The tree had stood there for centuries. It belonged to a time before time. It had seen the Mughals come and go, seen the English rulers ravage the countryside and then witnessed the liberation of the country and the changes that independence brought about. It had seen the small town grow to a city and the city to a metropolitan. It had watched the big super-specialty hospital come up at the periphery of the city and the road connecting the two being constructed. It had seen summers and winters and monsoon and drought and floods and endured them all.
When I first saw that tree, it was already ancient. It stood by the side of the road that led from the city to the hospital, which I had recently joined. It had sheltered countless generations of birds, been home to innumerable rodents and reptiles and worms and insects. Weary travellers had rested in its shade for centuries, lulled to sleep by the cool wind that blew through its countless leaves. The tree was also home to a few stone idols of local deities, which the people living in the area had placed there and had worshipped for generations. Women had tied sacred thread around its trunk and prayed for the well being of their loved ones. Yes, the tree was a universe in itself.
My earliest memory of the tree dates back several decades ago when the tree was huge and the road, connecting the city to the hospital, small. It had stood in near-wilderness, outside the city limits and had served as the abode of the local village deities and birds and animals. Slowly the city grew; the village surrounding the tree became a suburb of the city. The squeals of children jumping on the tree, the screech of the squirrels and swish of the wind as it filtered through the leaves of the tree was replaced by the constant cacophony of passing traffic.
As the city expanded, the needs of development grew. Progress demanded wider roads, electric lights, parking spaces, shops, malls and other establishments. While the city was growing like a ravenous monster, engulfing its surroundings, swallowing them, making them ‘modern’ and ‘developed’, I was selected for a faculty job at this super-specialty hospital. So, now I travelled daily from the city to the hospital on this road. Every day I would pass by this tree, marveling at its height and its girth, look at its branches that covered a span of fifty meters, look at the children playing under the tree and the birds chirping from its branches, watch the squirrels run up and down its trunk, also watch an occasional straggler sleeping in its shade. It never ceased to amaze me!
On some festivals the locals would decorate the tree with colorful flags and paper, light lamps near its roots to please the deities that resided in the tree. When it rained, people sheltered under the mighty canopy of its branches, when the sun beat down mercilessly during summers, travellers cooled off under its shade, the whistling wind, the rustling leaves lulling them to sleep even in torrid afternoons. Thus I continued my daily journeys and the tree kept standing there, watching me go past, as it had watched everything else.
It was a day like any other when I was driving to work in the morning. When I was about to reach my favorite spot, near the tree, I noticed that the traffic was slower than usual. Nearing the tree, I discovered the reason for the slow traffic; a posse of official looking cars along with a small bunch of important looking people were standing beneath the tree, encircling it, watching it and discussing something animatedly, gesticulating with their hands. The huge tree made the men look like insects in a frenzy. I giggled involuntarily at the comparison and drove on. On my way back, in the evening, the small group of men had been replaced by a large group of workers, pitching their tents near the tree, erecting halogen lamp posts, firing up the generator. As I drove by, rushing back home, I wondered what all the commotion was about?
The next morning I was a little restless, filled with foreboding, perhaps, unsure of what those men, pitching the tents near my tree, were up to? Later when I drove by the tree, I was shocked to see that its branches were gone. The majestic limbs, which the years could not weather, which the storms could not break, which had sheltered generations of birds and animals and insects and under whose shade countless men had rested since forever, had been hacked off overnight. A large group of men stood near its trunk, surveying their work. The large branches, which they had felled in the night, lay strewn around the place, making the place look like a battlefield, their leaves still fresh from the night’s dew. I could only imagine the horror that had been unleashed on the tree at night. While I slept peacefully in my home the tree had been violently hacked by manual and motorized saws. The group of men who had crawled all over the place yesterday, like insects, had conspired to do what time could not. The mighty tree had been brought to its knees by these men for the road to be widened.
A large crowd stood around the place, watching the scene of the massacre, as the tree was savaged by these men, as its limbs were hacked and chopped and cut into pieces and carried away in trucks, to be used to carve furniture or to line studies of learned men. The naked trunk stood, weeping, a mute testimony, again, to progress. As I drove on, I had tears in my eyes. By the evening, all the branches had been cut and carried away; the trunk stood lonely, in the gathering darkness, all the life sucked out of it. The workers still camped around its trunk, burning its branches for firewood, using it to cook their food. Even in its death, the tree had demonstrated its usefulness. As I passed by the tree that evening, biding a silent goodbye to an old friend, I wondered what would happen to the trunk. I did not have to wait long to find out.
The next morning the crew was at it again; long handsaws had been brought out and the men had started hacking the trunk. It took two men to hold the long saw, and they sawed slowly, cutting into the trunk centimeter by centimeter. Two pairs of men worked at the trunk from both sides, hoping to reach the center sooner than if they cut from only one side. Hack and saw, hack and saw, they went; I saw them at their work in my rearview mirror as I drove by. By the time I returned in the evening, they had completed their work. The trunk had been felled, and lay by the side of the stump, waiting to be hacked and carted away again. The workers rested in their tents, cooking food and warming themselves using the wood from the trunk.
This went on and on for days. The workers kept hacking and cutting the felled trunk, I kept driving by, watching mutely. Few days later, the tree was nearly all but gone, the trunk now cut flush with the ground, the huge expanse of its roots the only evidence of its existence.
A few days later, as I drove by again, I noticed that the men had brought out the big machines. The earthmovers were digging a pit around the stump that remained, exposing the roots of the tree that spread far and wide, thick and strong and gnarled, like the mythical serpent God Vasuki. A huge crane stood by, ready to pull out the stump from the ground; it would not be easy, I thought! I was correct! When I returned in the evening, I saw what had happened; the crane could not pull out the tree from the ground, so the men had to manually cut each and every branch of the root that spread throughout the ground. When all its connections had been severed, the stump was pulled out by brute force using the crane, pulled out from the piece of earth where it had resided for centuries; it had grown inside the earth as much as it had grown outside. So this time when I drove by, I saw the empty pit with the pulled out stump lying by its side, the workers again eating and sleeping after the labors of the day.
The following day, the stump was also hacked into pieces, transported away in trucks and the pit in the ground was filled with earth. No one could tell that the tree had been there; it was all over in a week’s time. Soon a road was laid where the tree had stood, painted and lighted and girded with sidewalks, and the work that the small group of insect-like men began was finally completed – the tree had finally been killed.