few and far between.”
His words made me feel a little better. I stroked the scarf and suddenly realized its significance. “You can see this, right?” my voice rasped.
“It looks lovely on you,” the principal nodded.
I didn’t fight to get the scarf out from my neck. “I kissed him.” I covered my mouth with both hands and whispered, “Sir?”
“I am in love with a ghost.”
“I believe you.”
“Will you…call for an exorcist?”
“Why should I Harita?” he asked. “Ghosts exist, souls exist. You both have some connection that allows Aparajit to manifest to you, touch you, talk to you, and see you. Some things are beyond knowledge, Harita. I had an inkling about this for some time,” the principal murmured. “But I wasn’t sure until I saw this scarf…orange was Aparajit’s favorite color. He always wore something in orange. He loved spring color and collected orange banyan leaves, so the story goes.”
I felt weak-kneed but oddly glad that my gift of leaf to Aparajit was not as pathetic as I had first thought.
I dropped down and whispered, “I have been talking to Aparajit most days I have worked here. Why didn’t you say anything ever?”
“Early on I didn’t suspect anything,” he said. “I thought you were just talking to yourself, getting your worries off your chest.”
“Then…so…today?” I flushed.
“Today I happened to see the kiss. And I had a…moment. I felt as if I caught someone’s gaze. Harita, I haven’t revealed all this to hurt you. I just thought you should know, well…it felt like Aparajit was asking for help.” The principal smiled. “Now you know why we can’t have exorcism here. What will happen to this place then?”
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Sorry dear, I can’t help you with that.” The principal walked away.
I was annoyed. I felt like he had shot my budding romance with all kinds of strange stuff and now baling on me, but I couldn’t blame him. I sat there, leaned over my knees, buried my face in my arms. I was not a religious or overly spiritual person, but there I was, reacting far too calmly to a ghost, to a connection with whom apparently very few have. I inhaled deeply.
I kissed him!
“I should have said something.”
“Yes, you should have,” I replied without looking up, unshocked that Aparajit had suddenly appeared.
“I think I should give it back,” Aparajit held out the banyan leaf.
“You…you don’t want it anymore?” I asked, hurt.
He traced the edge of the leaf. “I’m sorry, Harita.”
“Yeah, well, so am I. But I am not giving the scarf back, so you better not give up that leaf.”
Aparajit sat next to me. I twisted to face him and our knees touched. Neither of us moved back. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Aparajit closed his eyes. “I couldn’t. When I realized, we had already fallen in love. I didn’t want to tell you and make you run.”
“Aparajit, my heart doesn’t…umm, love very easily. A part of me is freaking out, but the rest of me wants to keep giving you banyan leaves.”
“I used to collect leaves. I loved colors. Most people thought I wasn’t quite right…” He looked at me. “What do we do now, Harita?”
“Well…I do this,” I leaned forward and kissed his cheeks. “And you…if you have any power over that ancient banyan, you’ll ask it to play fair with its leaves.”
Aparajit regarded me as if two people in the courtyard weren’t quite right. Which was probably perfectly right. I shrugged and gave a big smile.
I blushed and felt ridiculously shy. Nonetheless, right there in the quiet, breeze-free courtyard, I decided to put aside my logic, my millions of questions, and just go with my heart. I tucked the scarf’s ends in the pocket of my jacket, then recurved my hand over Aparajit’s, pleased at the smile that touched his lips.
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