Just as the first flowers opened their translucent eyes early in the month of March, she was born. Even as her father abandoned her mother as she was the third girl child, her mother found an inexplicable comfort in her birth. She christened her youngest one as Mahua, same as those little flowers, blooming across the road. Her mother smiled nonchalantly, as her father cursed her mother and left her without even looking at the new born. Left, with the certainty of a stiffened male patriarchy. With the certainty of not bearing the burden of raising the third girl child.
Six springs later, things had hardly changed. As if her birth had slowed and stalled time. The mahua tree, right across their shaky and fragile hut had not moved an inch. It grew only imaginably tall. The two elder sisters, the middle one at seven and the eldest at eight, still maintained that age difference.
The spring air had a way of making itself getting noticed. Not by the way it felt on skin, or by the fragrances it carried or by the temperature of its broodings, but simply by entering your lungs, and passing through your heart, it could leave in its wake seeds of restlessness, which would sprout and knit a web of hopeless hopes and yearnings for unknown longings. Spring air is dangerous, as soon it hits the head and even more so for the uncomplicated young minds, which can easily be swayed by the innocent intoxication of the nature’s most potent weapon.
Mahua would leave her sisters and her mother’s lap and rush out to the tree across the road, soon as the first sense of spring knocked her unadulterated senses. Sitting under the tree’s cool shade, she would see the first buds arrive. She would see the first moths arrive and watch them feed on the leaves. She would see the first of the various flies and bees hum over the tree as the buds prepared to launch themselves. She would be first one to see the first flower bloom before even the tree itself would know. The moment she would see the first flower, she would gain her senses back and rush to her mother.
‘It is here.’ She would speak breathlessly in her mother’s ears. Her mother would look at her with concern, curiosity and then take a deep breath and kiss the little girl on her forehead. The mother would then go out with her and the two others children and the four of them would stand before the tree and offer their grateful prayers to it, the fifth member of their household.
The following weeks and days would be centred around the tree. In the morning, the family of four would gather around the fifth member with their small hand woven wooden baskets and collect the flowers that would be showered all around, on the ground. This had to be done early in the morning, before the breaking of dawn. Before people would be out on the roads and before vehicles would crush the fallen flowers mercilessly.
Before the first gentle rays touched the waking earth, the white pearls would be safely resting in the four baskets. Three small ones and a big one. They would walk back to their shaky settlement and categorise the flowers into two categories. The best ones would go for fermentation, the worst ones for drying up.
The transient spring weeks and their offerings went a long way in aiding the survival of the family. First, the flowers when fermented would produce an intoxicating drink, which courtesy Mahua’s mother’s secret ingredients would be in excessive demand. There would be long queue of men, early evening onwards, outside her hut to get one glass of that elixir (or a bottle, which would cost slightly higher due to packaging).
Once the flowering season was done with, Mahua’s mother would switch to the bark of the tree and the dried flowers. The dried flowers and the seeds would eventually be ground and the flour would be used to bake a few varieties of bread and the bark would be used to prepare ointments.
The production of the odd little oddities would make sure that survival, coupled with the meagre earnings from Mahua’s mother’s labour at various construction sites would be stretched into the zone of safety. Just about. Somehow. Barely.
The first round of fermentation was about to get over. Mahua’s mother had a hard time to keep her three girls from sneaking into the dark corner of the outer shed and removing the lid to check if the product was ready. Not just the delay in the process, she would be more afraid that the devils in the vapours of the intoxicating liquid would possess her children and ruin them.
She was especially afraid for Mahua. She cursed herself for naming her Mahua. Somehow her youngest one had a connection with the tree which frightened her. Once she had caught Mahua eating the flowers. She was certain that it would be the end of her daughter. She made her vomit and prayed for two days and two nights to all the gods she could. When nothing happened to Mahua, her mother finally found herself relieved and made the child promise that she would never eat the flowers or fruits or anything produced from the tree ever. The four year old Mahua had looked in to the sleep deprived red eyes of her mother and nodded her head vigorously, not sure why she was not supposed to eat the white flowers. They were sweet. Really nice.
Finally, one afternoon, Mahua’s mother’s shop was ready for customers, who wanted and needed escape from their daily drudgery. First brew always received animated initiation. Men would douse themselves into glass after glass of the watery white liquid, squandering their day’s earnings. The discreet ones would buy the bottles, hide them in the patched, stitched and yet torn pockets of their shirts and pants and hurry away. These would generally arrive after the sun was down. By that time, a few men would be lying on the bare earth outside the hut, unable to contain their intoxication, mumbling, laughing, crying and throwing up.
One of those evenings when Mahua’s mother had closed the makeshift shop, fed her girls some rice and tucked them in for the night, a lone silhouette appeared.
