Under the Peach Tree
Under the Peach Tree- A Short Story
It was a foggy Monday morning in January. I saw two old men working on the road which crossed past the main gate of our new unfurnished house. I was 11 years old and my family had arrived to live here with a load of our belongings only a day before. We were busy arranging our household to make the place habitable. I was being assigned the duty to sweep the front porch which was all covered with dust coming from the nearby country road. While sweeping along the main gate, I heard these two old men talking to each other rather loudly. They were positioned just across the road by the side of the peach tree. The distance between our house and the natural seasonal drain where they were patching the road with more of loose soil than stones was not more than twenty meters.
The first man to speak was Jignu. He put his shovel down, rubbed his hands and shivering said:
‘It is freezing cold out here.’
The other man put his hands inside his woollen coat under his armpits and replied:
‘It is a bad day to work in. The chill of the morning fog is making my joints numb’.
“Let’s sit down and have a smoke at least. Have you got bidi?” Manglu enquired Jignu.
Jignu nodded his head in agreement and they both sat down. Jignu passed over the bundle of bidi to Manglu. Manglu lighted a matchstick and passed on the bidis and pack of matchsticks back to Jignu.
Jignu took a long and deep puff of smoke in and blew it out slowly making rings with a great satisfaction. He felt a bit relaxed now. He sat there with his long time friend Manglu who was busy smoking and gazing in the direction of our house. Jignu in a contemplative mood inundated his anger while talking to Manglu:
These petty politicians! They visit these areas once in five years during the election times. They vanish into thin air when it comes to working for their people. Our local M. L. A never visited this area all these years. Now he is coming again to seek our votes to be re-elected. And we have to mend and repair this road for his welcome even in such a cold weather.
Manglu sat silent without reacting to Jignu’s insightful talk. Jignu shivered with cold and longed for some warmth. “A small fire would be great. Manglu Bhai lets arrange some wood for fire. I can’t feel my fingers and toes due to the cold.”
“Okay. But where is dry wood? Everything is eaten up by the frost.” Manglu replied.
They both saw me sweeping before the main gate of my house. Jignu at once called me:
“Arrey Chhutki! Can we get some fire?”
I raised my head and I was confused about how to reply to his bossy tone.
I looked towards the house and replied: “Let me ask my mother.”
Hurriedly, I ran into the kitchen. My grandmother was sitting near the chullah (fire place) and was making a fire while mumbling angrily. She has not been able to have her bath because there was no electricity and right now nobody has any time to make a fire and heat some water for her. To avoid her fury I went into other room looking for mother. She was sweeping the wooden floor which was submerged with a thick layer of dust and small wood pieces. I told her about two men demanding some wood to light a fire. My mother forwarded the message to my father. She asked him to go out and see who these men were.
Meanwhile, due to the delay in reciprocal of any positive response from our side the old men became impatient. Jignu came in person to visit our house and called for my father loudly. He was our first official and curious visitor. He showed his happiness on our arrival to have come to live here. Now he needed not to ask the upper caste people for water and was saved from their sharp remarks and insulting. Hence forward, he became a regular visitor. Stopping by the house gate which opened directly towards the dusty road, Jignu would call for my mother and ask for drinking water. He loved gossiping with grandmother and mother. An extra benefit for him was the company of other village women who used to come and take some rest under the peach tree, while leaving for and coming back from their daily errands.
There was a trickling natural water source around twenty five metres away from our house and my father managed to revive it a bit with his hard labour and re-directed it towards our house with the help of pipes. The water from this source has become a source of great satisfaction to quench the thirst of a lot of passerby people. Village women found it handy to visit my mother daily.They would drink water and have tea, while sitting by the gate. Each passerby was at their scrutiny and there was never a shortage of topics for gossip.
Village women liked Jignu’s company. Sitting with him at ease was something different than mixing with other males. I never liked dual-meaning talk of these village women. But I admired them for their hard earned lives. They worked hard at home getting up early and preparing food for their very large families, fetching water from a mile away, arranging grass from the fields and mostly stealing it from other landlord’s orchards, piling up a huge amount of wood to light their stoves. The nights used to horrible and unbearable for being abused and beaten by their husbands for nothing. Sometimes they needed to run to save themselves from the thrashing and spend nights under a tree and open sky. These women also laboured at upper caste people's houses for little money which they dearly needed; mostly to buy their monthly ration and sometimes for medicines. They faced hardships all their lives, but still knew how to laugh and how to keep going.
