That Pipal Tree
Kathakali Mukherjee

The ground on which the Pipal tree stood was a meeting point for teenagers of Durganagar before they moved to the city. Children from educated families from the town were destined to move to Kolkata so that they could safely upkeep themselves in the container called middle-class Indians by earning higher education. In the previous generation, only boys were allowed to leave home to merge themselves in the human-ocean of the big city. Pritha and Nandini consider themselves lucky to be born in the nineteen-eighties. Their parents wanted also their daughters to settle on the same professional platform as their sons.

Fifteen years back, completing graduation in English literature, Pritha had left for UK. Nandini, an NRS medical college graduate, on the other hand was always in touch of her native town. Earning PG from Chandigarh, she not only returned to Kolkata, but also decided to spend four days a month in Durganagar. She extended her service to the township people as a token for her gratitude. This time when her old friend from Cambridge expressed her desire to meet her once in Kolkata, she invited her to their old Durganagar home instead. And she didn’t need much time to convince her.

On a winter afternoon, the first sight of the crowded station platform shocked Pritha. She was already exhausted from the long journey. Nandini told her cook to prepare a spice-free dinner anticipating the change in Pritha’s food habit. She was right – long stay in Cambridge, in those seven years of married life with a British person changed her friend’s food habit. But the dream flashing in Pritha’s eyes discomfited Nandini. She invited Pritha to show the change in their native town whereas the professor’s dreamy eyes reflected her desire to trace old memories. How could she imagine that the world she had left years back would remain the same? Her only brother had moved to Gurgaon taking her parents along. Selling the old townhome was convenient to them. How she was unable to understand that similar change came in the lives of every middle-class family here in the last fifteen years? Change is the only constant truth in the history of human civilization. How can a person expect that one location would remain the same for years defying the norm? – Many thoughts were hitting Nandini before she fell asleep that night.

Her doubt about her NRI friend came to be true. After breakfast, as they came out of home, the sight of the once familiar locality in the sunny morning saddened Pritha. The Budojethu’s home transformed into an inhabitable ruin after his death. The pipal tree that stood in one corner of the playground like the queen of the locality is disfigured, a cheap cigarette and a tea stall sits at its foot. “We called the pipal our queen!” – cried Pritha.“She is still the queen, only one of her human servants is sitting at her feet, so that he can earn his living. Wait till 8.30 and then see how the place becomes a mini-fairground.” – Nandini tried to pacify her.

“You mean she has become a crowd-puller?”

“The tea-stall is the crowd puller. All the construction labourers working in this area as well as housemaids come here to sip their morning tea. The town has a population of over 2 lakhs now. Six years back I thought of giving non-profit service to our neighbours out of empathy. The number of patients these days made my attending the clinic here a compulsion.”

“I don’t understand why you called me here extending your stay for another three days.”

“Durganagar is an escape destination for me from the dusty and noisy Kolkata.”

“That way I don’t see much difference between Kolkata and Durganagar.” – Pritha sighed as they neared the riverside walkway.
The old brick-built riverside walkway is converted to a pitch-covered one; but how did a row of shanties come up on its both sides? From a distance, the area looks like a city slum clad in blue plastic sheets. Rickety tea-stalls and a couple of rice-hotels here and there serve the purpose of feeding the population. Looking at Pritha’s upset face once, Nandini tried to explain, “The town is growing into a city. Hence migrant labourers’ entry here is inevitable.”
“Who they work for?”
“Some for building contractors, some for the municipality’s road construction projects.”
“Oh yes! On the way, I saw houses being converted to apartment houses – not a pleasant view anyway.”
“This many people could not find accommodation if the old buildings were not converted to apartment houses.

“Before conversion, there is always a demolition.”

“Change is the rule of the world. Being a doctor, I handle the practical requirements of human beings and in that context, changes are happening for good. We have easy connectivity to district hospitals these days where facilities are enhanced. What’s more, they are reconstructing the old health center into a full-fledged hospital. I hope they will finish the work by another six months. Not everything happening here is bad, Pritha!” – The doctor gave a short lecture on the ongoing development activities in Durganagar, only to realize that her descriptions could not satisfy her NRI friend much. As the time for lunch approached, they had to return home soon. During lunch she did not spare the chance of teasing, “Well Pritha, you must admit, your food habit too changed in the meantime. Not only you are happy eating this chicken stew, you did not mention your favourite spicy mutton curry even once.”

“That’s a healthy change, Nandini! How do you compare this to the changes in Durganagar? All I see here is unplanned development leading to natural disasters. Forget about crowd and dust and road conditions, how could you support those people who harmed the pipal tree, tied iron strings on its branches, polluted the view of the ground? It’s inhuman! I don’t see any sign of human compassion towards nature here.” – The words burst from her in an angry rush.

Nandini decided to spend the evening with Pritha at home instead of taking her out once again. Her friend was quite romantic since childhood, but she could not anticipate that the intensity of nostalgia would wipe out logic from the seasoned professor’s perspective.

Pritha was not completely discouraged. After all, she had only three days in hand to rediscover her ancestral town. The next day she decided to take another tour in the city. Nandini took her out in her car.“I have heard of Maruti Swift. Now I see the comfort level is not bad!” Nandini felt happy to hear Pritha praising the Indian car. She responded, “This one is cost-effective and efficient above all. I am travelling to and fro Kolkata in this car for last four years! My husband Shubhojit uses a Skoda, but bringing those fancy cars outside Kolkata is unsafe these days, especially if one has to travel regularly.”

