E Santhosh Kumar
(Translated from Malayalam by Gita Janaki)
This story was originally published in Malayalam, in the “India Today”, in their Onam Special in 2002 August.
While walking through the gravel paved pathway, beneath the magnificent trees of the bird sanctuary, I remembered father. He had a strange kinship of uniting trees and birds.
Our house was on the slope of a hill, on which just a few trees remained. My father sawed wood in a saw mill nearby, for a living. It was many years back. During those times, he used to make sculptures of animals and birds out of the roots of toppled down trees. He chiseled down the ugly roots to recognizable bird heads using low width chisels. A solitary vulture was born out of the roots of an Irul tree, an owl from a Vaaka tree which did not endure a fierce summer, a wild hen that materialized out of a lemon tree which fell down in a stormy season when nothing remained perpendicular. It was a sort of childhood surety that beneath each tree there was a bird hidden down under.
The sawing of timber was done almost secretly in the valley. Saw mills were not permissible near forests. We used to go to watch timber being sawed down with shining saws, in those saw mills which functioned in camera. Although children were forbidden to go there, we found a strange pleasure in roaming about those premises. The bodies of the felled trees had a green cloak of moss, a very thin layer. The barks of trees would be scattered all over there, like scales of fish. The saw mill and its surrounding were like a mysterious place under someone’s secret surveillance.
Father would ask us playfully, “Do you have the notion that we are cutting wood?”
“We are just doing a tug to see who get the saw. It’s a game. Haven’t you seen Tug of war?” He would explain. “Sometimes, in between the game, the wood gets cut, that’s all.”
He always had such mischievous explanations for anything.
It was at night that father used to bring roots and flakes of cut off wooden pieces. He used to spend long time of his leisure with them. Perhaps out of his habit at the saw mill, he talked less when he worked on the roots. It seemed that he never liked anyone watching him while at work. To avoid our disturbance, he would ask, “who all need a top?” He always tried to keep us away by bribing us with trifles like tops and small play carts.
Of all those roots he brought home, only a few were conformable to be transformed to animal figures, easily. Rest hesitated stubbornly for days. No one were sure as to what the thick, disfigured roots will get transformed to, until the last finishing touches. Puzzles to which he himself was privy to the answers. And the answer was-Birds. He experimented with the roots in many a ways-cutting, correcting, joining. He gave them ears and eyes by making small incisions with the chisels. Although they didn’t have the need to feed, gave them mouth. He made them appear alive by the inducing the art of chemical mystery of one or two colours. All those times, he was busy like God during the week of Genesis.
Once he had been struggling with a strange looking root for long. It has the dwarf look of a big tree which had lost all its leaves. One or two branches stood in disarray.No one could recognize the tree. Or perhaps it was not a root at all. May be it must be a small tree. Father did not bother to trim down its lush root growth. Neither did he paint or polish it. Which bird was embedded in it? It seemed father too did not get an answer to this puzzle. He seemed disturbed. He grew sleepless. He even bunked work some days.
“Which tree is this?” I asked. He didn’t seem to hear it.
“Which bird are you going to make out of it?” I asked again.
His eyes which stored the inventory of birds of various regions dilated. Wiping away the perspiration,he said in a serious tone, a bit hesitatingly-“Peacock.” He looked skeptically at me if I thought his decision was wrong.
A few distance away from the saw mill, in the bushes in the valley slopes there were peacocks. I have seen them there. A flock of two or three. At times, loners. I could hardly believe that a peacock could take shape with all its glory from this root cluster.
“I haven’t seen them from near.” Father told me as if he had read my thoughts. Placing the chisel down, he stood up.
“Peacocks and parrots are not like vultures and owls. They run away at the slightest sight of us. Bird usually have a fear for woodcutters.”
I pointed to the valley and said,”There are peacocks over there.”
“I really want to see them dance fanning out their tail feathers. It seems I may have to give up timber work for that.” He continued, “Afterall, who doesn’t get scared when a tree falls?”
That was right. I too have seen trees falling. It is such a horrible sight to see them falling down violently shaking all its leaves, when the last fibre which keeps them standing snaps off. You may hear someone wailing piteously along with the tree when it falls down haplessly, at the final stroke of the axe. Broken nests, the chicks in it, shattered eggs-the surroundings seemed to reverberate. The nearby trees may too get afraid of this.
That evening we went to the bushes to see the peacocks. Sun was down. I walked in the front, through the narrow path that led to the bushes. While following me from behind, father spoke of the animals and birds and the lush forests of the yester years. Now big trees have become a rarity. What remained were midget plants which dreamed of soaring heights. The evening sun set the yellow flowers on those plants on flame.
The past of the forest seemed to unfold before me through his words. The ‘Theeppaala” tree which shone like embers at night, the wild climbers which stored water in them, the “Cher” tree which gave rashes all over the body if you touch it, the wild leaves that healed wounds, the fragrances… everything- It felt like walking through a primeval woods.