Jignu was always accompanied by his friend Manglu. They worked as Beldars (labourers) in Himachal Pradesh Public Works Department. Jignu was quite talkative but his friend Manglu was reserved one. Reciprocating to Namaste greetings from Grandmother and mother he would just smile and ask about grandmother’s well being. He would never enter the gate of our house and he fetched his drinking water from other upper caste relatives. Manglu was a Brahmin by caste while Jignu belonged to lower caste of Hindu society. But how did they come to know each other? Their companionship aroused my curiosity.
It was Jignu who saw Manglu’s wife slipping from a rocky slope. She was trying to take hold of the sheep who has wandered away to savour the green leaves from a wild shrub. Manglu’s wife slipped and fell while hurting her head on a bolder. At the moment she did not realise how badly she has been hurt. She stood up but felt dizzy and collapsed at the very place. Jignu was afraid to touch her and ran for assistance from anyone from the upper caste people. He managed to find Manglu pruning in his apple orchard. Manglu took her at once to village temple and asked the priest for help. Priest ensured him that she will revive. There is no need to worry. A yajna was performed for three days to bless Manglu’s wife. On fifth day Manglu decided to take her to a distant hospital at Shimla. But she died even before reaching the Hospital.
Manglu could do nothing except for feeling apologetic for have not listened to Jignu to take her to Hospital at once. He thought it better to trust the priest more than believing the words of a lower caste person. She died of brain haemorrhage and internal injuries. She might have survived with timely medical assistance. Manglu lost his wife and his faith.
During 1980’s roads started reaching into far-flung areas of the hilly states. Poor village people found new employment source and they enrolled themselves to the daily wages. Working for government department also meant freedom from slavery of upper caste people. Manglu too joined Jignu, for he did not want to be at home.
They both worked for most of the time in a familiar ten kilometre’s stretch of road. It was a cross linked road which passed across our home and lead to the next village of Jignu and Manglu which was only two kilometres away. Both friends could be seen doing patch work on the road and most of the time they were mending the damage done to the road by the water from the nallah (drain) close to our house. This stretch of road was always in bad condition because there was no proposition of proper drainage system.
In the year 2003, we experienced a great heat wave. The month of May has never been this hot and dry in this mostly green and pleasant locale of hilly state. Grass has already started withering in absence of showers to reinvigorate them. Apples and all other fruits also started withering and dropping from trees. Our roadside peach tree also shed almost all its fruits. Peaches were still immature and lacked the sap and flavour. In some other times village people might have been enjoying their sweet and tangy flavour while having rest under the shade of the peach tree. But this year people were indoors during this season because of unexpectedly hot weather. Only Jignu and Manglu and rarely any other PWD worker rested under the cool shade. Even the trickling water dwindled and dried. My father feared its total extinction which meant our dependence upon government water supply.
The stillness of hot noon and luncheon of curry, rajmah and red rice with a full glass of buttermilk, made me drowsy and soon I went to sleep. I wake up at four o’clock in the evening and came out of my room. Mother was not at home. She was gone to fetch fresh grass supply for our dear loved cow, Lali. Grandmother was on her daily routine walk to some distant place. She was habitual of disappearing without any prior notice or any announcement. My brother was snoring loudly after gulping the same delicious lunch as me, but almost twice of my diet.
I was in a deep slumber but woke up alarmingly. Someone was calling for mother.
I never liked to reply to these yelling calls. I always made the caller wait until I would finally open the door and come out. Mother used to be infuriated because I did same to her too.
A hoarse, excited and somewhat known voice was heard outside the house. Coming to my full senses I realized the voice was of none other than Jingnu itself. There was someone else with him and it was not his friend Manglu. He was not wearing his uniform and woollen coat. Even his hallmarked Himachali Topi was also missing. He looked different. The moment he saw me he snubbed me for not responding to his calling. To his great dismay I informed him that mother and grandmother were both not at home. He went away with his other companion. Next day I came to know that the other person was his new wife. List of his wives have been long. But nobody would stay for more than two or three months and always left Jignu. Not that Jignu was affected very much with the fact.