“You mean road condition is that bad?”

“In India, roads are of least priority in budget plans.”

“Unfortunate.”- Pritha didn’t want to continue with the same conversation. She expected to be able to trace a few of her known buildings, trees and ponds during the day’s trip. Instead, she saw a new blue-white Municipality building on the old fairground, a blue-white girl’s college building beside their school where there was a pond once, and skeletons of new apartment houses waiting to be covered with new flesh and skin. “They actually squeezed the roads instead of widening! Where are we going by the way?” – She felt curious being unable to make out her friend’s plan.

“To the old Shiva temple. That remains the same through the ages.”

True, no change was visible in the three-hundred-year-old temple beside the fairground of the town. However, new multistoried buildings came up surrounding that a thousand meters long open space. The old bus stand adjacent to the temple widened – at the same time became dirtier. Old trees chopped off. The leaves of newly planted trees lost their colour under the thick layer of dust. Bus connectivity has been improved. Entire West Bengal became directly accessible from Durganagar. All kinds of buses were seen lined up on the pothole studded road while a large number of people making ear-piercing noise in order to get into their desired bus. The chaos and indiscipline in the bus station irritated Pritha. She was not being able to enjoy the serenity inside their once adorable temple even after entering there. She said, “I am sorry Nandini – I cannot appreciate this kind of development.”
Nandini felt helpless – true the air of Durganagar turned heavy with the smell of diesel and noise pollution has crossed the tolerable decibel limit. Yet life here flows like river Bhagirathi in the rainy season which her friend is unable to notice. The river water could be muddy, yet the apparently wild flow is always full of enthusiasm as it progresses towards its future.
While taking a walk inside the temple, they met the priest, an old-timer. The sight of the once known girl turned NRI professor brought a tear in the aged man’s eyes. With him, they had prasad for lunch. Nandini realized that the temple visit had finally improved her friend’s mood to some extent. While returning home, they slowly engaged themselves in recollecting old stories – how Pritha’s mother forced her to learn Rabindrasangeet against her wishes or how Nandini’s father used to drag neighbourhood children to his home for dinner during Poush Sankranti.

Nandini screamed addressing her driver all on a sudden, “Hey Biru, Stop here – I want tea.” Pritha saw that they reached near the pipal tree. The small tea stall cum cigarette shop looked deserted in the afternoon. As they went closer, a thin girl of around twenty came out of the stall smiling, “Dear God! How lucky I am today – doctor babu came for tea in my hut after so long! Who is with you doctor babu? Why is she so serious? Didn’t she like me?” – The cheerful girl’s words sounded incoherent to Pritha. She took a proper gaze at her – an ordinary tea-seller girl of medium height wearing a generous amount of sindoor and thick conch-shell bangles looking at them smiling and constantly chirping. What made Nandini stop here to have this cheap milky tea? The camaraderie between the doctor and the tea-seller girl astonished the professor. The girl got herself busy making fresh tea for them. Sitting comfortably on the bench before the stall, Nandini whispered, “I cannot come here when the place is crowded. Take a look at her – she is not an ordinary one.”

“I see, what’s her story?”

“Wait till we reach home.” – doctor babu smiled.
The girl’s husband emerged from inside in the meantime, probably just finishing his afternoon nap. Politely he attended the guests, giving instructions to his wife from time to time. Pritha did not like the excessively sweetened tea; somehow gulped it keeping her doctor friend’s reputation in mind.

“Now tell me what’s extraordinary about the girl.”- First question she asked after making herself comfortable in the drawing-room sofa.“She is a rape-victim.”

“Oh!” The information shocked Pritha.
Nandini had to tell more, “Two years back, one Sunday morning she was found on roadside half-naked, in a pull of blood. The daily wage labourers who gather here in the morning carried her to my place. I saw she was gang-raped who needed urgent attention. I started treating her and called the police; then shifted her to the health center. She was cured. Police got to know that she was picked up from a nearby village by some passing truckers. Catching the culprits was impossible due to a lack of witness. Unfortunately was, her parents were not ready to take her back. Police were preparing to send her to a women’s home when a miracle happened. One wage labourer met the Sub Inspector in the police station to express his desire to marry the girl. Police arranged the marriage and also helped the man to open that tea-stall. The girl almost lost her sanity after the incident. I took her to one psychiatrist friend. She is recovering now under care of her husband. We are hopeful.”
Taking a pause she asked, “Didn’t you see a happy family today?”

Pritha whispered, “Unbelievable! An Indian man, that too a wage labourer having such an open mind! You mean the family is accepted well in society?”

“You have seen them. What do you think? I can take you to their place again in pick hour – you will find proof. India is really changing.”

Pritha could not imagine she would come across such an instance of human compassion taking care of a woman’s dignity in the terribly noisy and polluted Durganagar. When evil in humans is exposed in such an obnoxious manner, it’s only human empathy that wards off the impact of that evil. This kind of societal empathy could not be traced in the orthodox middle-class township when she had left it. Seeing such a positive change in her once familiar world, she sat dumbfounded; saluted the spirit of her native town in her mind. The setting sun of the afternoon was dispersing its golden rays on the entire landscape before her. She murmured, “You are right, not all changes are bad.”

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