Six Feet Under the Gulmohar

by | Issue #6, Issues, Poetry

When you are old, Mr. Ousmane had come to believe, you dwell somewhere between the human and the natural world. Especially if you have crossed that fragile threshold of eighty, the human world begins to discard you, but the natural world isn’t yet ready to embrace you. So, you dwell in an inbetweenness, hoping to be accommodated by either of the two worlds.
There was something they said about people like him, he knew. Those who had lived long, perhaps too long, were said to be sitting on the surface of earth with their feet dangling in the depths of their graves.
At eighty-one, Mr. Ousmane was that old being who belonged to neither of the two worlds. He was an ancient creature who had long sat by his grave with his lean legs dangling in the six-feet excavation in earth. Each morning as he woke up and found himself alive, his shoulders dropped lower with the weight of another day he would have to live. Each day that Mr. Ousmane was not dead, he grew less lively.
If anything compensated for the cruelty of ageing, it was a room with a view of the gulmohar tree. After his wife died, the old man had expressed a wish to be moved to the room closest to the backyard so that each morning as he drew apart the curtains of the window, the gulmohar was in plain sight. His family—his sons and their wives and children—had been only too glad to comply. So, the old man was moved to the room that looked out to the gulmohar. And here he was destined to spend the snail-paced years of his eighties.
With each passing day, Mr. Ousmane withdrew more into himself. He kept to the room and barely talked. Perhaps this is how old age coped with loss of a life-long companion. Or perhaps this is how the old coped with old age.
On occasions when someone came in to clean the room and mop the floor, he became quieter. Sometimes, when one of his grandchildren entered to bring their grandfather his meals, he simply signalled for the food to be left on the table. He never conversed with them unless necessary. Even in that necessitated exchange, he spoke the bare minimum words possible. And this, assumed Mr. Ousmane’s family, was how the old man was going to spend his remaining days.
One morning, however, they heard the old man humming a happy tune. On entering his room, they found Mr. Ousmane in an unusually cheerful mood. Puzzled, they looked around for signs of any changes, but found none. They were baffled by the suddenness of his cheerfulness. Perhaps such suddenness, such abrupt bouts of happiness, were characteristic of a man sitting on the edge of his grave.
What had actually caused this sudden change in Mr. Ousmane was a lean branch of the gulmohar tree which had begun to protrude into the old man’s room through the window. It was only a pointed branch with no leaves. Since old age kept him confined to his bed on most days, he could not wander outside his room. Hence, such proximity to the tree made Mr. Ousmane forget his sorrows and eased his hours of loneliness. Perhaps it reminded him of the days of his youth when he had worked as a forest officer.
In the prime years of his life, young Ousmane had been appointed to lead a team to preserve the forest area on the other side of the hill. He had walked each day from his town on this side over to the other side to work. On this other side of the hill were thick canopies, wild berries and mushrooms, moss-covered tree trunks, dew drops falling off the leaves of tall pines and deodars, the swallows sitting on high branches, and the wild, wild bougainvillea with its papery bracts.
Each day he had admired the jungle for its might, for its resilience. Some days he had even spent the night in the forest. Sudden downpours during the monsoon season had often prevented his return from work. Delighted at the prospect of spending the night in the jungle, he had dialled the phone from the department headquarters and tried hard to subdue the glee in this voice as he informed the folks at home that a return that night wouldn’t be possible.
He had even had a favourite clearing in the jungle. He would carry his charpai, a four-footed cot, from the headquarters to the clearing. He had built the cot himself, woven a pattern of jute ropes around a wooden bamboo frame for hours until the cot seemed comfortable and strong enough to take his weight.
On those nights, he had simply stared at the small circular patch of the night sky visible through a dense canopy. During those hours, the moon stood still at the centre of that patch of sky. Silver moonlight filtered through the crowns of the deodars. When Mr. Ousmane thought of his youth, this was the picture that came back to him despite his failing memory—a twenty-something-year-old boy, lying on a cot in a clearing in the jungle, while the night sky blinked and twinkled through the deodars that scaled a height of up to 180 feet.
Back then, he had even managed to climb the tallest of the trees, scaled heights of the guava trees at home. Now that age and brittle bones did not permit climbing trees anymore, he believed the gulmohar had lowered itself, bowed perhaps, in remembrance of those nights spent in the forest clearing.
