Trees that Raised me

I plucked the sepal and sucked out the tiny droplet of sweet nectar from a copper pod flower. The mild sweetness spread on my tongue as I picked up another fallen blossom for more. I never could stop at one.

This was a beloved springtime pursuit as a 6-year old growing up in Park View, my grandparents’ house in Mandya, named so for the park it faced across the road. Trees were aplenty around the huge garden with a vast central lawn.

It was on this lawn that I tottered about as a toddler, chasing butterflies during afternoon meals each day. My dear aunt who brought me up, trailed behind with a bowl of mashed rice, lentils and vegetables, popping little balls of food into my mouth at opportune moments when I seemed distracted.

Rani, my grandfather’s black-as-night Great Dane joined us during these mealtimes, towering over my tiny form and lapping up any morsel that missed the target.

Ixoras, crotons and red trumpet lilies bloomed along the border of the lawn in large cement planters acquired from an auction held at the Mysore palace, duly embossed with ‘Gandaberunda’, the royal insignia of the Kings of Mysore.

A three-petalled pond adorned the centre of the lawn complete with a fountain spout. This served as an enchanting summer splash pool when cousins arrived.

A pair of stone benches faced each other on the far side of the garden by the compound wall, where each evening Ammaaji and Annaiah, my grandparents who had created this veritable paradise, sat under the fragrant sampige tree (champak tree) sipping tea, talking, listening to each other, and relishing one another’s company.

Bright pink bougainvillea tumbled from the compound wall making for a pretty setting for their conversations.

Ammaaji and Annaiah

Annaiah would’ve been a 106 years old if he were alive today. My dearest Ammaaji is living out her ninety-third year and her memory fails her sometimes. I often wonder, does she remember these conversations with Annaiah?

Next to the sampige stood a karibevu tree (curry leaf tree). As a child, I was addicted to the taste of its dark green leaves. I used to pull out leaflets and stuff them into my mouth, straight off the tree. The curry leaf tree was in the merry company of a gooseberry, a pomegranate and a guava tree.

Ammaaji always had the gardener tie pouches around the tender pomegranate fruits during the fruiting season, to keep them from being devoured prematurely by squirrels. A cement compost pit was set discretely in one corner of the garden, for the household’s organic waste.

A sapota tree spread its branches along one of the boundary walls. This tree was my favourite perch with its low branches making for an easy climb. By the main gate stood a honge, ushering anyone who passed by, with outstretched limbs clad in lush green. Our elders regaled us with stories of the tree games (mara kothi aata) they played on this very tree in their childhood years.

A troupe of monkeys once made this tree their home, and attacking passers-by turned into their full-time occupation. That the tree was near the main gate made entering and exiting a risky affair, and by the time Annaiah could get the troupe removed and relocated, a few from the household had had the misfortune of suffering monkey bites.

Each evening, a cacophony erupted over the canopy as noisy parakeets thronged the large copper pod tree, while dusk settled gently on the little town. One had to strain to hear anything above the chattering of the birds as they prepared to roost for the night.

To the girl who sat on the wide stone steps of the portico watching the sky change hues till everything eventually merged into an inky black, the call of the parakeets signalled that the day was drawing to an end.

Now well into my adulthood, the babble of a flock of mynas or parakeets conjures memories of peaceful evenings on the portico of a large house with cosy nooks and corners to while away endless hours, unmindful of the passage of time.

Sitting on the steps of the portico, I used to help an aging Annaiah clip his toe nails. This little ritual didn’t amount to much as a young girl, but has assumed profundity years after Annaiah’s passing.

A short distance from the copper pod tree was a large two-way wooden swing, used prolifically by children and adults alike. This contraption had delighted our elders in their childhood and similarly served me and my band of cousins who descended each summer during school vacations. To us, the swing was a mighty aeroplane complete with a pilot among us, as it carried us high up almost within reach of the spreading branches of the copper pod tree.

The swing overlooked a sandpit beyond which, grew a jamun tree. The cemented ground around the tree turned purple during fruiting season. The fallen berries stained the soles of our feet as we ran amok trying to escape the stinging sock of the hard rubber ball that hurtled menacingly at Mach speed from the direction of the opposing team during late afternoon games of lagori.

I was quite the cry baby and never missed a chance to whinge about an imagined wound that had either reopened or hurt with greater intensity when the ball found its mark!

Even divine intervention couldn’t rescue Mani, the family cook who ruled the roost in the kitchen, if he happened to trespass the game as he tried to get to the gate on his cycle to run an errand for Ammaaji. The two teams would unite, and Mani would be the target of fierce ball attacks till he managed to extricate himself with his lungi intact.

