She was sitting on the porch and enjoying her usual cup of tea reading her weekly, occasionally stealing a glance at the playful birds on the red gulmohar tree. She couldn’t help but notice how the tree had become almost synonymous with her life. It has been watered from the day she got married 37 years ago. She watered it every single day, like she fed her children daily. Yet, she wondered how the tree grew along, a branch at a time, widening its sturdy trunk, as her children moved from schools to colleges, standing strong gleaming in its red fiery beauty, giving shade unasked, while her children rarely came home or visited her. She longed to see them, and she saw them in the tree – the big, strong, sturdy tree, blooming all over, like a happy child responding to nature’s tease.
As she was absent mindedly sipping her tea, holding the weekly in her other hand, she noticed birds flying away from the tree to a dog’s loud bark. She saw the dog howling and running away from a boy’s stones and felt an instant urge to chide him, like she used to chide her son. She saw her son in the boy, how he reluctantly gave in and followed her home quietly, for fear of missing the evening snack as a punishment. She suddenly noticed the boy’s mother pulling him by his arm, shouting and promising him a sound beating if he didn’t budge. She felt sad for the boy, but instantly corrected herself that this is probably the right thing to do. In this sense, she also felt happy for she realized she is learning to recognize the need for corrective action. As these contrary pulls of feelings within her subsided, she plunged back into her lonely well of remorse.
She has been guilty from the moment she saw her daughter’s face 15 years ago as she spoke the words, she now wished she hadn’t. Her guilt, as strong as the red gulmohar tree, as old its first bloom, as deep as its roots, kept gnawing at the last of her will to live, yet pushing her to cling onto a stray hope that everything done could be undone. She tried desperately to not let her mind wander around the premise of the impossible, but it deceived her time and again, like she did to herself. She felt disgusted to see the ironical semblance between what she was, and what she is. She suddenly had an urge to get up and walk away from the gulmohar tree, like it never existed, to break free of her memories that bound her to her past, to be numb to the feelings throbbing at her heart, to escape the gaze of each fire lily looking at her, like it’s her fault, her own doing, her conscious choice to gut her emotions to ashes, but again, her stray mind succumbed to the poisonous hope of fictitious reality, where guilt and remorse do not exist, but only joy and love. She felt a naive tremor of rage at herself for being gullible and falling prey to the malicious game of her mind, making her hopeful, again.
As she saw the boy disappearing from her sight, trailing his mother sulking, she noticed the dog lie down in the shade of the gulmohar tree. The dog stretched itself on its hind legs and proceeded to stretch its forelegs letting out a big yawn. It looked like it didn’t care if the boy would be back. It looked like it was never hurled stones at. It looked like it hadn’t a feeling of fear. It cozied itself under the shade of the gulmohar tree, on a blanket of flowers, looking distinctly pleased, and occasionally glancing at the chirping birds. There was a mild drizzle of flowers on it, like a mother patting her infant. The gulmohar tree has always been kind to anyone under it. It gave shade unasked, it rained flowers, it sheltered birds, it let them build their nests, hatch babies and make a family. It only helped so far, but never asked. She wondered, why did it not help her on that fateful day her son walked away from her, forever. Is it because it did not see her eyes struggling to contain her tears? Is it because it did not feel her pain? Or, is it because it does not have a heart? But, how would it help so many without one? They were standing right in its shade, under its watchful eye, its dense branches shielding them from the burning sun, making them feel safe that nothing ever could harm them under its protection, making them feel that everything done could be undone. The gulmohar tree always gave what everyone wished for. It protected anyone seeking shelter. But why didn’t it protect her daughter? Its long branches reached well into her house. It has been a part of them for 37 years. Why didn’t it protect her when everything happened under its shade? Why did it just watch, like it didn’t care?