“I have seen the peacocks fan out their feathers,” I said a bit proudly. Father did not reply to this. He just looked at me in surprise.
Sunlight grew fainter. We stood in waiting near a small tree near the bushes.
“You climb up. I shall wait somewhere near.” He suggested. I managed to climb on a low branch. The place was silent and deserted. We waited with bated breath, along with wind. I remembered seeing them here, while we kids, roamed about the area while playing. But now where were they?
Just then, a peacock appeared at a distance. A single peacock that had come out of the bush. While walking it moved its neck in a particular fashion and watched its surroundings. I called out to father: “Over there…”
He signaled me not to make any noise.
A gentle breeze blew, blowing away the dried leave to some distance, and then they settled down. Another peacock appeared from behind the bushes. It has its tail feathers fanned out.
Sunlight drained away from the hill slope. The flame went out from the yellow flowers. The peacocks had come nearer.
It was difficult for father to have a good vision of them, from behind the trees. He tried to get a better view standing on his toes. Then, gently he climbed on to another branch of that small tree. It seemed that he was preparing himself for a rare sight, retracting himself behind an invisible curtain. It occurred to me that not only we, but all those remaining trees on the slope, and the valley were waiting for it.
He could not remain on the branch for long. The branch broke with a strange noise. Did he hear the leaves screaming? He slid down together with the broken branch. The noise made the birds alert and they looked around. Sure, they saw us.
How fast they disappeared!
“They saw me,” father said in despair.
Night had fallen. We walked back through the wild pathways darkened by night. The paths all of a sudden seemed to become so strange and unfamiliar. When I turned back, the hill suddenly grew to a gigantic root and seemed like staring at us. Somewhere birds were chirping. I listened: I suspected it to be coming from the roots of the very few trees that remained on the hill, which were waiting to be transfigured to birds. I was afraid.
The faint glow of light which was seen afar must be from the saw- mill. Sometimes they worked during nights too.
In the dim light of sleep, I dreamt of two peacocks with soiled feathers, looking at us. A big tree with many branches, swayed violently in the wind fell down with the leaves screaming. I woke up. It seemed night stood fanning out its feathers.
Father was still awake.
An old man feeding some pigeons. There were a whole flock of pigeons surrounding him. Its summer. The broad shadowy canopy of the peepal tree. The first picture that any kid draws when he begins to draw something. I drew it that day. Father watched me drawing it with a blunt tipped pencil. He did not work ob roots that day.
One of the workers from the saw-mill came in search of father.
He said mockingly,” just wanted to see if you are dead or alive.”
“Only after you Ananthetta,” father laughed. “Don’t you too need someone to mourn your death?”
“You can just do that,” he scolded father.” Get ready. There’s lot of work to do. The supervisor asked for you.”
“Not today,” father said. “I don’t feel well.’’
He insisted. He took father away under compulsion.
It turned out to be a disaster. Father might have been dreaming while sawing. Blood dripped down the saw, wetting the wounds of the wood. It was on that day he lost his index finger.
Father stayed back at home with his wound dressed in white bandage. Co workers visited occasionally, blaming his carelessness and expressing remorse at being taken away for work that night under compulsion.
“One who saws wood is not destined to have all his fingers forever,” they cursed themselves. “It is his fate.”
Father smiled at them. “So what? You no more need to point your finger at someone while talking, nor should one need to show the way.”
He no longer was a wood cutter. The roots he had kept back to work upon, got old, and disintegrated. Thus ended their lives, without becoming birds.
I have drawn the picture of the old man feeding pigeons later too. Seasons changed in them. Summer went. Rain and snow came. The pictures disappeared with childhood. Some other children may be drawing the old man. Perhaps, he must be the only one who remaining, without any changes.
Today, years later, I, who is no longer an artist, has come with my little daughter to this bird sanctuary where live bird are kept imprisoned. She has come to see those birds which she had familiarized with, only in textbooks. How times have changed! She must be more used to dolls-not of birds but of humans made with geometrical precision-than living beings.
It was not a busy day at the bird sanctuary. We walked under the shade of the prop roots that had grown bigger than the main trunk. Birds brought from six continents, looked at us from behind the netted cages, painted green. We tried to read their names written outside the cages.
“Have you ever seen it father?” my daughter asked to the tune of a nursery rhyme.
“What?” I looked at her.
“ Dance. Dance of the peacock.” She repeated the song about peacock from her textbook.
When was it that I saw a peacock’s dance? I pondered while searching for peacock’s cage to show her. All of a sudden, I remembered all those trees which had fallen screaming and all those birds, hidden in those roots.
Standing in the solitude of the bird sanctuary, the memory of a child, who stood waiting for the peacocks to appear, in order to show them to his father, a wood cutter, on a gloomy evening, flooded me.