We eventually learnt to be more restrained with our ball assaults, as Mani had his ways of extracting revenge at opportune times. A game of cricket was one such occasion when my older cousins had to face Mani’s lethal bowling. More importantly, Mani was the sole custodian of the key to the fridge that housed the most delectable caramel puddings, custards, bright pink jelly and ice creams!

The sprawling terrace was a fairyland by itself. The view from the large balcony with white metal railings above the front portico made me feel like a Queen surveying her kingdom over the vast canopied stretch in the public park from across the house and the highway. I rarely stepped out onto this little-used balcony because of the black soot that coated the floor and stuck to the soles of my feet.

The wind blew fly ash from the now defunct Mysugar factory situated in the outskirts of the town. Thanks to Seethamma, the gentle and loyal household help, the floors were always scrubbed clean, though the balcony was mostly kept locked.

Ramps connected the terrace of the main house to that of the outhouse at the back, and to the cowshed and the garage beyond. A skylight offered a view into the family dining hall below, a wormhole for us to check-in on the lunch or snacks being rustled up by Mani in the kitchen. Mani could dish out a mean obbattu, not to mention crunchy chakkulis and kodubales.

We transformed into Tarzans as we swung from the low-hanging branches of the grand old neem tree that stretched over the terrace, ululating like our lives depended on it, until our aunt called out to us to quieten down lest the din disrupt Annaiah and Ammaaji’s siesta.

The leaves of the neem tree were sometimes ground to paste by Seethamma and applied to treat skin irritations if any, among the children. Seethamma also doled out oil baths by the dozen to us children during festivals.

Heartbreakingly, a few years after Annaiah passed on, the spreading roots of the grand old neem tree threatened to damage the foundation of the house and had to be brought down. The gaping pit that the roots of the tree left behind was so large that it was turned into an underground sump to store water.

Ammaaji’s bedroom was in the portion of the house beneath the neem tree and with the tree gone, the room turned hot and stuffy overnight.

Standard operating procedure to descend from the terrace was to hop on to a ledge and slide down an adjoining plumbing pipe down to the veranda where an exquisitely beautiful stone Thulasi Katte (holy basil planter) commonly referred to as ‘Brindaavana’ by the family, stood and continues to stand as mute witness to the passage of time in Park View.

This private veranda was the nucleus where many family routines transpired. A chicken coop, a second cowshed, and two large kennels with massive wooden cots for Annaiah’s pampered Great Danes, lined the veranda.

There were atleast a pair of cows under my grandparents’ care at any given time, ensuring a fresh supply of milk to the household each day. Bhageerathi, lovingly called Bhagi, an orange cow with the most beautiful black eyes and shapely horns, was my favourite.

Bhageerathi wouldn’t let anyone near her other than her caretaker Puttswamy who bathed, fed and milked her each day. She would lower her head and shake it vigorously if anyone approached her, sending out a clear warning to keep away.

As a child, I used to relish the ghee made from Bhageerathi’s milk. I vividly remember the special taste of this ghee. I even had a name for it, Bhagi thuppa.

Ammaaji had planted a jasmine creeper that adorned a metal archway to the veranda from the garden in the front. A coconut palm stood by the archway.

On Sunday mornings, Annaiah occupied the open courtyard adjoining the Brindaavana on his recliner, for the weekly grooming routine by his personal barber.

Grains of rice, wheat and ragi were cleaned and spread out to dry in the courtyard as sparrows flitted about feasting on the grains. Jars of pickled mangos from the family farm’s summer harvest were lined up to be sterilised by the warm rays of the Sun before being stored away for the year.

Homemade sandige and happala (crisps) were laid out to dry on a thin cotton panche spread on a reed mat. Seethamma hung-up the family laundry to dry on clotheslines drawn across the courtyard.  

Generations of extended family gathered at the veranda to play chowkabaara, the age-old game of dice, and several rounds of rummy during Ugadi festivities as the scent of the Thulasi permeated the air around.

Beneath their shady boughs, the neem, copper pod,  jamun, sampige, gooseberry and many more trees in Annaiah and Ammaaji’s flourishing garden, raised two entire generations of children as they played, squabbled, made-up, laughed, cried and eventually grew up and moved out of this cosy haven to the wide world beyond.

Much has changed in the last few decades and the trees of my childhood have long made their exit from this world. They live on inside me though, lofty, luxuriant and sturdy, with the parakeets and the mynas still calling over their outstretched canopies at dusk. My sense of who I am is deeply entwined in these trees that raised me, and they continue to shepherd me and cheer me on along life’s meandering path in spirit.

The magical childhood that unravelled in their shade on a carpet of yellow copper pod flowers and delicate white honge blossoms, is safely tucked away in the deep recesses of my mind as my own private wonderland; one that is a great deal grander than Alice’s if you ask me!

Every child deserves to be raised by trees as I was. I long for such trees for our children, their children and theirs.

Can we leave trees standing for our little people, and plant some more?