Post Road Magazine #14

Lalita and the Banyan Tree

Shubha Venugopal

Lalita never planned to fall in love with a tree. The women noticed first. They could not fail to observe Lalita’s skin-glow. She looked like she had swallowed one of her diyas—tiny brass candleholders with ghee-soaked wicks—and the flame illuminated her from within. The women’s faces, however, drooped like sunflowers abandoned by sun, as Lalita’s had also once done. And so they watched and wondered at the tree. 

When Lalita finally merged with the tree, she wore the guise of mourning. Her widow's hair flowed like the Ganges River, free of knots or braids. No bloodred bindi dotted her forehead—smooth as freshly churned cream. No mangalsutra bound her throat; no bangles encircled wrists. Her sari, never exposed to the stains of dyes, gleamed white and pure in the sun. Barely eighteen, she flapped near its branches like a broken dove. Touched, the tree realigned her wings. 

Lalita became betrothed to a local man at the late age of thirteen though most girls married at five. In this remote village in India's hills ancient rules reigned and women accepted, resigned. Lalita's father, angry at having no sons, decided to utilize his only daughter. She would serve him, he declared, until she turned thirteen. "But who will want her then?" her mother wailed to the monkeys that chattered on the riverbank.

Several monkeys stopped their babble, scratched behind their ears, and pulled ticks from their hides. Not knowing the answer, they continued to speak in tongues. Lalita, then aged six, saw her mother's hands bleed as she wrung out clothes in the river and beat them dry against a flat rock with only a monkey chorus and a daughter to watch.

For as long as she could remember, Lalita had crawled and ducked away from her father's hand. Once, when she was four, she stood rigid as a stone temple pillar between her father and mother. She did not want his chappal to slap her mother's cheek, leaving behind slipper prints. Her mother made herself a shadow in the corner. She called to Lalita, telling her to run, to not worry. Her father’s foot drew back. Lalita spit on his toes. He glinted like a snake and moved to strike.

With him behind her, Lalita flew through a nearby field swarming with yellow butterflies. Temple bells tolled in the distance. Distracted, unable to see, her father tripped into smears of cow dung as butterflies danced before his eyes. From then on only stealth gained him the prize of kicking his daughter's thighs.

Lalita learned to keep silent and to hide in the forests. She learned to listen to the cautioning of monkeys' cries and the darting of lizards' forked tongues. She knew her father was near when the deer flattened their ears and raised limbs, nostrils quivering as they readied for flight. She sniffed for his scent lifted in the breeze and masked her fleeing footsteps behind rumbles of river over rocks. By heeding nature's signs, she was able to escape his grip. 

But soon another man whom she could not so deftly defy possessed her. When she turned thirteen, her father, afraid to disobey divine dictates, fulfilled the kanyaadan—men's sacred duty to marry off daughters. But the village men declared her too old, said they wanted more-tender child brides. Monthly blood, flowing like tides pulled by the moon, already polluted her; she was no longer desired. Only an aged oxcart driver remained to claim his bride. Squinting and almost blind, body bent and exposing an egg-size lump on the back of his neck, he sidled up to her and, after sizing her up, pinched her upper arm. Licking his lips, he fingered the berry-ripe spot left behind. He agreed to take her off her father's hands with a dowry of their best milk-rich cow.

Quick with the whip that he lashed across the heads and backs of beasts, he rode Lalita as he rode his ox. Each night before straddling her body with his head thrown back, he placed his whip on a table near her sight. She felt sometimes it would come alive and coil itself around her neck. In those times she barely let herself breathe.

Lalita, swift enough to avoid his whip during the day, could not evade him at night. She could not roll free from the weight of his thighs gripping and bruising her sides. She could not stay dry when his sweat dripped onto her belly and breasts, or prevent his unwashed, mud-and-animal scent. She learned her only defense.

Ignoring her husband's grunts, her body unresisting as earth, she imagined herself bathed in ripples of moon swaying to the music of god Krishna's flute. Peacocks shimmered and preened in these dreams. A lotus, pink and tantalized, slowly opened in a pond. Jasmine-scented air grew damp with her longing. In her mind she laughed with mockingbirds and sang with maina birds, koyals, and larks. 

