In my last column, I wrote about death and it seems I am not done with the subject. Recently, a teacher from my old school mourned the slow death of a banyan tree.
This tree had stories gathered under its aerial roots: in 1926, when J. Krishnamurti was looking for some land near his birthplace, Madanapalle, where he could set up a school, he came across a banyan tree in a valley. He was struck by the beauty of the tree and the silence of the place and over the next few years, the land was acquired and the Rishi Valley School set up.
In the years that I was there, our annual dance dramas took place under the tree. We persuaded our teachers to take a class outdoors and took them by the long way to the banyan. Everyone I know from school has at least one annual photo that was taken with the tree as shelter and background.
There was a stage made of cement, and stone benches had been placed at some distance, in a semi-circle. Beyond the stage, some roots had become secondary trees, but most always dangled and never reached the ground – I am not sure if it was because they weren’t allowed to, or because the madly-swinging children put paid to the ambitions of the parent tree.
The big banyan, as it was known – there was another one elsewhere in the school – was as much a landmark of the school as Asthachal (when we watched the sunset from half-way up a small hill) or the distinctive rock formations that surrounded us to which we gave absurd but oddly fitting names.
Such permanence do landmarks have in the minds of people that we forget that even trees must die.
For years there have been rumours of the slow death of the banyan tree. Friends who visited shook their heads in sorrow. They said the cement stage had been removed, that there were supports for the tree, but still it was dying.
I visited the school a few years ago, and I thought the rumours of its death were exaggerated: it seemed to be doing well – maybe it wasn’t as healthy as it was when I had been there, but so many things had changed so why not the tree? Besides, it could have been a matter of perception – the way childhood places often appear smaller and shabbier than one remembers.
Recently, concern for the big banyan has once again erupted. It appears that something – it is not clear what – is eating away at the tree from the inside. The main trunk is dead, so it is unable to support the branches connecting it to the surrounding prop roots. Some friends have been trying to find ways to conserve the main trunk. I’m not sure if it’s an effort worth making.
Of all the trees favoured in mythology and philosophy, it is the banyan which represents immortality, and the enlightenment that comes with the understanding of the nature of death. Its continuing existence is a fact, plain and visible: if another part of it survives, it is still the same tree, no matter how many leaves it sheds or how many roots it puts down. It demands no metaphysical leaps of the human mind – as other trees and plants do – in seeing in a seed the ghost of its parent and the promise of progeny.
In the eighty years since J. Krishnamurti first saw the tree, the big banyan has maybe three of four big prop roots in addition to the main trunk. Understandably enough, the school may not have wanted the tree to spread over a large area, and so it has always stayed in the shape most of us remember it. A banyan that cannot spread probably cannot perpetuate itself in the way it is supposed to.
For this tree to survive, it must be allowed to spread, to change its point of view, to see the world from a slightly different place. Some day, the school children will remember some secondary tree as ‘the’ big banyan, and have stories to tell about it that will also be stories about themselves. There are, after all, many ways for trees to live.
(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)