Skip to main content

The Family Tree

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

Family Tree

Family Tree

It is because of the Tree that I am spending this scorching summer noon waiting outside a courtroom.

Justice is being dispensed from the once white, crumbling colonial building that serves as the Magistrates court in my once white, crumbling hometown.

I am bored. All I can do is watch the cracks where the plaster had fallen off on the wall forming patterns that branch out like rivers on a relief map while I wait for my call. Motionless lizards watch flies with their hooded eyes as they fly close to their doom. The lizards look bored too. There are too many flies. There must be no thrill of the chase anymore.

Leaning back against the wooden bench I undo the top button of my shirt. The heat is palpable. The air smells of cigarette smoke and stale urine. There is a waft of cheap perfume from my left, where a sari clad damsel sits fanning herself. Her doe eyes are lined with thick mascara and her curly dark hair is adorned with a bunch of jasmine flowers. She winks at me and spits betel juice into a spittoon filled with sand. The sand covers a multitude of sins. She must be one of the prostitutes who peddle their wares along the highway to the long distance lorry drivers looking for a quick pit stop. Bored policemen usually pick them up when the case rate falls, often paying the fines out of their own pocket to boost their statistics. She’ll be back at her post for the evening shift.

The corridor where we wait buzzes with khaki clad policemen and dark robed lawyers. I watch the legal eagles dart back and forth, holding hushed conversations with their respective clients in corners. They are sweating in the heat, dark patches spreading under their armpits and etching a Rorschach pattern on their backs. I wonder why they suffer under all those layers of clothing. Although the Indian Penal system is fashioned after the British, it seems a bit silly to adopt the black robes and curly wigs too. I wonder why no one ever protested – perhaps they liked the pomp and splendour, perhaps it offered some solace from the post colonial indignity of being called the ‘third world’.

The court clerk had told me to wait for my turn. There are three or four cases to be judged before mine. So I wait for my turn in the searing heat.

A sudden gust of breeze offers temporary respite. I look outside and see the trees rustle briefly in the wind before returning to their stupor. The leaves stay unmoving as my mind drifts. It drifts past the court building and soars high in the sunlit sky. It hovers over my hometown longingly, over the place of my birth; the place that still haunts me in my dreams; the place where I chose to return to after all these years.

My mind wanders to the Tree.


My association with the Tree grew from early infancy. My mother told me later how she used to set up a makeshift cradle by tying an old sari onto one of the lower branches, how she used to let me sleep there, while she worked in the fields with my father. There I must have been, swinging lazily in the breeze, cosy in the cool shade of the Tree. She said I loved it. Not that I remember much of my nappy days.

My earliest memory of the Tree was when we used to play hide and seek amongst its sprawling branches and aerial roots. It was a giant hideout. The main trunk of the Tree was so broad it took ten of us circled around, holding hands, to span its girth. The oldest trunk was in the middle surrounded by further generations spread in a concentric fashion. The ground was soft and cushioned with yellowing leaves. Birds nested in the higher branches and their calls and croons were soothing. It was always cool under the Tree. It was also relatively dark, pierced only by fine shafts of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. The criss-crossing shafts of light made it all the more magical.

Scroll to Continue

The Tree loomed in our backyard, bordering the paddy fields. It was a comforting presence. I felt at home when I sat under it. My mother made packed lunches when my father worked the fields and we used to sit in the shade, eating lemon rice and drinking cool glasses of buttermilk. Every working day was a picnic.

I tried to climb the Tree when my parents were not around.

My brother was four years older than me and could climb higher, fearlessly. I remember clinging to the lower branches watching his naked feet disappear higher and higher into the upper reaches. My feet struggled between fear and fascination. I had a few falls, but the carpet of leaves always softened the impact. I never got hurt more than an occasional bruise.

For a while in my young life climbing to the top was an obsession; my own Everest waiting to be conquered. My brother dazzled me with stories of mysterious sights at the top, making me more and more eager to climb. Everyday I would climb higher by a few branches and give up after shaking uncontrollably. It long remained a secret, uncharted realm for me.

I was twelve when I managed to climb to the top. I can still remember that day. My brother was away with my father to the market, my mother busy at home in the kitchen. I climbed my usual few branches and looked up into the dark green ceiling pierced with dazzling shafts of sunshine. The smell was of dank foliage and drying bark. I reached higher than I have ever done and could see the last few branches stretching out like gnarled hands. A surge of adrenaline coursed through me and my heart thudded resonantly in my chest. My forearm was bleeding from scratches but I was oblivious to pain. I only wanted one thing, the glory of reaching the summit.

I climbed slowly but surely, looking for handholds and footholds, easing my slim body through damp branches. They were thinner as I climbed higher, bending ominously with my weight. I could see the sky better and better as I inched upwards.

I was at the top.

It was a different world from there. The fields were greener. My house looked like a fairy tale castle with smoke curling up from the chimney. The wind was fresher and as it ruffled my hair. My fear vanished in the triumph. I could never top that feeling in my later years.

Of course, my brother didn’t believe me, so I had to do it all over again the next day. I was one of the big boys then. I was in his league. He treated me with renewed respect and gave me my first cigarette whilst we hid among the branches.

I remember the acrid smoke making me cough. He sat next to me perched on the crook of the branch, patting my back. Showing me how to do it. I remember smiling bravely through the tears streaming down my eyes. Choking and spluttering. I felt all grown up…