For five years she lived as a village man's wife. Silent, she bore the weight of water on her head as she carried earthen pots from the river to her abode. She grew thirsty from heat but could not take time to drink. Like other girls costumed as women, she bent her back and ruined her knees working hunched over in the rice, sugarcane, and vegetable fields. The skin on her hands cracked and bled. She gathered vegetables that she rid of insects, cut, sliced, and assembled for her husband's daily meals.

She collected cow dung, soon immune to its smell. She spread it out to dry and patted it gently with her hands into patties used for fuel. She wove straw and plastered it with mud to make thatched-roof huts, and she learned to wait until night to scrape with a sharp rock mud caked in her nails. She molded, teased, and caressed wet clay into kitchen pots. She touched the clay in the way she could never touch a person. Like the other girls, she dipped twisted cloths into boiled plant dyes until rainbows discolored her hands. She wrung and patted, shaped and molded, cleaned and washed and cooked and carried, and let him spread her legs, and slowly dissolved within her skin. 

Until the day her husband died, leaving her free, and Lalita fell in love with a tree.

The women swear it happened on the day of the festival of lights. On that day, when prayers were chanted at dawn as orange rays ruptured clouds, when hundreds of diyas lit doorways and paths, windows and yards, when patakas crackled and burst and village girls whirled in flaring celebration skirts, Lalita blazed with a secret. At first they thought it might just be the reflected flicker of lamps that shone in her eyes. The festival lights could not compare to Lalita, sun-radiant and smiling as she left the town behind. The women plotted to figure out why. They could not know, of course, that the sparks had been ignited weeks before, while her husband, condemned by a fever consuming him like rage, tossed and ranted on his deathbed.

Weeks before the day of the festival of lights, as her husband groaned in his sleep and as the world wept monsoon tears, Lalita wandered to the windowsill. As the rakshasi wind wailed her demon-loud howls, Lalita grew restless. Her feet could not stay still and insisted on beating in time with the rain. Her breath heaved along with the squalls. She nibbled on wet lips. Her arms, bearing the bruises of her husband's handprints, opened to embrace the blackening day. She went outside into the downpour. Her sari melted against her flesh like petals drenched upon darkened boughs. Her hair streamed into her eyes.

Drawn to the lurching, drunken river with waves frothing and foaming at the tips, she did not waver in her stride. Following the gush of the torrents, Lalita rushed along the river’s side, letting it be her guide. She passed woodland and field—terrain as identifiable to her as the lines on her hands. Farther and farther she ran, past the village’s edge. She ran until she no longer recognized the river’s twists and turns, and the alien land. Her footsteps slowed to a halt then, and she drew closer to the bank. Weary, she prepared to let the river mud, like a reclaiming womb, pull and suck her in. She was waist-deep in water when she heard the calling of leaves disturbed. She knew, from the clarity with which she heard this call, that this was no mere dream.

Lalita half swam, half waded, past an unfamiliar river bend. Soon, out of the gloom, a banyan tree materialized. Its roots and branches overflowed the horizon. Within its network of limbs it captured and held patches of silvery sky. She thought of wrapping those sky bits around her like a quilt. With its slender fingers and veined, muscular arms, the tree summoned her. She responded. Dragging herself from the river, she crawled to it through the clinging, needy soil. She reached out. It felt solid and real to her touch.

Panting and only half alive, she draped herself over a dry patch of earth under the banyan's aerial roots. Within its strange caverns, with their damp, ventilated walls, the wind grew tame. Calmed by melodies of echoing wind, she stopped weeping and let herself sleep. For two days she slept as her husband, at home, drew his last, punishing breaths. For two days the tree bent over her like a lover and kept her cool and safe, free from deadly fevers. Her sighs became less tremulous. Her eyelids stopped fluttering; her lips now could be still. Night and day, day and night, she slept.

Some mornings later a lush covering of dew left her damp with anticipation. She found herself cradled in fissures of sun-soaked earth between hanging roots, brown and tender as her own skin. Never had she felt so warm, so moist, like a ripening fruit. High in a shag of leaves bats flapped in sleep and brilliant bee-eaters snacked with motionless bodies and a whirring of wings. Herons, blooming on branches like magnolias, swung their elegant necks. Mice scampered in delight. Monkeys flicked their tails, sinuous and nimble in the dawn. Hungry, Lalita stretched her limbs and reached for beir. She spit out the seeds and shuddered as the sweetness exploded on her tongue. She sipped from rain cupped in a curved leaf, quenching her thirst. The hum and the drone penetrated her silence, pulsing, intensifying, until she arched her back in response. Exhausted, satisfied, she felt her body loosen and go soft. 