She waited for the shadow to materialise. She took a deep breath as her eyes registered the familiar form of her brother.
‘Why are you here?’She asked him curtly. His presence had never led to good ends in her life.
He didn’t reply, but inched closer to his sister.
At an arm’s distance away, Mahua’s mother could see her brother’s rugged, rough face in the faint light of the kerosene lamp. His beard had become whiter since the last time she had seen him. His lips were dry and cut with black blood deposited in the cracks.
A dirty bandage on his right arm caught her eye. Mud, dirt and blood. She looked into his eyes. She had never seen her brother in those eyes ever since he had first picked up the gun. There was a hollow of being-ness. When you take a life, a part of your own life cedes from your being. And her brother had a dead hollow. This emptiness made her head swirl and she closed her eyes.
‘What do you want?’ She asked again.
‘They are setting up a factory here.’ His voice was faint. Fainter than the hope of the last day of the spring, which hopes for an extended stay.
‘That’s good. We will get jobs.’ The faint hope lost its faintness just a little in her voice.
‘You don’t understand. They will cut the forests down.’ The anguish in his voice needed words not yet invented for expression.
‘There’s not much left.’ Mahua’s mother stayed indifferent.
He kept quiet. She waited for him to add something. He just looked hard at her.
‘If they do, then…’ He proceeded with pleading in the unformed words when she cut him in between.
‘Right. You and your comrades would be exposed. Your territory will threatened. Dogs. All of you.’ The indifference vanished and her disdain reclaimed her. Her voice rising marginally.
‘You don’t understand. This thing will…’
‘Who are you?’ Mahua suddenly appeared and stared at the nightly visitor with curiosity. Her mother looked at her and then at her brother. He had met her youngest one when she was hardly three.
‘Your uncle.’ Mahua’s mother moved to her daughter and grabbed her arm and dragged her back inside, ‘You sleep.’ She gave her daughter a stern look and Mahua nodded in acceptance and immediately curled up on the thin mat on the floor and closed her eyes.
‘He is your brother?’ Mahua asked her mother as she walked outside.
‘Sleep.’ Her mother sounded cold.
Once outside, she noticed that her brother was carrying something. A bag of some sort.
‘What do you want?’ She asked him for the third time.
‘Just keep this here for a few days.’ Her brother brought the bag to the front. She tried lifting it. It was heavy. It meant trouble.
‘Guns? Bombs? What is in it?’ She eyed her brother acidly.
‘Just keep it for a few days. It needs to be kept safely.’ He pleaded.
She didn’t move or speak.
‘Yes, it has guns.’ He spoke quietly.
‘If I keep it, do you promise to never show your face again?’ Mahua’s mother spoke in a calm voice.
‘If that’s what you want. I promise. Somebody will come to collect it in a few days.’ He looked hard at her sister who had decided to shift her gaze into the dark nothingness that lay mingled in the dark horizons of the night sky. Quietly, he walked away and became part of the same nothingness.
A couple of days went by in the usual lazy languid manner. Mahua’s mother hid the bag away from the curious gaze of her daughters. The evenings saw the surge in the number of men seeking the magic liquid.
Third afternoon saw a change in the pattern of activities. Mahua was the first one to wake up to the presence of new noises and voices. Her sisters and her mother were sleeping when she heard the shouts and woke up and walked outside. On the road across their hut were several vehicles and people. Mahua saw men on the road talking animatedly. Some other men were taking notes while the others were speaking loudly with lot of hand gestures. The men walked up and down the road like ants carrying grains of sugar in their mouth.
Eventually, all the talking came to a halt and everyone gathered under the shade of the mahua tree. The men were now looking in her direction. A few were pointing their fingers towards her, calling her.
She just stared at these men. Not moving. Eventually a man dressed in a shirt which was not as white as those of a few others, came towards her.
‘You live here?’He asked her through his bushy moustache.
‘Your father is here?’He asked next. Mahua looked at the sun burnt face of the man and wondered how he spoke through all those hair in front of his mouth.
She shook her head in negative.
‘Mother?’ Mahua just saw his moustache move and laughed. The man looked at her in confusion and repeated his question.
She nodded in affirmative.
‘Call her.’ He commanded her.
Mahua stayed for a moment and then ran back towards the hut to get her mother. She woke her up and pulled her out of the hut, dragging her, holding her hand.
Mahua’s mother panicked for a moment when she saw all those people outside. Then she noticed that these were not police people and she took a deep breath of relief. The moustache man came back towards the mother daughter duo.
‘You live here?’ He asked Mahua’s mother.
‘Yes.’ She nodded as she spoke.
