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Published: January 19th 2017
The banyan tree was massive. It stood on a spreading pedestal of ropey aerial roots, and lifted its heavy branches, dominating the shallow basin where it had made its home for generations.
As I peeked through the branches at the tangled trunk, I knew this grandfather was special. I sensed energy floating from it, announcing its existence, commanding notice.
This was the first place that Karikalan showed me in his native village. We had met several weeks before at a film festival in Madurai, where Karikalan’s short film was presented. His film was different from the others, because its setting was in a village, specifically, this very village outside Madurai. The story—involving a boy and his beloved goat—was so different from the other action-laden films with dialogues-that-make-you-wince, I encouraged Karikalan to make more films set in village India.
With great care he planned this special day in Nadumudalaikulam. Historically the area around his village was the first to have been farmed in the region. It is said that a crocodile, who served the local deity Karuppaswami, lived in and watched over the large pond that was there. During a flood, the crocodile carried people on its back to
safety. We would explore where the pond existed and other places, such as the banyan tree, that begged him to tell their stories in writing and in film.
This leafy behemoth seemed ancient. Hundreds of roots-turned-trunks streamed into and out of the earth, and the branches spread umbrella-like, casting shade and coolness. Near the trunk, a stone pillar, signifying a deity, was pressed with lines of yellow and red dots. A newly married couple walked beneath the shady comfort, she garlanded with gold necklaces and bangles up her arms, he handsome and neatly dressed. Her grandfather, the caretaker of the area, participated with them in a puja ritual.
The old man said his grandfather planted that banyan tree. I thought surely it was his great-grandfather, or someone older, because the tree could have been 200 years old. It hummed and groaned. Around the mid 1900’s, the ten families who had been farming and living in the area near the tree, on the outskirts of the village, needed a protective deity. And so the granite stone was placed near the banyan tree. In a sense, this exposed the “soul” of the tree—its deity aspect, and the physical representation of
its power as a deity made it more accessible to the community of families.
I felt the power of that tree. Such stories it has witnessed, such stories it could tell. Big stones scattered about once supported pongal pots, from the families of the area who gathered on special days in March, making and sharing pongal together. Karikalan himself is a descendant of one of those families that lived nearby.
“This tree use to bring them together in community, but no longer.” Karikalan said. “They no longer farm the fields and the people have dispersed, the children have grown and attend university. They don’t gather here anymore. They’ve forgotten the deity, they’ve forgotten the tree. The tree no longer integrates the community.”
I could sense the tree’s longing, or perhaps Karikalan’s, or maybe even mine, and said, “It needs attention. It needs people to come and appreciate it, and bless it, and rest beneath its branches, and listen to its stories, and tell it new ones. This tree needs all that.”
The only family left in the area was the grandfather of the young newlywed we were watching just then. Now it was up to him
to remember. Or maybe it was up to Karikalan. He spoke of making a film using the tree as its focus. I knew that’s what was needed, for the tree, for the people, for the village, and for Karikalan.
I wanted to stay there for hours, just sit and meditate beneath that being. Look up through its branches, find the birds and the squirrels and the insects that it sheltered, and be with them all. Did the ground tremble beneath me? Did I hear whispers? Come back, come back, they said.
A woman walked by and spoke with Karikalan. When I looked into her face, light seemed to stream from it. Karikalan saw it, too. Her name was Jyothi, which means “light.” She told of an incident when her husband was in the hospital, bitten by a poisonous snake and not expected to recover. As she rushed to see him, she thought of the tree deity, with which she had grown close after she moved to the area after her marriage. With unwavering faith in the power of the tree and its willingness to help, she prayed to save her husband. He lived. Now everyday she comes by
the tree and expresses her gratitude.
Karikalan and his relative, Arun, a college student from the same village, walked me through the dry fields to the former dwelling of his grandfather Karuppaiah and grandmother Pappathi. We sat amongst the collapsed walls of a building and piles of rubble. I imagined the oasis of papaya and guava and other fruit trees, flowers and herbs, and buildings that were once there. The huge well, dry now, had fed the nearby fields which had been lush with rice and other crops.
