This essay was first published on Huff Post India (30 Oct 2020). Temporarily posting it here until it finds a new home.
When we first moved to Basavanagudi in Bangalore, a relative told Appa he should chop the top half of the Tabebuia tree growing in front of our house. He said that a tree growing taller than your house was bad luck, it would stunt your prosperity. Of course, that same person also told Appa not to let daughters sleep under vaulted ceilings because it made them ambitious and they would never get married. Appa studied the ceiling and the tree with caution. Amma made a fuss, not on behalf of my ambitions but because she had put her life on hold to build this house. The vaulted ceiling was her final touch. I have now spent 13 years under it and for 13 years no matter where I was in life and how many ambitions I had and how often they cut me, the Tabebuia tree dropped pink flowers every February.
During the pandemic, I took to spending hours on the terrace under the shade of the Tabebuia tree, reading, watering plants, and listening to short stories by women. Over Jamaica Kincaid’s words (‘Figures in the Distance’) in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s voice one evening, I discovered rows of sugary dust left behind by ants on a pear leaf. I scraped some out, surprised when they made my fingers sticky. Kincaid’s narrator was saying that as a child, she was convinced that only people she didn’t know died. I think back to the time my grandfather died; how his body had grown smaller in death and was being bathed under the Tabebuia tree even as Brahmin neighbors retreated into their homes, repulsed by the sight of bare-chested, thread-less Dalit men walking around. I think back more recently to the time my oldest uncle died, looking just as his father had, his small body cradled by the man bathing him.
I was brought back to the story when Adichie whispered “We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again” Her dipping voice both covering and revealing the child narrator’s goosebumps. I tightened my grip on the water pipe to manage the urge to highlight that line, as if I was reading it off a kindle, off a mobile screen, copying those lines to later paste and post on twitter, an invitation for others to read, for me to remember weeks or months later when I’m senselessly scrolling down to see if there’s anything I’ve said in excess, anything that must be uncurated. There are 60 potted plants on the terrace although Appa says 58 because two are succulents and he doesn’t think of them as real plants. I stopped arguing with him after he began using them as weights for the plate of bird grain. Two weeks into the lockdown, Appa began coming up to the terrace only to feed the birds. For a while, he used to stop at the plants, considering them, cursing them when they weren’t growing, and then ignoring them entirely when he discovered birds because they showed him they remembered him.
At home, there were varying opinions about how often plants must be watered. Appa said weekly, my sister said once in three days. I saw logic
in both but selfishly continued watering them every day because in the 30 minutes that it took to water the plants, I could listen to stories without interruption, where even I couldn’t interrupt myself. And what is a short story if not an interruption, a sudden, smallish hole to free-fall into? My hands were tied, so were my ears. All I could do was shut up, water the plants, and listen to the story. One morning, Appa played a YouTube tutorial video for the confused koel sitting on the Tabebuia tree. He was teaching it how to sing, not croak. “Listen to how the birds do it here, you are not doing it properly,” he was instructing it. We told him not to birdsplain but neither the koel nor he was interested in our opinion. Amma left him alone and took to watching the parrots that came in clouds, sat a while, and then fluttered away, early in the mornings. “I saw 50 parrots today,” she told anyone who called her on the phone.
Every year during Hiriyar Habba, we remember our dead elders. There’s mutton, egg, and chicken on a plantain leaf, a bundle of beedis sticking
out of a small glass, and bottles of cheap whiskey, all arranged neatly in front of stern, black and white pictures of Ajja and Doddappa. The meat
on the plantain leaf is then eaten by the oldest members of the family. This year though, instead of eating them, Appa stood on the terrace holding mutton pieces, waving them at the hawks that swooped down and grabbed what they could. One of the hawks lost its grip on a piece and it fell right into our neighbors’ compound. Appa’s eyes widened with delight, although a familiar, muted fear crept in between his eyebrows. Later that day, there was outrage in the neighbor’s house, and curses that fell on our caste while Appa snorted lazily and Amma glared at no one.
Three months ago, the neighbors were flying kites and one morning I saw blue threads hanging uselessly from the Tabebuia tree. Some days later,
Appa rescued a pigeon struggling to free itself from one of those threads. Streaked with blood, it was caught in the pigeon’s wings and lodged deep inside the skin, making several cuts every time it tried to get away. Appa held the bird in his left hand in that gentle way that might look rudely firm to an untrained eye. I kept wondering if he’d hurt the pigeon more in the process or if the pigeon would turn around and bite him but Appa was deft with the scissors, making one quick cut after another. When the last loop had been cut, he freed the bird and it flew away with a flutter, making Appa laugh.
Our house and its Tabebuia tree are flanked by houses that wear threads of a different kind. In the 13 years that we’ve lived here, our neighbors have only remained neighbors, never becoming anything more, anything less. During the lockdown, I often see Appa standing by the window, watching the neighbors every time they gather near the katte in the morning to read newspapers, laugh, and talk. I wonder if he ever desired that kind of companionship but then I see him with his pigeons and his hawks and his crows and I have an answer. I think back to the time when our neighbor stopped stealing our milk packet after she discovered its Dalitness, and how since then, Appa stands defiantly by the door, publicly eavesdropping on every loud, private quarrel between her and her son. I think of the privacy he gives birds when they eat. How he stands behind the door discreetly, and watches them, smiling like a man who has just learnt how to fly. I am glad that the trees and birds here are more ours than Basavanagudi and its people. Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, and he’ll show you what freedom is like no one else can, regardless of what colour the thread is or how long.