To Mr. Ousmane, the tree making its way into his room was a welcome intrusion. He began to rise from his bed earlier than his usual hour. After performing his routine ablution, he would drag a chair close to the open window from which the gulmohar branch was slowly making its way into his room. Impatiently, he waited for the sun to rise. When the first light of the day fell into his room, he bent close to the branch and observed with great care the growth of the tree. He took note of the subtle bend in the branch, the further branching of the branch, the yellowish green leaves that were beginning to cover its pointed end. After years of resignation and monotony, the gulmohar caused a rush in his frail body; it excited his tired spirit. A slight greening of the leaves brought him joy.
Each day, the branch grew a few inches in length. Each day, new leaves grew out at its tips. Each day, new leaves were shed. On some mornings, the floor of Mr. Ousmane’s room was far from visible because a thick layer of dry leaves covered it all over. When he walked around in his room stepping over the dry leaves, the soles of his slippers crushed the leaves. It was music to his ears—the sound of crushing and rustling of dry leaves.
One morning, he woke up to find a bunch of dried grass and twigs collected at an intersection of two branches. During the days that followed, the bunch grew bigger and more circular, until it took shape of a carefully-formed nest. A tiny swallow hopped about in its new home. During the morning hours, it flew away and returned each evening before sunset. Mr. Ousmane was careful enough to observe the bird in its nest from a safe distance, making sure to never go too close to it. He had heard his grandparents say that if a bird’s nest was touched by a human hand, the bird never flew back to it. He did not like the idea of abandoned homes, of displaced havens. So the branch grew further into the room, the nest grew cozier, and the bird grew more at home in it. Such harmony was new to a man who had only recently witnessed loss and chaos.
Mr. Ousmane knew his family’s intentions for the gulmohar tree. He was aware that his two sons, their wives, and children had long wanted to chop the tree so that the backyard could be cleared off to build a spare room, perhaps a garage. What had prevented them from cutting the tree was the old man’s attachment to it, an attachment they could not understand, but they cared enough for the old man to wait for it until he was gone. So the last thing, the only thing that brought Mr. Ousmane some joy, was allowed to grow unharmed. It pained him to think of what would happen to the gulmohar after he died. The very thought of it terrified him. If only, thought Mr. Ousmane, had he been aware of the perils of forming attachments at such a late stage in one’s life, he would have never allowed himself to care so much for the gulmohar. Just when Mr. Ousmane thought that he had lived long enough and learnt all lessons that life had to offer, he learnt a new one—the human heart never ceased to yearn for love and attachment. Despite enduring pain and heartbreak, it longed to love and be loved. It pined for beauty, it ached for comfort, and sometimes found peace in some of the most unusual things. Especially in its final years, it hungered for anything that could bring it the ultimate happiness, a souvenir of sorts perhaps, to carry with oneself into death. It was a folly to attach one’s heart and soul to something like a tree, a separation from which now seemed unendurable to old Ousmane. In the earlier years, his life’s sole mission had been to protect trees, to preserve the jungle from threats of timber merchants and construction projects. Decades later, he still hoped to save one last tree, only now he knew not how.
On a rainy morning in early July, Mr. Ousmane was found motionless in his bed. His eyes were lightly shut and his arms, folded on one another, rested just below his chest. His legs were stretched to the bed’s frame on the other end. There was a noor on his face, a divine light of sorts, a perfectly undisturbed calm. On his bedside table, among medical prescriptions and decades-old train tickets, lay a note neatly folded into three equals. It bore his last words—a dying wish of sorts, to forever be buried in the backyard under the gulmohar tree. Despite some initial disgruntled whispers of his family who felt tricked into complying with it, Mr. Ousmane’s last wish was begrudgingly honoured.
Now, when autumn arrives in Mr. Ousmane’s backyard, it rains crimson petals down from the gulmohar. The ground within the radius of the tree is laden with flowers; flame-red gulmohar blossoms adorn the grave. A scent of love, perhaps trust lingers on. The tree stands, unharmed. And there lies Mr. Ousmane, buried six feet under the gulmohar.
Ayesha Khan (she/her) is based out of a town in Himachal Pradesh, India. She holds a postgraduate degree in English Literature. Her writing has been published by Singapore Unbound, Loft Books, Gulmohur Quarterly, Superlative Literary Journal, among others. Twitter: @aayeshaa_khan