Karikalan told of running from his house in the nearby village, across the fields to his grandparents’ house, and his grandmother would spy this little boy approaching, and have food for him when he arrived. He remembers his grandmother Pappathi well, and even assumed her name because of his love and respect for her.
His grandfather Karuppaiah was an innovative farmer, and was the first to section his fields and plant a variety of crops of vegetables, fruits, and rice so that he was always harvesting something through the year. He rotated his crops, and introduced new crops to other farmers. His tea and idli shop, the only one
in the region, drew villagers from afar, bringing them together in the mornings and strengthening the community. He was known for extending “credit,” trusting the people to pay later if they couldn’t pay that day. It was Grandmother Pappathi who struggled at times to buy supplies to support the tea and idli shop when the income wasn’t dependable from day to day.
I could imagine Karikalan as a youngster in that place, climbing on the huge tree that no longer remained but is remembered by the villagers, enjoying the fresh fruit and his grandmother’s food and love. I had to ignore the drab scene that day—dry crackly fields, difficult to cultivate now because of the lack of water that has grown worse over the past few years. Where water had been available in the wells, now they are dry, and water must be piped in from distant wells that are much deeper. Few villagers still pursue the traditional farming practices of their ancestors, and instead leave that task to bigger farming operations.
Farther into the village we visited the scary tree. It is much smaller than its original size—only regrowth after its former massive trunk had been cut—but
there are scraps of cloth hanging from the branches, telling of its history. When a calf is born, the afterbirth is collected before touching the ground, and placed in cloth bags so that other animals will not eat it. The bags of auspicious afterbirth were treated respectfully by hanging on this designated tree. The tree then became a special one by virtue of these bags and their contents.
Children skipped by the tree, unaware of the fear that it had inspired among the children of Karikalan’s generation. At the time, he was unsure of what the hanging bags were all about. “As children we would run by the tree as fast as we could, never looking at it, and we would never pass in the night. Now the children don’t even know about this tree.”
Our lunch spot was under yet another tree, with rice paddies to one side and a rich grassy smelling mound of cattle feed nearby. An immense, open well gave water to the fields, and also had a pipe through which water gushed into a small tank. A man was doing his laundry when we arrived, and then later, a woman entered the tank
with her sari blouse and slip on, and washed her hair. Tall coconut palm trees waved, and a man climbed up one of the trunks and knocked down coconuts that thudded like bombs. A handful of women, saris hiked up their legs, had just finished tending their field of beans, and were starting home for their meals.
Karikalan and Arun dragged a wood frame cot, crisscrossed by rope, to under the tree so I could sit on it. They spread a mat over the rope and it was perfect. Depending on which way I sat, I could view the green rice paddies with the white egrets and other water birds flying low, or look back at the bean field and village houses.
A wiry man with a fierce looking cleaver chopped away at the tops of the coconuts so we could drink their water. Karikalan appeared worried, only for a moment, when he realized he forgot straws. No matter. We clamped our mouths around the holes and tipped the coconuts, splashing water down our shirts. We dripped as the man continued to chop other coconuts. The farming women gathered around and drank coconuts, too. Their names were pure
poetry: Kalairani, queen of arts; Poovathi, resides on flower; Sathyaseela, upholder of truth.
Several of them were Karikalan’s relatives, and they all appeared delighted to see him and teased him mercilessly. They asked him when were they going to get to see his film. All the villagers knew about it. Several had acting roles in it, some provided logistics such as food preparation for the crew, and others provided props as needed.
One of Karikalan’s relatives begged me to take her to America—she said she would cook and clean for me, do anything I wanted. So we carried on with the joke. Karikalan and I took her photo for the visa, and told her it would probably take some time because the United States was very particular about issuing visas. The visa photo depicts her with her metal tools slung over her shoulder. Wonder how that will look to immigration officials.
