By M S Pallister
There's a banyan tree in the middle of my house. Between the living room and the dining hall, just off the kitchen, nearly blocking a bedroom. Brown-grey roots hang down, some brushing the floor, others reaching for it, like streamers. As though we're having an endless party. Brother swings from root to root on the way to his bedroom, howling like Tarzan. It's a pretty good imitation, especially when he's wearing camouflage underpants.
Manoeuvrability isn't easy so we follow the rules of a roundabout. We give way to whoever's coming from the right—man, lizard, bird, rodent—except when they get tangled up in the roots or are waiting for the cobra to go back into the foliage. We all give way to the cobra whether it's coming from the right or left. Sometimes, when I'm not in a hurry, I help people if their foot's caught in the trap set by the baboon or if they've lost their way and just keep going round and round. Obviously they don't live here; these are people who come down from the top to rest under the tree, then get disoriented when they find themselves inside a house. It's all a bit annoying. So most of the time I keep to myself and my room which is the one almost blocked by a faux trunk. It's a squeeze getting in but motivates me to keep slim and fit. A fruit bat hangs on a branch directly above the door. He has terrible manners and used to stink up the room with his droppings before we came to an agreement: I give him papayas, bananas and occasional mangoes and he does his business near Sister's room. I have tried to convince him to move to the woods nearby but he doesn't budge. Apart from that, the relationship between my family and the flora and fauna of the Tree is pretty good. Our motto is definitely “live and let live.” Or it was until recently.
About a month ago, Queen Owl of the banyan called a meeting with Mother. We tagged along obviously, wouldn't have missed it for the world.
“I represent the Tree and all the living beings which take shelter within it. I am their spokesbird,” Queen Owl tooted.
“Does it feel weird to have two stomachs?” I asked.
Mother asked me to shut up in that matriarchal voice she had perfected over the years and which I hope to perfect before I have my own children.
“Is this about the monsoon?” Mother asked. “We had to put a tarpaulin up. Otherwise the whole house would have been flooded. I know it's not a popular—”
“The Tree wants to expand,” Queen Owl interrupted. “Until now it had kept its growth in check, but it can't do that anymore. It has to spread out.”
“You mean take over the house?”
“Yes, that's what it would entail.”
Father, who had been hopping from one foot to the other, saw his chance and said, “It's illegal. You can't do that. The house came first. Then the Tree.”
“How's that possible? Twoohoo?”
“I've told you, I have,” Father shouted. This was his favourite story so I'm sure he didn't mind telling it again. “My great-grandfather's uncle's wife's nephew's son stopped in this house on his way to Bikaner in Rajasthan with a talking parrot. Now that parrot could talk. It demanded chillies, told people to shut up, asked the way to the toilet, and recited the entire Gayatri Mantra. I'm not kidding, the entire mantra. Even I don't remember the whole thing. My grandfather told me that once the parrot—”
Mother cleared her throat.
“Anyway,” Father said, “that damn bird shat on this very floor. In a crack made by my great-great-grandfather's axe. He had just returned from a hunt. He was a great hunter, he was. But that day he hadn't managed to kill anything, not even a mosquito, while his brother shot two chitals. He entered the house, foaming at the mouth, and saw a lizard racing across the floor. He picked up the axe resting by the door and—”
Mother cleared her throat, again. She gets particularly phlegmy when Father is telling one of his stories.
“So,” Father said. “A seed in that damn parrot's shit grew in the crack made by my great-great-grandfather's axe into this…this…tree.”
“And no-one thought of cutting it down when it was still young?” asked Queen Owl.
“We never thought it'd become a parasite.”
Queen Owl twitched its beak. “From the structure of this house it's obvious that it was built around the Tree.”
“Why would anyone build a house around a tree? And that, too, a banyan tree,” Mother said, who quite often hung her washing on the branch that grew through the courtyard.
Queen Owl raised her large ear tufts and said, “The Tree has spoken,” and flew up into the dark, leathery leaves.
