The Strange Banyan Tree

Bengalees have their favourite season of festivals with its association of spending time with relatives, merry making and social gatherings . Durga Pooja is followed by Lakshmi pooja, Kali Pooja and then there is Bhai fonta, a time of celebrating the bonds between brother and sister.

My maternal uncle’s house was in a small district town West Bengal, by the river Ganges. We would assemble there every year during on bhai fonta and it was my uncle who had told us this story. My maternal uncle was a  versatile genius, a painter, a reckless adventurer and a mountain lover who would go to the Himalayas twice, thrice  every year. When we insisted on listening to some of his experiences, mama told us this tale.

“I loved to go for long drives in my ambassador, as you all know,” he began , sitting with us on his recliner in the veranda by the river. Yes , the veranda just overlooked the river and the ghat on the opposite side , the  sunrise.

We couldn’t wait , neither could we  be patient anymore, “ Yes, yes , please go on.”

“One  summer morning, I started on a trip to Bolpur, I was very fond of visiting the university established by Rabindranath Tagore. I had managed a two days’ holiday, which when coupled with the weekend , would give me a a four days’ leave, sufficient for my trip. I have a cottage in Bolpur, as you know, I planned to stay there. Two of my friends from Burdwan would join me, this was our plan. I had already informed our caretaker at Bolpur to prepare the house for our visit.

“I started my journey at 11  am, but was held by traffic as I approached the bridge on the river Hooghly. I lived at Maniktola, in North Kolkata, then After crossing Dankuni, unfortunately, there was a  puncture in my tyre. It took me a little over 45 minutes to change my tyre. As I moved on, I could see dark clouds accumulating in the sky but it was very calm around me. Of course, this was the indication of an approaching Nor’wester and I drove on.

“It was after 3 pm when the storm arrived . I couldn’t drive as a sharp wind was blowing. There was  thunder and lightening too and it was raining cats and dogs. I waited for a while by the side of the National Highway, watching the torrential rain from my car. It was scary, but it was unique.  When the rain stopped, the roads were waterlogged. It was dark by then. I was hungry, but as I planned to reach early, I didn’t have much provision for food in my car, except a packet of biscuits and some  potato chips. I finished them already and now decided to move on.”

“There were no street lights on the highway, the headlights of my car were guiding me. Nowadays you can get help from Google maps, but they were non-existent then . Suddenly I realized that I had lost my direction. The roads were narrower than expected, there were trees on both sides of the road, and no sign of any human habitation. Although I kept driving, I felt a shiver up my spine . Where am I?”

“There was a screeching sound and another tyre was punctured. There was no way and I had to look help. My watch said  8  pm and it was pitch dark as though it was 11 pm> I could only hear the  sound of crickets all around me. By this time the rain had stopped, occasional drops fell on the leaves.  I came out of my car, locked it, and began walking hoping to get some help. After I had already walked for, maybe  20 minutesa, I could see  faint light in the distance.  I moved towards  the light to find a cottage , and I knocked at the door. “

“A middle aged man opened the door, his dress revealed that perhaps he was a servant, and he asked me, ‘Koun hai?’

“I was about to reply, but then a baritone voice came from within, ‘Who is there, Ramlagan?’”

“Ramlagan, the middle aged man replied, ‘Sahab, ek mehman aye hain’”.

“There was no electricity  in the house, maybe due to thunderstorm . Ramlagan led me inside with a lamp in his hand and I soon saw an elderly gentleman lying on a recliner, in a well decorated living room. There were some beautiful antique pieces  and some elegant cane furniture in the room. I was astonished to find such a well decorated house on this part of the dark lonely road. The elderly gentleman, in his white cotton kurta pyjama, and salt and pepper beard, looked aristocratic in his bearing.”

“’Where are you coming from?’ He asked me. In reply, I informed him that I was coming from Kolkata, with an intention to go to Bolpur.”

“ ‘But that is quite far from here. You stay here for night, I will provide you with dinner. You can go tomorrow morning.’ The gentleman said. He called Ramlagan to inform him that I will have dinner, and before that Ramlagan showed me a room, where dry kurta pyjama were kept for me to change.

I came to the living room again. The dimly lit rooms seemed ethereal in their antique interior decoration. The gentleman introduced himself as Rajinder Gupta and when he was talking to Ramlagan, I found that he spoke Hindi  in a fine North Indian accent with Urdu words thrown in. The Bengali he used to speak to me also had a Hindi accent. Mr Gupta  was a much travelled man, and we spent the evening listening to his anecdotes.”

“Dinner was ready by 9 30 pm, there were hot parathas, a vegetable curry and  chicken cooked in thick spicy gravy. I relished the food, I was famished . After dinner I went in to the room where I had changed clothes earlier and I fell asleep.”

“I woke up with sun’s rays on my eye and found myself lying under a banyan tree with birds chirping around me.”

“I jumped up, looked at myself to find I was wearing my clothes and there was no sign of the cottage anywhere. It was morning, there were bushes around me and a narrow path leading towards the dense bushes.  Rubbing my eyes I tried to realize what had happened last night. I remembered clearly the elderly gentleman, Ramlagan, the cottage… but where were they now? Was it a dream? Who fed me, gave me shelter in the stormy night? As I stood there, some villagers arrived. Listening to my experience, they couldn’t tell me anything about the cottage and its inhabitants. But they accompanied me to my car, assisted me to a shop where I could get the car tyre repaired . When I sat at a local tea shop to drink tea, a gentleman told me that long years ago they had seen a broken cottage in the bushes, but that has become dilapidated in the course of time.”

“So many years have passed but I am yet to find out the mystery behind the cottage under the banyan tree.”

My uncle stopped, and asked us to get him some drinking water and a cup of tea. We could see the evening had set in and the waters of the river Ganges was lit by the moonlight. An owl hooted and flew across the moon, we all sat still.





Bio: Bulu Mukhopadhyay is Associate Professor of the department of English, New Alipore College, Kolkata. She is fond of writing and translating stories, her areas of interest are children’s literature, travel literature and gender studies.



Bulu Mukhopadhyay

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