The Nineteenth Autumn

I  was  9, when  I  had  planted  her,  as  a  sapling…

Few months after Mum passed away, Dad and I shifted to Akhnoor(A Small city of Jammu). The place is believed to be the ancient city of Virat Nagar mentioned in the Mahabharat. The city was calm yet beautiful. Dad believed that shifting to a different place would heal both his pain and my loneliness. Acclimatising  was  difficult  and  taxing,  mentally  and  psychologically; although  at  that  time  I  hardly  knew  what  these  terms  meant.  Yet  I  had to make an effort to change my social and mental equanimity and lessen my longing for those left behind in the land of greener pastures, and bits and pieces of me as well. Dad started coming home late at night - drunk and unconscious. I was too small to understand his loneliness and the reasons behind his female friends visiting our new house quite often. I felt alone fighting with myself, and after a couple of months, realising that my strongest of retaliation wouldn’t let dad change his mind, I stopped soaking my pillows at night with my salty tears for company and yielded to let memories evaporate and fade away, like faint wisps of clouds melting against a deep blue sky.

Dad and I were staying in a bungalow out of the city. The garden in the backyard was my only delight that I could pamper myself with number of huge Pine trees, bougainvilleas, colours of pink, green and blue, rose shrubs, the smell of fallen autumn leaves, coy flowers, night blossoms and the old dead Meena, the banyan tree. The garden was shady during summers but Autumns were the best. One fine autumn afternoon, I saw a Gulmohar tree. Her remains were removed as if she was nothing but muck. Dad ordered that little boy Noor, our caretaker Nursat Aunt’s son to cut her up and make a better use as firewood to warm the house and hearth. How ironical it was that I cried the whole night not realising  she was dead long before. Dad simply did what was best to use her to burn for heat. I wondered, does the physical presence of the dead make us feel that they aren't lifeless ! I didn’t know the difference then or perhaps I was too young to differentiate.

The very next day, I planted a listless Gulmohar sapling. I named her Gul. The tiny leaves on her were gleaming the first time I watered her. Soon she started growing. Sometimes soaked in the Monsoon yet smiling at me, sometimes tired in thirst under the rude Summer sun. While wearing woollen caps and gloves, I used to watch her being cold and snowy in those Winters. She was my best friend and company on my lonesome Autumn nights. I imagined, perhaps I convinced myself that she smelled like my mother and used to hug her every night before retiring, asking her to keep quiet and let me tip-toe back into my room. She used to stand calm. We both had a fear that if dad would catch me and burst into anger and suffer the anxiety of having a psychologically deviated daughter.

She was growing with me. Just like her twin sister, I could sense whenever she felt thirsty and quenched it always with my love poured in as well. I still remember that one Autumn night when her leaves shook nervously and her branches trembled. I patted her trunk and rubbed her back lovingly to make her feel better as she expressed her deepest secret - of being in love. It was the boy I used to keep longing for too. From behind the half closed doors and silk-netted curtains, I too used to see him everyday. We both fell in love with Noor. He used to call me "Ruhani memsahib". I always kept my eyes low, never being able to look straight into his deep blue pair of eyes. He had the body of a centaur, and the scent of a musk deer. I never noticed how he slipped into my half closed heart without as much as a single meaningful conversation. I dreamt of him every night. I had many dreams of talking to one another, kissing and making love so vividly, that it actually seemed real. She used to listen to my feelings for Noor, alluring dreams and shameless descriptions with patience.

He would come every morning to the garden for the flowers and she used to sheepishly observe him collect them. I saw her painfully lowering her trunks without anyone noticing, for him to reach for those beyond his. I watched her touching Noor's chicks softly with her leaves. He used to collect flowers and made garlands out of it, to sell them at the local market for half the price of his labour. During afternoons while returning from college, I would watch him from a far, sleeping under her. He was seeming to look like a prince of a lost kingdom while sleeping calmly - even in those torn cloths. She would shade as she's fanning him lovingly with her leaves, thanking the gentle, yet fickle wind for aiding her, and sometimes cursing it, when it stopped. I saw her falling deeply in love with Noor.

Finally I thought of giving up on my hopes of Noor. He was her’s. It is a common tendency for us in most cases to express love to the one intended for, but here it ran a certain risk, for her’s sake, the risk of me winning. The biggest fear was the fear of being loved back. Besides Noor was our servant's son and I didn't know whether he felt anything for me at all.  But Gul was free from such human complexities. She existed and knew only to give, not to receive. She and I are together for 10 years and I saw her falling for him since the first day I planted her.

