The Tree: Ritwik Ghatak

Once, a banyan tree had leaned over a tiny river flowing through some distance away from a village. As a tree, there was nothing special about it.

The tree was very old. Insects had eaten its trunk, and all its branches had rotted up. In some forgotten, faraway past, it was all fresh, green and verdant. But now, it wasn’t. It was absolutely of no use.  Only the people, walking towards the village, knew of it – they knew that, beyond the next bend of the river lay ironsmith Haru Kamar’s bellow and chimney-laden workshop, and, beyond the workshop, the village would begin for good.

However, once a year, the tree would gloriously be honoured. This would be during the Chadak festival. Some people would polish a few of its roots with oil and smear them in vermillion. People would come from villages afar. The carnival would happen at the village field. Suddenly, the tree would become an object of envisioned attention. After that, once again, it would lie vapid for the rest of the year.  Cows would graze in the wastelands around. At times, some weary traveler from places far away would sit by its cold shade, eat dry puffed and pressed rice from their bags of cloth, drink water from the river and set out about their ways yet again.  On full moon nights, all alone by the vast field, the tree would create splendid lights and shadows on its own backyard, lie hovering down to conjure strange, unknown mystery, in dreams, through the ceaselessly flowing river waters.

The six seasons would pass by the head of the tree all the same. Little faces would peep out of awnings of the boats that would flow by along the river and stare at it in infinite curiosity.

Little boys would come and hang out by the bent-tree, play along its branches, dive into the river from the branches; they would bunk school and go there to squat around.

Thus, the villagemen would be going to the tree from their childhoods. Some would go during afternoons to sit at a spot where the roots, having arranged themselves in a complex pattern, had made a beautiful seat. They would sit there to hear the softly splashing river.

The fisherfolks there knew that there would be many small and big fishes stuck around its roots in the muddy waters. Their boys would go there to bathe and catch fishes with their gamchhas. Many fishes could be caught with nets also.

Even the old men knew of the tree. They would lean on its trunk, look at the playing boys, at the fishermen and, mentally, they would nod their heads. Perhaps they would be thinking of the evenings and nights of their lives.

But they themselves knew not how big a space this old fig tree had in their minds. They would think of it as the Banyan of Old Shiva (Bu’ɽo ʃi’bɛr Bɔʈ), and just that. It was forever there and so shall it forever be. There used to be a saying – ‘The banyan of old Shiva lies beyond Uncle Haru’s crossing’.

And, in all probability, it would have been there for quite a few more generations, and would have given shelter to many future travelers. But one day, all of a sudden and without any prior news, a new project was declared by the government. According to the new Plan of the present irrigation system, our river would have to be widened and would have to be made to carry more water than what it used to.

Suddenly, one day, after making much protest through many sharp and hard sounds, Bu’ɽo ʃi’bɛr Bɔʈ fell on earth. Both the shores of the ancient river got leveled and it was turned into a modern-style canal.

That night, the village awoke all at once. They had come to realise the value of the tree. Their minds were in much tumult. They made their dismay felt.

But their dismay did not go beyond mumbled whispers. The tree fell. Since then, the villagers began to slowly forget the banyan tree. New faces and new houses had come to be.  Only when the old people passed by the place, it would feel very empty to their eyes. Animated, they would tell tales of the tree to the new people – these were their tales on new development.

But this did not last for long. Memories of the fig tree that once had given shelter to many people have, over time, been erased away.

(translated from Bangla short story ‘Gachh’ʈi’ by Ritwik Ghatak as was published in Abhidhara magazine, Year 1, Issue 2, 15th September 1947 (31st Bhadra, Bangla Year 1354))

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Atindriyo Chakraborty
Atindriyo Chakraborty 4 posts

"hypocrite lecteur mon semblable mon frère"

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