I stretched out on that cot, looked up at the branches snarled against the sky, smelled the sweetness of the cattle feed, and felt the stillness in that place. I drifted asleep for maybe two minutes, in that perfect setting, with that perfect peace all around.
When I awoke, I looked to a distant tree. The cow that had paid no mind to me earlier, and about which Karikalan and I had mused—what’s that cow thinking? Does it have any thoughts about the meaning of life? Is it thinking about us?—well, that cow was standing and looking directly at me. It was. Its cow eyes were looking at me as I sat up on that cot under the tree next to the rice paddies.
Our driver and Arun cut banana leaves, and they gave me the biggest and the greenest. They unpacked shiny pails of food—sweet pongal, two vegetables, and four kinds of rice—curd, lemon, tamarind, and tomato. Mounds of each went on my leaf as I sat on the cot, and others sat on the ground to eat the feast. I heard the water rush out of the pipe from the well nearby. Everything was as it was supposed to be.
But then I needed a bush. Karikalan said we could find a place in the village. But I preferred using a bush. I went in search, and was directed to a clump of green nearby. My woman escort stood guard—just two feet
away from me, and two younger girls I had met giggled as I waved at them before squatting down. No bush experience in a village is complete without someone watching.
In the village itself I saw Karikalan’s childhood home and had tea while a dozen children stood within inches of me. Some touched me, I suppose feeling the wonder of my white skin. Karikalan pinched the cheeks of some of the youngsters—a common gesture of affection. People from the village happened by, smiles broad, and shook his hand. An older woman with eight teeth, skinny wrinkled arms, and the gentlest of smiles stood close to Karikalan and talked. She grabbed his hand and held on, and blanketed him with warmth. Her wrist was tattooed with a scorpion, received as a girl, but she no longer remembered why she got it. Another older woman we met had the same mark, and she explained that it signifies something she can take to her death.
The people in the village absolutely adored this young man, Karikalan. Their love, given so freely, danced around him when they met, and he greeted them warmly and the love crackled and danced some more. He
said the people see his mother in him, and that’s why they are glad to see him. I know better.
Perhaps that is why I wanted to be around this storyteller, this son of the village, who seems both young and old, innocent and wise. Villager or city person, child or grandmother, immediate family or someone entirely unrelated, even a foreigner from afar—he acts with caring and love for all. He seems to acknowledge in each their divinity, and so reaffirms it in himself.
We continued to the local village temple, devoted to Karuppaswami. This village deity, associated with Ayyanar, is a popular deity among villages in Tamil Nadu. The deity image appeared unremarkable—an upright, concrete slab with undulating “shoulders” and no head. Garlands of flowers hung around the neck. Every year his golden “head” is brought and placed atop his shoulders, at which time villagers from afar gather and pray during this auspicious time.
A forest of spears, sickles, and tridents with limes attached pierced the ground. Many bells hung around, giving the place a curious, expectant feeling.
The sun was sinking. I did not want to leave, just walk along the road with sparkling
rice paddies on one side, and the dry cracked earth on the other. It was the place of the big pond where the crocodile was said to have lived. The water receded over the years, and now it is no more. We sat above that dirt plain for awhile, while Karikalan recalled learning to swim there as a boy, when the water was up to where his feet dangled just then.
Across the road we sat on a wall above the rice paddies. Much better, with the egrets flying off in the direction of the misty orange sun.
Men came for their evening bath in the water piped from the well below us. It would have been rude for me to remain, so we reluctantly meandered down the road to our car waiting at the end. The evening frogs sang, night insects emerged with their clucks and trills, a motorcycle buzzed by now and then, and a dog followed us silently. Shadows danced on the road in the half-moon light.
“I want to spend the night here,” I said. “I want to spend a lot more time here.”
Karikalan understood. But his yearning to stay included
the pain of knowing that things in his village have changed, never to return as they were.
Please give life to the stories, Karikalan, and show yourself and others that the things most important in the village—community, support, faith, caring for the land, and love—all need to be honored and preserved.
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