One night while tossing and turning in my bed, I was driving away dreams that lulled me earlier to sleep. Now of late deeply disturbing, I woke up startled, to screams and noises of people running in anger and fright. The sight from the veranda was that of horror. That was something my mind wasn’t prepared for. Noor’s hut had caught fire. My instinct was to run for the open fields, screaming in agony as if my heart was caught up in that fire. Just when,  dad came and held my hands so tightly that I couldn’t move my fingers. I kept on screaming, trying to fight back tears, in vain. Tears that raged their own battles against me only to overwhelm completely - I fainted.

The last night’s aftermath was the biting chill in the morning news. It was like winter winds carrying their coldness within into my room when dad, without any expression, declared that Nursat Aunt had died. They couldn’t save her from the fire. I knew who they were busy saving - themselves. The thought of Noor crossed my mind. Dad read it, "The boy is alright", he said. In spite of it, I couldn’t react and silent tears fought their way back again.

The Winter arrived already. I asked Dad, if Noor could stay with us till he reconstructed his old hut. He strictly answered "No". I thought its useless to argue. My only hope was Gul now. It was time for her to shed her withered leaves, to bloom once again in spring, but she was tall and there were still leaves left to cover her love -our love. I walked closer, asked her to protect Noor from the cold. She agreed. She was far more in love with him than I was.

That night can perhaps only be imagined. While I wrapped myself warm with the quilt and the heater to keep away the chill from a cracked window pane, Noor slept under her. She covered him with all her branches bending forward, to make the leaves close in and shelter him. I was watching them from the clear glasses of my bedroom window. The wind began howling, slapping her with sharp gusts; perhaps taking a revenge for all her curses uttered. The sky too was ruthless and in connivance with the wind that night, started snowing. Flakes started to numb Noor’s hands and feet like needles piercing all over his body. She wept in pain but tried yet harder to protect Noor. He started trembling. The cold was becoming unbearable. She never thought of giving up. With one final effort, she shed all her remaining leaves and flowers to make a blanket for him, until she was completely naked. Now  she was shivering herself and crying in pain, unable to comfort her trembling lover. Her branches quivered helplessly as the snow covered the blanket that she laid down for him. If only she could brush the snow away. If only..

The bright sun greeted in the morning after the night before took its leave, like some bad dream. Out in the garden there was a huge mound. The snow was beginning to melt and she was completely naked. I saw her and started running towards her with a wish deep within that Noor would be alright. Coming closer, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I screamed a shrill cry that brought dad running to the spot. Perhaps he knew that my heart melted towards Noor. The heap of leaves, flowers and the snow surprised him too. He ordered the servants to dig it up.

Underneath was the blue faced dead - boy, Noor. His heart had stopped beating, surrendering to the cold. His body had turned pale blue, and over his legs and hands her roots  had sprouted out of the earth in an attempt to embrace and comfort the trembling hands and feet of her loved one now so still. I couldn’t speak. I lost the ability to express it in words. Suddenly I felt that I was the lifeless tree now.

She however was alive, though sore and naked without a single leaf or flower. They (the servants), tried hard to remove the body but couldn’t untangle her roots and her embraces of love. So dad decided to burn the body along with her. I tried to scream in protest but there was silence instead. Neither even a drop of tear fell from my eyes nor a word came out.

The pain of despair was excruciating. I felt my body was burning too in flames of agony. She was set alive with Noor’s body to fire. I became paralyzed with helplessness as dad held my hands and my feet went numb. I saw the two bodies burning away in flames and clouds of foul smoke emanated from the pyre burning her flesh. She kept quiet and closed her senses, burning away in love and I found my voice only to express it in screams, unable to save her from being sacrificed along with the unrequited Love of my life.

I am quiet again, like an unspoken, silent tree - like her. I stand in the garden at the macabre spot and think of her, and Noor. She expressed her love for me, for Noor even without uttering a single word. She owned her Love. I am the one left behind.

Dad tried a lot by to bring back my voice, speaking and consulting to different therapists, doctors, psychiatrists and healers; but I choose to remain calm, silent. Just like her. Summer comes and leaves. Rain still soaks me wet. Winter burns the loneliness in my heart to keep me warm but Autumn never came anymore.


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