Since then the situation has been very tense. The cobra, who used to just slither on by, now raises its hood and gives a hard stare before slithering on by. The crow, who nests on the branch above the one from which hangs the tyre I used to swing in not very long ago, now caws much louder and before sunrise. The cuckoo who used to blame the cobra for stealing its eggs now points its feathers at Father. A squirrel who lives in a trunk by the kitchen has started throwing walnut shells at Sister. Its aim is pretty bad, and it misses more often than it hits, but that's not the point. Queen Owl's friend, a peacock, has begun to visit more often than it used to, and they have long, deep conversations. If any of us walks by they stop chirping and start preening themselves. We know what's going on.
Father has taken to walking around with his great-great-grandfather's axe, brandishing it at any resident of the Tree who happens to cross his path. He says he's only waiting for a nod from Mother. But no one's scared. Everyone knows he doesn't have it in him. Queen Owl actually rolled her eyes when he waved the axe near her nest.
Mother has been thinking. We can neither leave the house nor get rid of the Tree. The roots, leaves, bark and fruits, especially the tiny, red fruits are our livelihood. Mother makes Ayurvedic medicines which do well, really well. Hardly a day goes by when there isn't a long queue of men outside. The fruit powder cures premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. She has named the product Superman. Aside from copyright issues, I'm not sure it works, but Mother swears on the lives of her children that it does. Clearly the men queuing outside believe her. She's also working on Superwoman, a formula to enlarge breasts. It doesn't work yet. Sister takes it every day and is still flat as a plank.
“The Tree isn't going anywhere. We can still pick its fruits, while we move somewhere which doesn't smell of bat shit,” Sister says.
“Familiarity. Proximity. Understanding,” Mother says, as though reading an entry from the thesaurus. “Not every fruit possesses the magic to wake up the sleeping soldier. You need the right colour, texture, where it grows in the tree. And for that you need to be near the Tree.”
In other words, stalemate.
The bathroom's gone.
Underground roots have broken through the floor, while the aerial ones have blocked the door and all the drains. “What's this? Day of The Triffids?” Father shouts, spraying weed killer. The baboon's laughing at him. We have to take buckets of water to the outside toilet, the plumbing of which was choked long ago by leaves and twigs. The hand-pump in the garden can be used for bathing, but it's too cold. We'll wait a bit longer to see if Mother and Queen Owl can reach an agreement.
Brother is sleeping under the Tree. The mongoose and the cobra are watching him from either side.
“Shall I bite him?” Cobra asks.
“Dunno mate,” says Mongoose. “Sounds like fun. But the Queen might blow a fuse and swallow you whole. Which also sounds like fun.”
“Shoo,” says Mother.
Mongoose runs back into its burrow, while Cobra gives its trademark hard stare and slithers away.
“A branch broke through my bedroom and smashed the bed. The room's full of wasps now,” Brother explains.
“Fig wasps!” Mother exclaims. “Wonderful.”
Father glowers at her. “This is far from wonderful. The Tree has crossed all limits, I tell you. We have to put an end to this.”
Mother nods, not so much in agreement but in a thinking, calculative way. She brings out her bird whistle, a half-flute like thing I made for her at school a few years ago (when the Tree was just a giant toy), painted with daisies and careless fingerprints.
She whistles and after a five-minute wait Queen Owl appears.
“The wasps are here,” Mother says.
“You know what that means.”
“New leaves, new fruits, new life. A healthier, happier tree.”
“Yes that. But what it means for us. Don't forget it's my picking and pruning which has brought the wasps.”
“We need more time. Please ask the Tree to wait.”
Queen Owl toots in a strange, coughing way. I think it's a laugh. “You don't talk to the Tree. The Tree talks to you,” she says.
“When's the Tree going to talk next?”
Queen Owl turns her head around all the way back. She's thinking.
“By my calculation the Tree will next speak again in fifty-two years. Or eighty-seven. Depends on the weather, the water level and how much skin the cobra sheds.”
“Fifty-two,” I correct Mother.
Mother walks away in a huff.
We haven't seen Brother in a long time. Queen Owl told us, disapprovingly, that he's moved up into the Tree. Somewhere among the high branches where the newest leaves grow in reds and purples. Mother would be worried if she weren't busy working on Superman. She has set up workshop in the kitchen; chopping, grinding, mixing day and night. There isn't much time; the wasps are leaving.
