The Jacaranda Tree
The purple blooms that reached for the sky were a memento of an innocent childhood and a lost friend.
Resthouse Crescent Road in the 1970s was the street in Bangalore where we lived. Lined with laburnum, gulmohar, tabebuia and jacaranda, it was also home to trees that provided bountiful harvests of mangoes, jackfruit, tamarind, guavas and coconuts. It was perfect for a 10-year-old tomboy like me, who preferred hanging off trees over being ladylike.
I spent many afternoons with my friend and neighbour, Barbara Doro, seeking footholds in tree trunks as we yanked ourselves up on to the branches. Barbara, who was roughly my age, may have moved to Bangalore from Germany a couple of years ago because of her father's job at Bharat Fritz Werner, but she was quite the desi, and loved chai, bhelpuri and biryani.
Our backyards became our playground. Athletic monkeys would leap through the branches, while busy squirrels scurried about, their bushy tails bouncing behind them. Birds flocked from tree to tree, as a myriad species of insects busily traversed the trunks and branches.
We liked the jackfruit tree in Amina Mathias's backyard, with the big, prickly fruit filling our arms as we brought it down with precision. It had to be intact so that we could prise it open to get to the delectable yellow flesh inside. There was Amu Mascarenhas who let us climb the mango tree in her compound. We would sit on the branches, biting into the fragrant, golden yellow fruit while waving away pesky mango flies. The Coorgi sisters, Sudha, Kaveri and Radha Kuttappa, had a huge guava tree in their courtyard and did not mind us clambering all over to gather the fruit from the branches. No matter the colour inside--pink or off-white--the guavas were always delicious. Lana, Kim and Suzy Tan, our Chinese friends, gave us access to the tamarind tree with fruit that hung like fairy lights on a Christmas tree. We would squirm, our faces puckering, as we tasted the sour, acidic pulp.
Barbara and I loved the jacaranda tree the most. It grew in the compound of an unoccupied high-ceilinged bungalow. We would launch ourselves on its grand, stately trunk, with branches ribbed like sand on a beach, spreading skyward, bearing pinnate leaves and lilac flowers. This majestic tree was a soothing sight against the azure blue sky on a summer-scented day. If there was heaven on earth, it was here!
It was no wonder then that I decided to celebrate my 10th birthday up on our "favourite branch" of the jacaranda tree. Barbara and I scrambled up and I carved the initials 'B and H' on our branch. Her father spotted us and took a photograph with his Nikon.
"There!" Barbara said triumphantly, "This will remind us of the day we carved our initials on our tree forever!"Things started moving fast soon after. Barbara's family relocated to Germany as her father had completed his project. On the day she left, we fought back tears, hugged and then cried, promising to be best friends forever. My family moved to an area near Ulsoor Lake. It was our own apartment, but it was never the same for me--friends and trees were few and far between. Barbara and I stayed in touch for some time through a neighbour Gavin Cordeiro. I, meanwhile, made the transition to being a 'lady' and after my post graduation in English literature, moved to Bahrain where my father was posted. Several years later, in 1990, our stay was cut short with the First Gulf War and we moved back to Bangalore.
I couldn't hold in my excitement as the plane taxied down the runway. This was the place of my childhood. Reality started sinking in soon enough. I noticed that the city's climate wasn't balmy or invigorating, but humid and sultry. Bangalore was no longer laid-back and sleepy, its roads were tarred and many trees had disappeared. I wondered what our old neighbourhood looked like.So, one summer day, I boarded a bus to our old home. It would have been naïve to think that nothing had changed. I had--at 30, I was a teacher, writer and poet, though still single. As I walked down the street of my childhood, I noticed the number of cars. Old bungalows had given way to multi-storey apartment complexes and shopping malls. I tried to spot some of the trees I had climbed, but too much had changed. Some families still lived there, but my friends had long since moved.
With a million prayers in my heart, I walked to the compound that had been home to the grand old jacaranda tree. I hoped it had survived. Perhaps it would be in a decrepit state, but it would still be there. The bungalow in front was gone and in its place was a three-storey apartment building. I rushed to the rear.
My heart sank. It was gone. The majestic tree with its million sweet memories, the most perfect tree in the whole world, had been cut down to make space for a parking area. All that remained was an insignificant stump among the confusion of two-wheelers.
Trees take years to grow and take root, but it takes no time to destroy them. Hot, angry tears streamed down my face. I wanted to scream, How? How could you have finished off this beautiful, harmless tree? The world didn't seem like a rational place.
My heart felt numb. Twenty years was a long time and I knew things would change. But in one corner of my mind, I wanted that beautiful summer of my childhood back. I knew I would have to tell Barbara this. We had lost touch, but I managed to dig out an old address and wrote her a brief note. Frankly, I was not sure how she had been and I never expected a reply. Imagine my surprise when, a month later, I received an envelope. Hands trembling, I opened it, and out fell a sepia-tinted photograph that brought tears to my eyes.
Today, I am 57 years old, my sister has moved to a different part of the city, my elder brother is in the US, the younger one has passed on and I'm taking a break from work. My attempts to reconnect with my old friend have failed. The photograph, too, has disappeared, misplaced somehow, but every detail remains etched in my mind.
There we were, two tomboys, sitting on our favourite branch on the jacaranda tree, smiling impishly into the camera. Below, in her neat handwriting, Barbara had scribbled a note:
Letters are written by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.