‘A factory will be set up so we are building the road.’ The moustache man spoke in a well rehearsed manner. Mahua watched the dance of his moustache hair. Mahua’s mother realised that his brother was right.
‘I can work, for both the road and the factory.’ Mahua’s mother spoke suddenly.
‘What? Yeah we will see that.’ The man spoke off handedly, and then continued, ‘As I was saying, we have to broaden this road, so you will have to vacate the area.’
Mahua’s mother felt a cold sweat rolling down her spine.
‘Vacate? I live here. This is my hut. Where will I go?’ She looked straight in to the eyes of the man.
‘Is this your land?’ He now sounded irritated.
‘Do you have any papers?’ He was bored and irritated. His gaze now shifted to the other two daughters watching them from a distance.
‘No. But I have lived here for more than ten years.’ Mahua’s mother tried to make sense of this random decree.
‘Now you can’t.’ He spoke casually.
‘Where will I go?’ Her words were more for her own self.
‘Find some other place. It is not our headache.’ The man was now sweating and looking longingly at the shade of the tree.
‘Will I get some compensation?’ Mahua’s mother attempted catching hold of the thin final straws.
‘Compensation? Are you mad? You are living here illegally. Be thankful that we are not taking any action. Now get going. The work starts tomorrow.’ The man wiped his brow full of sweat and walked back towards the other men under the tree.
Mahua looked at the blank face of her mother. Something was wrong, she knew, what, she didn’t.
One by one, the men vanished inside their vehicles and the cars and the jeeps left immediately.
‘We are not going anywhere.’ Mahua’s mother hissed under her breath and grabbed Mahua’s hand firmly.
The following morning the three girls and their mother gathered the mahua flowers like every other day. Mahua’s mother would keep looking at the far ends of the road anxiously. But there was no one. Everything was quiet. Probably yesterday’s encounter was just a bad dream. But Mahua’s mother knew that nightmares were always real, it was the happy dreams that stayed dreams.
Back in their hut, Mahua’s mother told the girls to stay inside till she asked them to come out. The girls protested, but their mother dragged them inside and threatened to tie them up if they came out till she told them to.
Mahua’s mother then headed towards the hideout of the bag her brother had given her. She unzipped the black-blue bag. Wrapped in the plastic were guns and in smaller packets were the bullets. She unwrapped the guns one by one. All of them were same. She picked one. It felt heavy. She opened a small packet of bullets. After several failed attempts of her shaky hands, she managed to finally learn how to load the gun.
Meticulously she wrapped all the guns and zipped the bag, one loaded gun on the earthen ground. She picked it up and hid it in her saree carefully and stepped out of the shed. She found a man waiting for her. She didn’t have to ask him what he wanted. By now she had developed an innate sense to identify the naxals. She gestured him to follow her to the shed and pointed to the bag. The man gave it a tug and satisfied, slung it on his shoulders and walked out with a curt nod of head in acknowledgement.
She waited at the edge of the road, under the tree, for the arrival of the men who wanted her to leave her home, however meagre it was. Sun crawled up. Spring was simmering, its end was near. Mahua’s mother was wrapped in a sheet of sweat. The final flowers of the season were still blossoming and spreading their sweet fragrance. It was past mid-day but no one showed up. Waiting, she dozed off. When she woke up she found Mahua lying on her lap, fast asleep, a single flower between her teeth.
She had woken up to the commotion of the school kids making their way back home. The bells of the cycles, the honks of the bike and buses and other vehicles, the calls of the ice cream vendors, the eager talks of the young students, the laughs ,the shouts…the whole place was suddenly alive with a million activities. Mahua and her mother watched the students, as they slowly and noisily moved on.
‘Do they have to go every day?’ Mahua asked her mother.
Her mother nodded as her fingers caressed the child’s hair.
Soon the road was quiet again. No one came. Mahua’s mother got up from her vigil. It was late in the afternoon. Men had started queuing outside her hut already.
The following morning they collected the fallen flowers and fruits again and Mahua’s mother once more ordered her daughters to stay inside. She looked hard at Mahua.
‘Don’t come out today. You promise me?’ Her words were a whisper. An earnest whisper.
Mahua’s mother stepped on the road and started moving towards the tree when an unusual groan of a machine caught her attention. She felt her beats catching speed. Her fingers moved inside the layers of her saree and gripped the handle of the heavy gun. Soon she saw a bulldozer crawling towards the tree. Other vehicles started filtering in. There were a couple of police vans. There were trucks loaded with workers. The other vehicles carried the officials associated with the project.