Father and Sister are too worried about their own living arrangements to think about Brother, now that all the bedrooms have been taken over by the Tree. Thick, gnarly roots have pushed their way through ventilators, sockets holes and ceiling fans, creeping along the walls, engulfing the rooms. Wrapping them up like presents. Perhaps, one day the Tree will open them. In fifty-two years. Or eighty-seven.
We sleep in sleeping bags in little hollows at the base of the Tree. It's cold and uncomfortable. Every morning we wake up with cramps and aches.
Father stands up to go to the toilet, then puts a hand on his back and groans. The chameleon on my forehead yawns and says, “A man went to the doctor and said doctor, I have a very bad back ache. The—”
“You piece of …” Father throws a stone at her.
“Ouch.” The stone hits me right between the eyes, while the chameleon runs away.
The chameleon is my morning alarm. She crawls atop my head to snap up her breakfast of crickets, the careless ones who have forgotten to go to bed at sunrise. I have to lie still. If I move she scratches me. Still, the worst thing about losing my own bedroom is that I can't read at night anymore. I tried using a torch but it just guided the mosquitoes to my bare skin. Early to bed and early to rise for me.
I give the squirrel a couple of pine nuts. It looks right and left then whispers, “Your brother's tickety-boo. He's enjoying arboreal life and says, ‘Can you all please just leave me alone?’” It turns around, makes sure no one is watching then scuttles to its hole. It fancies itself a spy.
I'm happy for Brother but sad to lose him.
Father and Baboon are fighting. Or rather tussling over something hidden between their hands. Legs wrapped around each other they roll back and forth between the Tree and a petrified wood coffee table (Father's idea of a joke). Sister and I cheer for Father, while Mongoose and Crow encourage Baboon. Cobra is watching dispassionately. A man I've never seen before is the referee. He was out jogging and got tangled up in the Tree. Anyway, he happened to have a whistle in his pocket and offered to arbitrate if things got too violent. He is whistling non-stop now by Father's side who is choking the life out of Baboon. Finally, Baboon slaps the floor in surrender. Father stands up victorious, holding above his head his prize—a mango.
Food is scarce with the kitchen having been assimilated by the Tree. All the money Mother made when the wasps were around has been spent on take-aways. Father behaved like every day was a night out with friends, and sister pretended every day was her birthday. He always ordered biryani and she butter chicken, while Mother and I lived on roti and dhal. Despite Brother not making any contact with us, Mother ordered his favourite momos in the hope that he might come back. Now we're all surviving on stale biscuits and Bombay Mix. This can't go on forever. Mother has come to the same decision. Tomorrow morning we'll move.
The chameleon turns the colour of milk chocolate, shoots out her tongue and grabs the cricket. I raise my eyebrows and she hops off my forehead. Without even a goodbye she climbs up the branch and disappears. I'll miss her and Baboon and Cobra and Mongoose. Even Crow and Queen Owl.
There isn't much in the way of things to pack. Whatever little we have—mainly Mother's Superman-making instruments—we tie up in one of her saris and wait to bid farewell to Queen Owl. She arrives half an hour later with a large pouch in her beak and drops it at our feet.
We open it: three raisins, quarter of a custard apple, five pistachios, a chunk of paneer, few grains of rice, a torn piece of roti, some cooked kidney beans, a whole partridge, a fish's head and two dead mice.
My leafy bed is above the branch on which the fruit bat hangs, close to Mother and Father but not too close. Sister is not yet settled, but the squirrel tells me (after I give it two pine nuts) that she might be coming to some arrangement with the cuckoo. I still haven't seen Brother. He seems to have moved further out into the Tree, but I have hope. Mother is teaching me all about the red fruits and how to turn them into Superman. I spend my days picking fruits, looking for the right colour, fleshiness and smell. I enjoy it, especially now that the wasps are back.
M S Pallister studied computer science at Cambridge University but soon realised that she was more interested in writing fiction. She’s currently researching her second novel after finally finishing her first. Her short stories have been published in The Wrong Quarterly, shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and forthcoming in Long Story, Short.