Twenty years ago that day changed my life in a big way. That was the first time I had felt what by now had been discovered being called loneliness. I was deep asleep when I heard some noise in my home at that unusual time. I woke up as my mom shook me saying, “Wake up Arav, we are going to Daadu’s (Grand Pa) place.”, and hurried away. This was unusual too. She had never woke me up that way. My morning had always began with motherly cuddles and my mischievous excuses to not to go to school. By the time I could have opened my eyes properly and got hold of that unusual morning meet, I heard mom’s voice from other room, “Wake up Arav, Hurry up. Your Chachu (Uncle) will be here in few minutes to pick us up”, she said in hurry. I rubbed my eyes and pulled myself out of the quilt. Shivers had already shaken me twice or thrice by the time I landed my feet on floor. I glanced on wall clock in curiosity about the time and my time reading abilities which I had learnt last month from Daadu when he stayed with us for few days after my birthday. Shorter hand approaching five meant it wasn’t five yet and multiplying the digit just passed by longer hand by five using a table of eight, I calculated the time as Four Forty AM. I had never seen this hour of the day in my conscious life before. January was about to end and winters were at its best to cause one freeze.
“Where is Dad?” I asked my mom as I walked slowly towards her.
“He has gone along with Daadu and Daadi (Grand Ma) to their place from Hospital.” She said hastily while she took me to washroom and splashed some water on my face from the bucket.
She cleaned my face quickly, changed my clothes, combed my hairs and again got herself busy in packing the stuff she was packing earlier.
Things had not been in their usual manner since last one week. Since the day I had been told by mom that Daadu was not well and he had to stay at doctor’s place called Hospital till he gets well again. My Chachu, who was not married yet and lived with Daadu and Daadi at our village, was coming to pick me up from school since that day. My neighbor’s daughter who was in our school till last year and whom I didn’t like that much, was taking care of me and my homework . Her mother coming in between was making things further worse for me. Dad wasn’t coming home regularly too and I was told that he is taking care of Daadu at hospital along with Daadi.
I was still trying to collect things in my mind in that chilled early morning when my mom handed me a glass full of milk and I heard the car approaching our home. I never liked drinking milk but gulped the full glass down my throat in one go showing the first sign of maturity as mom ran towards the door. Chachu came in as mom opened the door and returned to me. He picked up the stuff mom was busy packing and we all came out. Mom locked the door while Chachu took the driver’s seat. I had always been obstinate for sitting in front since dad had brought our own Maruti home last year, but I don’t know why I behaved different again. But Mom took me in her lap and sat in front. I looked towards my home while Chachu took the U turn. He wasn’t his usual self too. He was always like loving, teasing and playing with me. But this time he hadn’t even pulled my cheeks which he loved most and I hated most.
“How is papa now? And why you have got him discharged from the hospital? He was recovering when I saw him last night, wasn’t he?” Mom said anxiously to Chachu breaking my thought process.
“Yes he was slightly, from the night before yesterday. But his condition started deteriorating again after about an hour you had left. In midnight nurse called the doctor and he gave him an injection again and said there is no hope.” Chachu said holding his tears. “He slept till three O’clock and then started asking us to take him back in Village. We tried a lot to make dad relax but he wasn’t ready to spend a minute more there. Bhaiyya (Brother) consulted with the doctor and nurse helped in making the discharge as soon as possible”. Chachu said wiping his wet eyes.
“Your bhaiyya called around 3.30 and just said they were leaving for the village and you would be coming to pick us up in an hour. I was so frightened since then.” Mom said and she was in tears too.
I was scared as I have never seen any of them in tears before. I didn’t know what exactly was happening but was quiet sure by now that something was wrong with Daadu.
No one spoke after that and I slowly turned my gaze away from mom and chachu towards the trees running behind, few stars to observe in the sky and moon hiding and coming out of the clouds.
Our village wasn’t that far from the city. It was on the road to Derabassi from Chandigarh. It has been just two years since we had shifted in the city. All I knew was that dad will now teach in a very big college called University rather than in the school. But I didn’t like it that much as now students kept coming in big bunches in home too till the dinner. And that had started keeping dad busy. However every alternative weekend we were going to meet Daadu and Daadi and I used to wait for those weekends more than anything else.
Soon we turned towards the smaller way in between the fields leading towards our village and began my horror show as well. I never liked this phase of my Car’s journey as there were so many Ghosts always standing in between the fields staring me, which I came to know were scarecrows and were meant to scare crows not me, only an year or two later when I had been taught about it in school. I hid myself in mom’s arms and didn’t turn my face out again till we got a big jump, always holding a deep strength to welcome us right outside our village.
It wasn’t empty like city was at that time in the morning. People were on the streets wrapped up completely in shawls and chewing sticks I had seen in Daadi’s room near the window ledge and mom once had told me they are for cleaning teeth. I wondered how one can clean his teeth with a wooden stick. Infact I had tried once but couldn’t find the answer. As we moved towards our home the number of people kept increasing on the street and there were a number of people gathered and more coming outside our home. Chachu parked the Car outside near the big Banyan tree standing strong in front of our home. It was a very big Banyan tree, even bigger than the one was in our book last year. It hosted a lot of birds of different types to rest and live, squirrels to jump here and there, kids to play and Grand pa and his friends to hold their evening meetings.
People gave us the way as we hurried inside the home. There were more people inside. Although there were always people coming in our home and sitting for hours but today almost whole village was at our doorsteps. Our home in village was amongst a few bigger ones. It had a very big open space made of red bricks. In the middle of it, there was a very big plant around which we used to pray in morning, And a big verandah in front of it with six rooms around it, three on both the sides with a lobby in middle leading to back of the home. At back of the home we had equally bigger area with cows tying on one side and vegetables grown on the other.