After hours of languishing in the shade and dozing in the sun, she meandered from inside the banyan tree and leaned over a nearby pool to wash her flushed face. The tree leaned over her shoulder. She saw her watery form ringed with its emerald leaves. She touched the sparkling waves of her face, surrounded by precious leaf gems. She turned to the tree and, bold now, threw her body against its trunk. She rubbed her palms over its knots and bumps, its ancient lines that held within them the passing of time. She pressed her mouth into the bark and breathed, her sigh fragrant as raatkirani, the night-blooming flower queen. The tree shook. With its winding, powerful limbs it held her close.

Weeks later, when Lalita left the divali celebration, the village women followed her. Provoked by the clarity of Lalita's skin, by her forest eyes, they gathered one night after their men had burned Lalita's husband, whom a wandering village boy had found dead in his bed, on the funeral pyre. The women crept, silent as vines, along the banks of the river as Lalita glowed ahead—a white shimmer against black, enchanting in moonlight. With her sari blowing behind her, Lalita flew over jagged rocks and broken twigs, desire spurring her feet. The women stumbled, not used to running in the night. Their ankles swollen from bearing the weight of sons and their bodies bluish from years of work, they grumbled but continued on, past the village’s edge and around the river’s bends. Then they saw Lalita, encased in a banyan tree, her back pressed against bark. Mumbling among themselves, they returned to their homes. That night, as their husbands lumbered clumsily upon them, the women thought of Lalita—her head cradled by vegetation and feathers from birds, her body cushioned in soft, giving dirt.

The next week, as their husbands snoozed in the heat of midday and their children busied in play, the women sneaked out to watch Lalita and the banyan tree. They saw her clearing rotting debris out from one of the tree rooms, cool and green beneath aerial roots. Her hips swung and rocked to a song. The women leaned closer to hear. They never knew she could sing. Her tune followed them home. Later, as they worked in the sugarcane fields, they practiced indulging. Their husbands complained; their children yelled. Their throats quickly went hoarse. 

By the next time they went, Lalita's body had healed. Her sari lay out to dry upon a rock, and she wore only her blouse and petticoat. No hints of her beatings remained. She sat, a golden, bronzelike statue, on a branch and rubbed oils collected from plants and herbs into her hair and skin. She glistened, slick as leaves after rain. Light reflecting off the bougainvilleas tucked above her ears created dappled patterns upon her black hair. The women looked at one another, at their split, bleeding lips, at their straw-brittle skin. Wrinkles changed their faces, sorrows dark like berries marred their eyes. Their cheeks sagged into hollows. Stretch marks tracked their bellies and crisscrossed over breasts. Like the banyan's figs, their bruised flesh slipped into purple. Their disappointment hung from them like the bats on the banyan's boughs. That evening as they bathed their children in the river, they caressed their babies' fresh flesh and they dreamed of Lalita.

On the next trip they witnessed a change in the tree, for Lalita had fully moved in. In her quiet, whispering room she had made herself a little home. A dug-out space in the ground served as her oven. By its side she had lined fruits and vegetables collected from woods and fields. Crushed herbs neatly sorted on piles of leaves separated by twigs gave her spice; sugarcane sweetened her meals. She drank milk from her dowry cow, which she had brought along and which nestled in an adjacent tree space. Freed from its lashings, the ecstatic cow gifted Lalita its thickest, frothiest milk. The tree expanded with the joy of Lalita's scents, her laugh, her movements. The women went home to meals they cooked for indifferent husbands and unruly children, with only the worst parts left over for them. 

They began to imagine how the banyan felt when touched by Lalita; how Lalita felt when touched by the banyan. Compared with the tree's might, their husbands looked weak. Compared with its muscled trunk, their husbands' limbs sagged. Compared with the color of its bark, their husbands appeared pallid as decaying river fish. Compared with the lushness of its crown, their husbands' scalps seemed dry and bald as waterless riverbeds. Compared with the sweet sounds of its birds, their husbands' words seemed embittered, and compared with the tree's fragrance, their husbands emitted breath stale as air entombed in caves. They went back and forth from the tree to their village until one day the women decided to quit. Ignored by their husbands, left alone to face the elements, like Lalita, they chose the tree. 

