BENGALURU: Ponnayi looked up at the portia tree. The day had dawned, gently caressing the leaves before scattering its light everywhere. In that early-morning glow, the tree showed itself in full splendour.
After Kali’s death, the tree was the first thing that Ponna’s eyes would fall upon as soon as she stepped out of the hut. And, as always, her gaze leapt towards that particular branch. It looked like a blunt stump—the stub of a severed arm poking out of a shoulder—with a round scar made by the saw that sliced it. That branch looked just like a limb that was growing and extending to a side. Earlier, when little boys climbed this tree, they always hung from this branch and moved along its length using both their hands alternately to hold on to it—first making their way to one end, and then back again. After that they would let go and jump down.
Like a lance held up, Kali would stand and stretch himself and, in just one leap, he’d get hold of that branch and dangle from it. Then he’d jump down. She used to make fun of him for that: ‘It is just like they say. In a childless house, it is the old hag who does all the playing.’That branch was Kali’s favourite. ‘Look how it stretches like a huge snake,’ he’d say.‘Watch out, it might come slithering to bite you,’ she’d reply.But he remained steadfast in his affection for the tree. ‘No matter how much you bother it, the tree will endure it all patiently. It is only humans who are unable to withstand even the smallest of troubles, my dear.’
True to his words, the tree had indeed withstood everything. It was he who couldn’t. Somehow, she found it hard to see Kali and the tree as separate entities. That was why she was very clear the tree should not be felled.
Various people tried to persuade her to get rid of the tree. Even her mother-in-law said, ‘The man himself is gone. What do you need the tree for when you have lost your husband!’ Her father, standing by her and gently massaging her head, told her, ‘When someone has died hanging from a tree, we shouldn’t let that tree stand. It keeps asking for more and more sacrifices.’ People also said, ‘His spirit won’t find peace in heaven. It will come and sit on this tree and just hover around here.’
But Ponna remained firm in her resolve. No one knew that her mind was suffused with memories of Kali climbing that portia. The cot that lay under that tree was a mere pile of ropes as far as everyone else was concerned—but for her it was the happy weave of all her times with him. In fact, she had not even wanted anyone to chop off that offending branch. But in the end she had to yield at least that much.
Otherwise, she would have lost the entire tree. Since this branch had a twin that had sprouted alongside it from the trunk before diverging and shooting up higher, they could not sever it too close to its base. They left a little bit of it intact. She took a stalk from the felled branch and planted it in a corner of the field. At dusk one day, she walked to the cremation grounds, her mother shouting and trailing behind, and fetched ashes from the burnt remains of Kali’s pyre, and carried them back in the loose end of her sari. She put a handful of those ashes in the little pit in which she had planted the stalk; the rest she sprinkled all over the field. Her mother-in-law, Seerayi, who happened to see this, said, ‘If you plant a tree in the memory of the dead man, is it going to bring him back?
She has become insane! Isn’t it enough that we have one portia tree tormenting us? Do we need to fill up the field with them?’Excerpted from A Lonely Harvest by Perumal Murugan with permission from Penguin Random House India.