There were familiar faces in verandah. We headed straightaway towards Daadu’sroom. Room was filled with Daadu’s and Daadi’s friends. Then I saw Dad sitting on the floor and Daadu lying on his lap. Dad was holding Daadu’s hand in his hand. I was still holding Mom’s finger. Mom went to Daadi and I went along with her holding her finger. Daadi was in sobs and others were too. I was scared.
“Why Daadu is lying on the ground mom?” I asked turning my mom’s face towards me, who was now inclined to Daadi. Before she could reply me, I heard my name Arav and Daadi gave a slight pat on my shoulder and signaled me to go to Daadu. I saw him spreading his arms like he always had for me. I went to him and he put his arms around me. I was lying over him but this time his grip wasn’t that strong it used to be. Then he kissed me on my forehead and turned his face towards dad. He tried to say something, but his words weren’t coming out properly.
“Hasn’t ..Kishore…and Sunny….came yet?” He asked.
Sunny was my cousin brother. He lived in delhi with Badi Ma (Aunt) and Bade Pa (Uncle).
“I have already given a trunk call to veer jee and they will be here soon” dad said trying to make Grand Pa calm.
“Rano……..and Laddi” He asked about my chhoti Bua and badi Bua (Aunt).
“They are coming too” dad answered while running his hand on Daadu’s forehead.
“I…..want to….see you….all…..to..uh gether.” Daadu said trying to stretch his tongue.
“This….ye..ar. We wil get….Arun….married too.” Daadu said looking towards Chachu, who was holding Daadu’s feet in his lap and was rubbing them with his hands.
“Arav…..Arav…..Arav’s this year Birthday…I…I….will get him……Bicycle.” Daadu said and his hug became a bit tighter. I hugged him tightly too. After a few seconds his hold of me became loser and further loser. I compensated it by my further tight hug. All ladies in that room who were sobbing earlier started howling loudly now. Dad and chachu was weeping too. Mom was holding Daadi and was weeping loudly. Somebody from so many people standing out there took me in his arms and came out of that room. By that time I had started crying too. I was trying my level best to get lose of that hold and go back to Daadu. All of sudden I started shouting loudly, “Let me go to Daadu. Let me go to Daadu”. I started slapping the person and he hugged me tightly. I realized he was my Mamu (Uncle)who loved me so much. “I want to go to Daadu. Let me go. Let me go mamu” I said crying loudly but bit unruffled this time. After few minutes my cries turned into sobs while mamu held me tight in his arms. Meanwhile they kept doing something with clothes and some other stuff in the room where Daadu was lying. People kept coming and howls grew further louder and louder. After an hour or so bua jee came and bade Pa came few hours later. A barber came and made all of males in the family bald including me. Meanwhile tears has stopped coming out of my eyes but it was like I was ingesting them down my throat now.
People brought a kind of wooden structure and placed it in the open area in front of verandah and covered with white sheets. Then they laid Daadu there. Daadu was fully covered with white sheet now. They performed some rituals, and then covered him with flowers. I kept watching standing numb. I don’t know what I was feeling at that moment but I was sure about one thing that something is going to be changed forever.
Then suddenly dad, chachu along with two other uncles picked Daadu up on their shoulders along with that wooden frame on which he was lying for his journey to live with God now. They walked out of the home and all others followed. Bade Pa was walking ahead holding a pot and Sunny bhaiyya was waving a hand-made fan like object to Daadu. All were chanting god’s name. Mamoo was holding my hand. Mom had held Daadi tightly and was howling loudly along with bua jee and badi ma while I look behind walking out of the home with all others. Almost whole village was following us when we turned left of the Banyan tree outside our home in the village square. Usual life around that banyan tree was missing today. Those squirrels, ever chirping birds and kids around were too following us perhaps. Walking through fields for half an hour we reached on the banks of nearby river. All who had came along with us carried wooden sticks or slats and made a pyre of those woods. They laid Daadu on the pyre and covered him with more woods after performing some rituals. Then we walked in circular path around that pyre. Then bade Pa fired the pyre and we all stood there for some time. Bade pa and Dad stood in line hands pressed together while all others walked back to village. I stood there along with Chachu and Sunny bhaiyya watching fire flames reaching higher and higher in sky.
Now after so many years, I realize what I had watched for so long that day, which hadn’t known to me when I was actually there watching that fire burning it all. It was like that the big banyan tree has been set fired and it will engulf everything to burn down in ashes. It will burn my playmate, my playgame and my playground itself. It will burn my stories and my storyteller. It will burn my guard and my shelter. It will burn the single Authority of our home whom everyone else had followed without an argument. It will burn that Big banyan tree standing strong in middle of the village right outside our home with a full authority of command, giving shelter to all, guarding them all, giving grounds to all to grow, giving plots for stories to develop, giving a place for all to discuss what they were going through in their lives, making everyone learn from its experience of being large and solid, letting all kids fly like birds, play like, squirrels, run like lizards under its vast network of trunks, roots and branches and making all feel like that having Big banyan tree around us they are protected under shadows of its blessings.
For so many days after that day I kept a hope of him coming back like Amitabh Bachhan used to come back live again in every Friday movie after getting killed in previous one. Going to village now was never that excited as life was never same again. Daadu’s last words kept echoing in my ears for so many days that he will get me a bicycle on my next birthday and I still have that Bicycle dad got me same year. It makes me feel like he is still around taking care of me. That loneliness was later filled with competitive race of life.
That Banyan tree in front of our home in village is still there offering its unconditional love in all forms. But I can always just close my eyes and watch a li’l kid witnessing The Fall of A Banyan Tree.