One fine day our dear cow Lali was merrily grazing by the side of the road opposite to our house. Jignu crossed the road and was about to enter the main gate of our house. He called aloud for the mother. He did not notice Lali coming behind him. She stretched her neck to reach for the flowers and was rebutted by Jignu. Lali snorted and pushed him making him unbalanced. He tried to get her away from his path but she was reluctant. Lali grunted and growled at him. Jignu was alarmed called for mother once again - “Bahu! Come out and look after your cow. You should not keep her free like this.She is going to hurt somebody.” He again swayed his hand to frighten her and to steer or drive her away: “Husha! Huurrr. Go away you cow.”
Lali was furious. She attacked him with her bare hornless head. Jignu tumbled down with his legs up and his head between his legs. She again hit him with her legs like a seasoned footballer. Mother could do nothing. She was surprised and shocked to see Lali so mad. Mother held her with her ear and slapped her back with her palm. She tried to calm her down.
Jignu was speechless with shock. He got some scratches on his knees. His back ached while he rose up. He gasped for breath and was full of agony. He cried: “Oh Narsingh Devta! I am attacked by this possessed cow. Somebody is trying to get me killed”.”
Grandmother also agreed with Jignu. She nodded her head saying:
“You are right Jignu Bhai. She sure is possessed by some evil. Go to the priest and invoke Narsingh Devta. Truth shall be revealed at once. The priest is very powerful.”
Jignu was busy talking to my grandmother when Lali managed to loosen from mother’s grip and her target was again Jignu. He ran to save his dear life and Lali chased after him. Mother also ran after Lali but it was too late. Jignu feeling a great threat to his life gathered all his athletic capability and ran like a sprinter. Lali with her head bowed down and tail raised high in the air as a sword ready to attack the opponent, chased him. She kept chasing him for almost half a mile when Jignu’s survival instinct suggested him to leave the road and run up to the adjacent field. To be more secure he climbed up an apple tree.
Meanwhile, mother has also reached the scene. She clutched Lali with her ear and gave her a thrashing for being so ignominious. But Lali got busy grazing the lush green grass. She has forgotten all about Jignu who was still sitting on the tree trembling with excitement and fatigue after sprinting. He was sweating profusely and was deeply shaken. Mother tied a rope around Lali’s neck and dragged her back home.
Manglu was sitting at the curve of the road. He had witnessed the whole drama. He also hurried for Jignu’s rescue. He felt sorry to see the plight of agitated Jignu. Jignu was completely assured now that somebody is planning vile against him. He needed to go to the priest immediately. Manglu agreed with Jignu but he could not suppress his laugh for very long. Jignu was annoyed at this. He left Manglu and came again to our house.
Mother felt very apologetic about the whole episode. She offered him a glass of milk with turmeric.Grandmother sympathized fully with Jignu and rebuked mother for letting the cow graze in open. She was assured that the cow has been under the control of some devil or an evil witch. The discussion was joined by two village women, Sushma and Bimla; two of our daily visitors. They inquired about the distress of Jignu from mother in signals by raising their eyebrows and twisting their lips questioningly. But mother did not reply and signalled back to them to make the inquiry from Jignu himself.
“O Chhacha. What happened?”
Jignu did not reply and did not even look in their direction. He kept sitting with sullen face.
Sushma also asked teasingly:
“Chacha why are sitting here? You never work and are lucky enough to have a government job. You truly have Rajyog in your Kundli.”
Sushma wasn’t perturbed by Jignu’s silence and continued:
“Look here at us. We are poor people, breaking our bones while carrying loads of wood to light the fire in our chullhas.”
Naggingly she kept on with her complaints:
“Mami never serve us tea even though she makes us fetch bundles of grass for her cow so many times. And here she is serving you with milk and that too with turmeric. This is not fair mami. Why you..?”
Sushma was now interrupted by grandmother. She snubbed her harshly:
“Shut up Sushma. You never know when to stop. Do you? Is this a proper way to talk to your elders?”
Jignu also looked at Sushma angrily. He was infuriated with her remarks and teasing. Usually he would not have taken offence to such remarks and would have retorted appropriately. But today he felt hurt with the agony of the very thought that somebody has been trying to get him hurt. Jignu was into a deep thought about who might be behind all this. Everyone else silent and the scene became tense.
