Elatedly, Shyam announced to his wife, Elena, “Darling, we’ve won the case. The forest department has granted us land closer to our tree.”
Dejected but still smiling to keep up with his childlike spirit, Elena decided to celebrate. She thought of baking a chocolate cake. Shyam wanted the traditional Indian halwa.
“That’s too much fat and sugar, dear”, she quipped.
“Less than your cake, darling,” he chuckled.
She noticed a jubilant Shyam, excited to return.
‘Old-age does something strange to people, pulling them out of their comfort zone, pushing to their roots, overwhelmed with nostalgia, looking for the associations they lost in the melee called life. But what about my connections?’ She thought.
Shyam, a renowned botanist, was retiring next month from Queen’s University, Canada. His restoration techniques in conserving ancient perennial trees established him as an authority on the subject. Shyam loved trekking the forest, looking for grand old trees that have proved to be ecological linchpins.
He’d seen several humongous trees dying, uprooting lives, killing a thriving ecosystem back home. His village, ‘Khandgoan’, is a settlement encroaching the boundaries of Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, India.
The aroma of semolina being roasted in pure ghee brought back memories of his mother, home teaming with laughter, two brothers, Mohan and Kishen. Climbing on a massive banyan tree, swinging on its branches, playing hide-and-seek, Ma praying, tying sacred threads around the trunk. Images forever imprinted. The tree stood witness to the stories of his great-grandfather and generations thereafter.
The banyan had spread its tentacles, boring into the earth, growing roots, giving birth to numerous stouts, pillar-like trunks supporting its enormous green cover, taller, wider, stronger, devouring their ancestral land, feet by feet, every year like a land-mafia. The brothers had built a treehouse on the parent trunk, a home away from home. From the first cigarette to drinking beer, ogling at nude images in magazines, the treehouse held many secrets.
Three years ago, Shyam visited India to attend his father’s last rites. The tree was alive, home to more than a thousand species of birds, animals, insects but rendering his brothers homeless due to its invasion into their home and farmland. He spotted a monkey sitting on one of the windows of the dilapidated treehouse.
The banyan has become a famous tourist site after acquiring the national heritage tag.
Cutting trees was illegal. Leaving the ancestral land, emotional bonds, shifting home wasn’t a desirable option. His father had run pillar to post to request the forest authorities and the district magistrate to help them by allotting land close by but to no avail. After discussing with his brothers and the forest department, Shyam filed the case in the district court and sought the requisite permissions.
Getting back the rights over his ancestral property with the permission to restore the trees around gave Shyam’s life a purpose, wings to his retirement plan. He’d renovate the treehouse to build a viewpoint, cafe-cum-botanical library. Shyam had already decided on the name, ‘The Treehouse Cafe’.
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