Ever since she heard his lecture, Malar spoke of her deep regard for the professor. She and I were eager to talk to him a little more, and so we begged him to give us a little time out of his crowded programme. But now, for a few seconds, she was lost for words.
Then she began casually, by asking him what he ate for breakfast, what his plans were for the day and what he had been reading recently. Suddenly, in the midst of all this, she burst out, ‘Doesn’t the sight of that pipal tree distress you?’
It was a small room with a bed surrounded by a space of three feet; a desk with its chair; a tiny bathroom-cum-toilet, and a small storage cupboard. The rather large single window facing the front door gave the room the status of a three-star hotel.
The tree took over the entire window. Whoever entered the room, and looked directly ahead, must have been overwhelmed by the sight of it. It is very rare indeed to find a room with a view of such a giant tree and its greenery on the busy Serangoon Road, amidst all those buildings, shops and crowds.
Beyond the narrow corridor past the front door, Malar sat on a chair next to the table set against the wall, facing the window. I stood next to her, leaning against the table.
Though the professor did not turn around to look at the window, the tree must have been present in his mind always, even while he sat on the bed talking to us.
He had lived there for the past two weeks. All this while, he might have been aware of the tree: as he lay on his bed, woke up, came out of the shower, worked at his desk. On the other hand, it might not have made any serious impression on him. Either way, it was impossible for him to avoid the sight of it, as it filled the entire window.
At Malar’s words, an expression of indescribable loss appeared on his face for an instant, and then disappeared. But he didn’t say a word about the pipal tree to start with.
‘The situation is getting worse and worse, yet nobody speaks out. There is a growing hostility against the Muslims. But nobody seems to care.’ He smiled in his own unique way, with a gentle irony, as he continued, ‘One of most important tasks given to the army after the war was to build low parapet walls around all the pipal trees they could find, and put statues of the Buddha there. But the roots of those trees, many of them, continue to sift through the earth, its history, its lives and beliefs; the trees still grow and spread. Nowadays Buddha’s smile is frightening!”
Seen through the window and from a distance, the tree dominated the view, rustling its leaves. This is the special quality of pipal trees. The entire tree and its heavy branches is covered with leaves. Yet when the breeze blows, only the leaves on the small twigs move. Their rustling is like the faint, swishing sound when an empress tosses her hair without revealing any expression on her face.
Everyone who was born in Negombo before the 1980s, and who grew up there since then, was familiar with the pipal tree which stood in front of the temple, dedicated to Pillaiyaar, the elephant-faced God. Both the tree, and the Young Men’s Hindu Association building behind it, belonged to everyone in the town. It was a tree that didn’t discriminate between race, religion, language or age. What is more, in those days, it was a friend and support to all the pupils of the nearby Vijayaratnam Hindu High School.
Many fishermen lived in Negombo, as it was a sea-side town. Most of them were Christians. Besides, there were also well-off tradesmen, upper class Hindus and Buddhists who lived in old-style colonial houses, and Muslims of every sort. So too, there were many communities there: Indian Tamils, Ceylon Tamils of the trading caste, Malays, people from Java, and Anglo-Indians.
Children of all classes and communities who spoke Tamil attended the Vijayaratnam school. All the students from the first to the twelfth class would set off on Friday mornings, walk past the Pipal tree to the Pillaiyaar temple, and sing hymns to the Lord Shiva. The Christian and Muslim children in my class always joined in the Friday procession, even if they didn’t sing the hymns.
On our return, we’d manage, somehow, to pluck off the pale-red tender young leaves of the tree. We’d place them between the pages of our books and compete amongst ourselves to see whose leaves remained intact, without fading or breaking down. In those days, the civil war had not become intense. The children were still like those tender leaves, not touched by the cruelties and sorrows yet to come.
There was a Nagar, an ancient snake-God, a stone-sculpture, beneath that tree. Offerings were made to him everyday. But even though the tree was held to be sacred, the bench that surrounded it was used by everyone. All sorts of things went on there: people begged, played, made love, rested in the shade. There was even a murder there, it was said. And it was there that someone who lived next to the Catholic church drank poison and died.
Whatever stories were told, the most important thing about that tree was that it belonged to all the townsfolk, particularly all the people who lived along Sea-shore Road. It was under that tree that we gathered before setting off to school, to dance–classes or tuition sessions, to the temple or to church festivals.
A narrow lane led from the tree to the bus-stand on Sea-shore Road. To the right of the tree, at some distance, stood the temple to the Goddess Kali, then a church. After that, the road came to an end by the cremation grounds. On this side there was the temple to Mariamman, then the entrance to the school, and the municipal buildings. Beyond that came the fish-market, and finally, the sea. The tree, with its spreading branches, stood like the magnificent chieftain of Negombo’s Sea-shore Road, holding in its possession many, many untold stories.
I still remember that in 1982, when the town was subject to attacks against the Tamil people, the riots never reached beyond the tree. Although it raised the peace-flag at that time, in the years to come it stood as witness to stabbings, murder, fires. People raised black flags there, in protest against the war. On the other hand, soldiers were recruited there, too.
But what’s the use of remembering all this? When Sea-shore Road was widened, they brought the statue of the Nagar inside the Pillaiyaar temple, and took down the tree which had put down its roots and spread its branches for hundreds of years. It wasn’t that easy to cut down the tree, either. I still remember it all. It was Natesan who was asked to cut down the tree. As soon as he began, snakes started to emerge from their pits around the tree. Terrified, he proclaimed he could not do it, and took to his bed. For Natesan, cutting down trees was like peeling bananas, usually. So, when he refused to fell it, they had to bring huge machines in order to do so.
Had there been a Buddha under that tree, they might have left it alone, and built the road around it, or perhaps turned it into a cross-roads. But before anyone could think of such a strategy, it had all happened; the tree was gone.
Everyone in the town was shocked. We were so stricken that it didn’t even occur to any of us to pluck the leaves of the tree which lay fallen beside the road. For some days it seemed as if the whole town was in mourning. Some of the older people predicted that there were evil times ahead for the entire country because the tree was taken down.
After that, the whole town changed. When the civil war became so violent in the 1990s, many families who had lived there for generations took all their possessions and left, emptying the place. But in spite of this, and with all its troubles, the town began to prosper, because of its position: a sea-shore town, right next to the airport, and so close to the capital, Colombo. Hotels and all sorts of facilities for tourists proliferated. People say that Negombo has changed completely now, crowded with tourists and foreigners.
Note: This story, by Kanagalatha (Latha), is as yet unpublished. The story does not have a conventional story-line, but consists of a series of reflections, moving from Singapore to Sri Lanka and back, and across time. These reflections are framed by the Sri Lankan professor’s visit to Singapore, and united by the symbol of the pipal tree. The pipal tree (ficus religiosa) has always had religious and social significance in Hindu and Buddhist cultures throughout South Asia. This tree is central to the story, and stands for both religious and social tolerance and inclusion, as well as religious and social oppression and dominance.
The first section of the story is the result of a consensus translation from Tamil into English by Palaniappan Arumugum, Subramaniam Kannaphan, Seetha Lakshmi, Samuel Neopolian Devakumar, K P Sathasivam and Thirumathi R. Kamlambal, led by Lakshmi Holmstrom with Latha in attendence, at the Literary Translation Boot Camp co-organised by the Arts House and the British Centre for Literary Translation and held in Singapore in May 2014.
Lakshmi Holmstrom has translated the second section, to give some sense of how the story moves.