Mother could not hold the silence for long and she started talking. Her funny bone irked and she concluded the whole episode with her prophetic declaration:
“Kaka. I think you should immediately consult the village priest. Lali for sure is the reincarnation of Kaki (Jignu’s wife). Lali has recognised you and she sure is angry with you. You forgot her and married again.”
Jignu was dumbstruck. A thunderbolt had stricken him and he did not move for next two minutes. Then he suddenly got up and left our house. He went straight to Manglu who was busy smoking. He picked up his coat, satchel and shovel and said to Manglu:
“I won’t work anymore today. I need to see the priest at once.”
Manglu said nothing and let him go. The next day Jignu came with a chapatti specially made for Lali. He folded his both hands with great reverence and offered it to Lali. Lali accepted the offering and got busy again in her grazing. Later on every Tuesday Jignu offered chapatti to Lali and never tried to cross her path again.
In the year 2006 it rained heavily in the month of June. During the morning, the sky was crystal clear and deep blue with no clouds at all. Nobody expected such a heavy downpour. By the noon time, the sky was all covered with black clouds. The clouds progressed across the high cliffs in the east and a thunderstorm set in and gradually gained impetus. Lightning could be seen and heard although it has not approached our side of the hill. But within next fifteen or twenty minutes a very strong storm could be seen closing upon and it alarmed my mother who was cutting grass in the apple orchard nearby for mulching of apple tree beds. Coming to action she shouted and called for me and my brother to come out and collect the laundry and kitchen utensils which were drying out in sun.
Mother hurriedly pushed Lali, our dear cow to get in her barn. Lali was not ready to move an inch from her place. She kept munching on green grass. She was reluctant to get back into her shed so soon. Mother pushed her and abused her for being stubborn and somehow managed to get Lali in. My concern was to safeguard peach from being ruined by moisture. I managed to collect all of them timely. I loved eating dried peach and winters would have been sweeter with dried peach in my pocket all the time.
A heavy downpour with lightning and thunderstorm soon made it deafening and it became quite dark at noon. Heavy pitter- patter on the tin roof made it difficult to hear anything else. I watched out of the window and it seemed that something huge was flying nearby but it was dark and stormy to see clearly what it was. Later we came to know that the temporary tin roof of our neighbour had been blown away.
The nearby nallah was flooded and it turned hazardous to our barn which was quite close to it. Mother was quite anxious about the well-being of Lali and her new-born calf. Water was overflowing all over the road. It was not possible to cross it right now.
On that fateful day, Jignu and Manglu were also posted on the same patch to work. When it started raining, Jignu wanted to come under the shelter of our house roof. But Manglu was reluctant not to come. After all he was a Brahmin. He would not cross the threshold of a lower caste person. Not even if it is raining heavily or a storm would be raging. His high bred consciousness was not allowing it. They were friends but they always kept distance while eating their food. They worked together, shared their jokes and sorrows but never went to each other’s houses. They both had a clear understanding of their social arrangement and none had any urge to change it. Thus they sat under the peach tree with their umbrellas open, waiting for the rain to stop.
Jignu and Manglu sat there for half an hour. Jignu proposed him to walk the 500 metre’s distance to the house an upper caste person. Manglu agreed to the proposition. They were about to stand up and walk, when lightning struck the peach tree. A loud thundering was heard after few moments. Our house shook with the jolt of thunder making ears deaf. It was only after five minutes that mother took courage to go out and check what happened. Lightening has struck the peach tree dividing it into two parts. One part got uprooted. It fell on Jignu and his body was stuck under the heavy load. Manglu also got some bruises and one of his shoulders was dislocated. It took one hour to get Jignu out from under the broken part of peach tree. Jignu could not move. He hurt his spine.
Jignu was rushed to Hospital but he could not survive the injuries. Jignu died. Manglu was again left alone with much remorse. The other half of the peach tree was not able to revive and dried up. There was no more shade and no more peaches. Nobody sat on that spot now. Even Lali stopped grazing on that spot. Later through science books I came to understand that it was not an original prunus persica tree but one of the lower sub species of the same group.