It started with a tree.
When I was three years old my parents bought an 8000 sq. ft. plot of land in the coastal town of Surathkal in southern India and built a large home. Around the house they planted six coconut trees, three mango trees and several other tropical fruit trees including guava, chickoo, banana, jackfruit, and a large variety of flowers and decorative plants.
However, after retirement, the harsh summers and the relentless monsoon rains of the Arabian Sea coast drove them to my mother’s hometown of Mysore with its milder climate. There they procured a modest 2000 sq. ft. piece of land and built a manageable little abode. Downsizing and rightsizing was all fine and dandy, but my Mom sure missed her trees. Taking inspiration from a noted local environmentalist, Saalumarada Thimmakka, who planted and tended to over a hundred banyan trees along a stretch of highway, my mom decided to plant at least one tree in front of the house beside the street.
After weeding through a plethora of options, she settled on a Neem tree (Azadirachta indica). The very breeze that blows through a neem branch is supposed to have healthful properties. Eating fresh young neem leaves and flowers is said to keep diabetes at bay.
Water infused with neem leaves and neem leaf paste is supposed to cure many skin diseases. Beauty product aisles in Indian supermarkets are filled with neem face masks, neem shampoos, the list goes on.
Not known for procrastinating, Mom went to a government nursery, brought home a neem sapling, planted it next to the gate, watered it, protected it from meandering cows, and gave it every love and attention. Soon her “neem baby” grew into a big tree. Its branches spread across the front yard and the shade provided cool relief in the master bedroom during afternoon naps. My mom’s joy and pride knew no bounds!
\Soon Mom realized that she was not the only one enjoying the neem tree. One morning she peeked out of the window to notice that Dhobi (laundryman) Ramanna’s ironing cart was parked under the tree with hot coal burning red in his old fashioned iron-box. By the time she stepped out with her morning coffee, the entire compound wall was lined with colorful bundles of clothes waiting for their turn at wrinkle release.
“What is this Ramanna? Is there a clothes exhibition?” she shouted.
“The shade is so nice ma’am, I’ll just finish ironing these clothes. Why don’t you give yours as well?” he replied, ever on the lookout for new business.
“What do we do now about this new problem?” Mom complained to Dad, a little miffed at the turn of events.
“Is it your street?” he questioned calmly without looking up from the newspaper.
Just like that a small mound of coal ash started to collect next to the gate. One day Dad had to leave in a hurry, and found that Ramanna had parked his cart blocking the gate and had inconveniently disappeared. Now what!?
“Leelu!” Dad called Mom. “You pull the cart aside, I’ll reverse the car,” he said. The street in front of the house is not exactly flat.Mom, in all her youthful 65-year-old glory was next seen pulling and pushing this heavy iron cart, sweat dripping from her forehead in the Indian summer heat.
Ramanna’s is a family business. At times his wife and seven-year-old daughter joined him beside his mobile ironing cart. His daughter delivered bundles of ironed clothes to homes along the the street and collected money for her father. My mom, being the loving woman she is, used to give the girl some fruit, biscuits or other munchies. One day the girl came running to Mom crying “Aunty, I work so hard and collect all this money for my father, but he is refusing to buy me color pencils for Rs.10 (19 cents)”! And so Mom went as negotiator to Ramanna and they settled on splitting the cost down the middle. Little Chinty was full of smiles that day.
On another occasion Mom walked home with loaded grocery bags and there was Ramanna sitting on the front porch with a bundle of clothes. “Ma’am, the lady across the street is out. When she comes back can you please give her these clothes?” he pleaded. And so Mom spent the evening on the front room sofa with a bundle of colorful clothes, eyes peeled on the neighbor’s gate.
And then, almost inevitably, the lady down the street knocked on the door. “Aunty, I need to get these clothes ironed in a hurry, but the dhobi is not here yet. I need to go to the temple, can you please give him these clothes when he gets here?” she requested. “Of course!” said Mom and went back to chopping vegetables wondering aloud about when she had signed up to unofficially manage Ramanna’s dhobi business.
Lethargic after a sumptuous lunch, Mom was relaxing with a book in the front veranda one afternoon, when snap, snap, she heard breaking noises. Walking outside, she found a man on the Neem tree breaking small branches and twigs and hurtling it to the ground.
An unfamiliar rage colored Mom’s voice. “Hey you! why are you breaking the branches?” she yelled.
“Oh be quiet Ma’am! they will grow back out! Kids in my village are down with chicken pox, so I am taking some leaves!” he replied. Mom watched him walk away with a third of her tree.
The plot of land across the street was sold to a new owner who started constructing his house. It did not take long for the construction workers to discover the neem tree and its cool shade. Soon the land around the tree became preferred parking for all their bicycles, motorcycles and cars. It also became the favorite lunch spot for all the workers. They gathered there every afternoon with their packed lunch. Stories of household sorrows and joys, mobile phone conversations, cricket commentary on the radio, minor rough-ups with loan sharks all broke the monotony in front of my parents house. On the day that sounds of “Kolaveri Kolaveri Di” disturbed the cherished afternoon nap in the cool shade of the neem tree in their bedroom, my parents decided to shift to the guest bedroom at the back of the house.
One morning at about 11:00 a.m. Mom heard some loud altercations. Cautiously she peered out from behind the curtain to find several “muscle men” standing under the neem tree, smoking cigarettes! Mom quietly stole to the backyard to ask the maid what was going on. “There is some dispute regarding the road due to the new house construction, so these are local hooligans from the village. You stay indoors!” she advised.
The next day Mom walked out hearing sirens to see a police jeep parked under the tree! Yesterday it was hooligans, today it’s law enforcement, she sighed. And all day she got inquiries from neighbors about why the police had visited her house!
Soon the local college boys discovered the neem tree. Very soon there were throngs of boys on their motor bikes hanging out in the evenings under the tree, smoking cigarettes and gossiping about cricket, professors and, of course, girls, who joined in every now and then. News of the new young world wafted into my parents’ living room in the evenings providing ample entertainment.
Which was just as well, since moving all the vehicles blocking the gate to take the car out and go for an evening drive was becoming more and more tiresome. My parents had to solicit passers-by to help move vehicles when they needed to take the car out.
Just as Mom was starting to pull out her hair over the tree, my aunt visiting from Chennai dropped a conversational bomb about the root damage neem trees could cause to the building structure and the amount of money needed to fix it. For the first time the thought of chopping the tree down entered my mom’s mind.
One day Mom was sitting in the front porch reading a book and slowly she looked up at the tree. It was spring and the tree was full of fragrant blossoms. She took a deep breath and relaxed, enjoying its shade, beauty and fragrance. The branches swayed to a gentle breeze and seemed to smilingly say “I am the one providing the shade and I don’t mind all the drama. Why are you worrying?” And just like that Mom realized her “neem baby” was all grown up now. It was alive, it was well, and it was fulfilling its promise in the world.
Samanvitha Rao is a Technical Marketing Engineer based in San Jose. She is an avid adventure enthusiast. This article was inspired by her mother, Leelavathi Rao’s story, published in the Kannada magazine Sudha.