As the morning sun became brighter, she felt the warm sun rays escape the dense foliage of the gulmohar tree and greet her face. She enjoyed the warm feeling on her face after the coldness of her thoughts, like she enjoyed snuggling under a warm blanket on a cold winter night, the difference being, winter comes and goes, but her conscience remains; remains like a shadow, becoming bigger than ourselves at times, and barely visible at other times, but an inherent part of us, always. She pondered how a shadow can be killed by the simple act of letting in light, but how do we kill our conscience? Can conscience even be killed? How do we rid of it? She was tempted for a moment about living a life free of conscience, free of guilt, free of memories, and free of regrets. She smiled a little to herself, at her naivety, at her mind’s incessant game of making her hope for the inevitable. She wondered how humankind would be with a mind that listens to their heart, with a mind that shuts off thoughts at will, with a mind that forgets memories when we wish to, and a mind that is not degenerate. She started craving for the coldness of her thoughts, to rid the turbulence brought by the warm sun rays that fine morning. She feared becoming numb, incapable of feeling happiness and joy, warmth and love, yet she found solace in the deep corners of her mind, where she accepted that her life was to be lived in remorse.
She moved her head back, to rest on the chair, and avoid the sun rays falling on her face. She could see the branches of the gulmohar tree dancing to the tune of the breeze, occasionally letting a sun ray pass through her spectacles, making her squint. She wanted to look away, but she did not; she looked straight at the sun, through the branches, unafraid, accepting the harshness of it, for she felt the burning sun understand her anguish and pain by punishing her with its unforgiving rays. She felt memory is a tool designed to punish humankind, not letting them forget their deeds, not letting them sleep peacefully, not letting them live life. Memories might not burn as bright as a sun, yet, they are sharper than the harshest rays. They do not make you squint your eyes, but pierce through your happiest and unsuspecting moments like a knife on the cheese. The scars left by them, are said to heal with time, but she wondered, is a lifetime enough time? If memories get dulled over time, why does she remember everything like it was yesterday?
Unable to calm her turbulent morning thoughts, she deliberates if she should cook her lunch for some respite from her malevolent mind. She contemplates about going to the market and getting some fresh vegetables but decides on making broth for she doesn’t want to talk or interact with anyone. She felt lonely in the town she has lived for 37 years. She felt lonely in the house which she made a home, where she birthed two children, both away now, hopefully well. She felt lonely in the same room she slept for the last 37 years, on the same bed, on the same side. She longed for affection. Or was it forgiveness? She did not know. She did not have the energy to understand what she wanted. She wanted to be with all around her, and she hated their presence the moment she was with them. She could see that they personified the vile morality of the society that made her do what she did. They represented an unspoken code of rules where the fraught were shunned, and the tormentors hailed. She felt disgusted at herself for being complicit to their invisible and unspoken pressure. She wished she could go far away from the very home she made, to escape the arrows of abhorrence and remorse aimed at her, in the form of them.
Lost in her internal battles, she forgot about the cup of tea in her hand. The tea wasn’t hot anymore and a few flies hovered around the rim of the cup. In a moment of impulsive care, she spilled a little tea on the parapet of her porch for the flies. She felt elated at the flies hovering around and landing at her little pool of tea, satiating their hunger. She saw how the flies, collectively in throngs, are able to pursue their objective in perfect unison, not pushing or butting each other while drinking the spilled tea together. She couldn’t help but feel empty to see, how humans, have failed to be together, to stand for each other, to help one another, and to love each other. What we’ve done is run a race in the course set by the intangible, cruel, non-inclusive morality that thrives on the subjugation of private lives by the society. She realized how our lives are a function of the need for acceptance from the people around us. They control our lives in ways we do not see, do not imagine, and do not intrinsically accept. They hunt for the deviations in others’ behaviors from the set code of societal morality and satisfy their hunger by demonizing the deviants and feeling superior. They do not care about the repercussions of their bigoted philosophies to stay on a higher moral ground. They work in groups, whisper in secret, gossip behind backs, ostracize prejudicially. If they show an abject incapability of appreciating the real, they have no trouble praising the intangible meaninglessly. They set an ideal for everyone to follow, an ideal that is partial, unjust, and thrives on hailing the oppressors, and bullying the wounded.
She felt sick for being a part of them. She never realized the shallowness of them until her children left her. She never realized the unjustness of their morality until she had to snub her own for talking about what they endured. She never realized the despotic nature of them until she had to watch her children walk away, guilty.
She never realized she was one of them until it was too late.
(This short story was first published in the online magazine ‘Literary Impulse’ (edition 6), now known as ‘ShabdAaweg’.)