Mahua’s mother closed her eyes and slowly walked under the tree. She pulled the gun out and held it in her shaking hands. The bulldozer stopped when the driver saw her. Other vehicles had stopped as well and all the men stepped out. The police vans came close to her before halting. The officers looked at her with curiosity, which transformed into amusement almost immediately.
‘What do you want?’ One of the officers asked her.
‘I am not leaving my house and no one is taking this tree down till I am alive.’ Mahua’s mother tried to shout, but her words came out haltingly and shakily.
‘You have to move. You are obstructing work. If you don’t, we will be forced to use force against you.’ The officer spoke with a tone of warning and threat.
‘Leave us alone and I will move.’ She looked at the officer in desperation.
The man looked at the constables. Three men moved towards the woman with the gun. Seeing them approach her, Mahua’s mother directed her gun towards them.
‘I will fire.’ She screamed at the constables, who looked back at their superior, who in turn looked uncertain. He asked his men to stop and turned his head towards the driver of the bulldozer.
The labourers had by now formed a circle and were watching the proceedings with animated interest. The other officials had moved back into their vehicles, waiting for the drama to end.
‘Go on.’ The police officer commanded the driver. ‘She is bluffing. And if she does fire, we can fire back. Don’t worry. Everything is under control.’
The driver hesitated for a second, which earned him a sharp look from the officer. He started the machine again. Mahua’s mother looked at the approaching bulldozer. Her gun now pointing towards the approaching vehicle.
She knew that if she fired, the police would fire back. If she didn’t fire, then the bulldozer would most likely flatten her down along with the tree. Will the driver stop? There was only one way of knowing. Waiting and seeing how things would turn out.
The bulldozer was almost touching her. Then it did. The pointed prongs of the lower side of the cutting edge grazed the earth in front of her feet. She felt the earth under her feet move and then the metal of the slightly hollow blade section pressed her against the tree.
Her left knee got stuck between the tree’s trunk and the metal sheet. Pressed between the two, she struggled to breathe. A sharp pain shot through her as her stuck left knee caved in with an audible sound of breakage. The metal pressed her harder and the sharp edges pierced her skin. Her grip over the gun faded and the weapon fell on the ground. The bulldozer pushed harder and she felt unbearable pressure over her ribs. She felt something break when the officer shouted and the machine pulled back.
Immediately, the constables grabbed the fallen gun and dragged Mahua’s mother away and dropped her on the side of the road. Tears covered her face and blood dripped from her hands. Her chest pained and her left leg was beyond her commands.
The bulldozer was back in action and in under a minute, the fifth member had fallen on the other side of the road. Mahua’s mother watched as a fresh pain shot through her. She knew that they would run over her house as well just as they had taken the tree down, just as they had taken her down and she would just watch, helplessly.
Someone came to her. She could feel the person trying to lift her. Her ribs and leg pained like death. Somehow she managed to open her eyes and saw her brother.
‘Save the girls.’ She whispered and fainted.
Mahua stayed inside the hut as she had promised her mother even when she heard lots of noise coming from outside. She and her sisters were playing games, which they invented right there, when someone came inside. Mahua immediately recognised the entrant.
‘Uncle.’ She chirped and ran to him.
He didn’t say anything but just gathered everything there was to gather and tied them in a sheet.
‘Come with me.’ He finally addressed the children.
‘Where is mother?’ Mahua asked.
‘We are going to her.’ Her uncle sounded troubled.
The three girls and their uncle walked outside, where activities were in full flow. There was dust all around and shouts, loud sounds of crushing and crunching stones filled the entire space. They hurried away towards the town.
Summer was breathing its last. It was late in the evening. There were clouds in the sky. The first black clouds of the season. Mahua sat on the divider of the four lane road. The black road shone in its fresh glory. Newly planted flowering plants on the divider were yet to bloom. The yellow and the white paints on the road looked wet. The clouds thundered. A few drops fell on the hot road and vanished the moment they touched the hot surface.
There were vehicles around her. Speeding along. Honking. Their headlights flashed bright lights on her face as they passed. Mahua’s fingers ran on the soil that occupied the space enclosed by the divider. The tree had to be there. It was always there. Where had it gone? Probably it had gone like her mother. Somewhere. Where, she didn’t know. But she had the feeling that neither were coming back anytime soon. Next spring maybe.
She would wait.
Mahua1 – a tropical Indian tree found in central and northern plains.
I have published two fiction novels (The Inferno and The Black Barrier) with the third novel ‘Let’s Get Married’ coming out next month. I have co-written the story of an independent feature film ‘Nam Deo Bhau’ , which will be releasing shortly.I have written songs for this film and another film titled ‘Teen aur Aadha ‘I work as a freelance writer, traveler and as script supervisor and DA to the Director.I am based in Mumbai.