One month after the festival of lights, by the glow of dawn, the women snaked over the now familiar terrain toward Lalita and the banyan tree, leaving their sleeping men. They went bearing infants on their hips, toddlers in tow. They found her rinsing her hair in rainwater. They approached and surrounded her—mothers turned into lost, bleating lambs. She smiled and invited them inside. From dawn until dark, with Lalita’s help, the women settled in.

Among the banyan's spacious roots the women nestled and bloomed, each in her private room. As mothers rocked babies, the tree rocked mothers. Some sang, some slept, some wept, some sucked on figs. They rested on mounds of soil, their arms and legs entwined with tree limbs. They bathed naked in the river, with sun dotting their skin. They feasted on jackfruit and mangoes gathered from the woods and let the juice dribble unchecked down their chins. They leaned their breasts upon low branches and let the tree take the weight from them. Like Lord Krishna with his beloved gopis, the tree multiplied. 

Late that morning the men of the village awoke, confused, and rubbed fingers caked with fertilizer into their eyes. The sting blinded them. No food waited ready to warm them; no wives knelt by their sides. They paced and called, they cursed and swore, to no avail. An empty pot rolled along the village path, trapping the echoing wind. For nearly two hours they hunted in vain for their wives. Tired from tilling the land, sore from sowing the seeds, they ached for their women, for their healing hands to knead away pain. Reality beset them. With whom would they celebrate the harvest? Who would help them gather the wheat? Who would help store it, bind it, and prepare it for sale? With whom would they pray to the gods of sun and rain? How could a village stay alive without any wives? The men, who trumpeted like elephants when they called out their wares in the village fairs, had no voices to acknowledge loss.

And then one of the men remembered a young woman with the sheen of morning upon her skin, with the clothes of mourning draped over her supple silhouette. He shared his memory, and the men grew excited, recalling how their wives had whispered a name that rustled through their homes like wheat in gusts of wind. Lalita. The young woman once used like an ox by a husband more brute than man. The men had not liked her husband, had not liked the intensity of his abuse, but they had never thought to interfere. A man could do as he liked, after all, with his own wife. But what had happened to Lalita after the death of that man? Was that what their wives had gone to find out?

The men went to Lalita’s house, on the village outskirts, and finding it bare, continued their search, hoping to spot their wives. They followed the river as it wound ahead; they stopped often to look around.

One man, who lived near the edge of the village, peered out of his sagging doorway upon hearing the commotion. Lalita’s father, feeble now, with curved back and walking cane, hadn’t heard such noise in a year. Since the death of Lalita’s mother—a death by drowning in the river that he’d termed an accident—his body and house had fallen into disrepair. Rain flowed through his roof, soaked the floor, and made his bed feel perpetually damp. The mice he failed to catch and kill left droppings in his path. Two birds, defiant, built a nest near a hole in the roof and roused him to cursing with chirping each dawn and dusk. He barely ate, living on leftover rice, vegetable peels, and overripe fruit left out behind villagers’ homes that he pilfered as they slept. Without a wife to slap or a daughter to kick, his muscles hung weak and unused from his aging frame.

When he heard the men—men from the village who had forgotten him—he came out and struggled to track them as they raced ahead on their quest.

The men’s quest led them out of the village’s realm and into a different land. For the first time they observed the landscape—the wild formations of silver gray rock jutting from patches of dirt, the depth and greenness of forest and fields, the sudden stillness of birds, and the deer watching with one leg delicate and raised. In seeking clues to their missing wives, the men—and behind them, Lalita’s father—discovered the world around them. They trailed the river until they passed a bend.

Then the men halted and witnessed their wives. Their wives' lotus-shaped eyes opened, drinking in the sun. Their midnight hair streamed. Their smooth sandalwood skin, their sinuous limbs: the men had never seen such a sight.

When he arrived, Lalita’s father saw Lalita high up on a branch.

Towering above all of them stood a banyan tree that had multiplied its trunks, its free-hanging roots, its multitude of emerald leaves.

The men looked up and to each side, stunned by the size of the tree and by the way its roots cradled the women. The generosity of the tree, which could both contain and fulfill, made them feel small. And so they shrank themselves. With knees bent and arms crossed over legs, they squatted not far from the base of its roots and prepared to watch.

They watched as women held hands and leaned their heads close. Had they ever looked so into their wives' eyes? The men admitted not. They watched as one woman, with healing tree leaves, wiped at salt streaks on another's cheek. Had their wives cried? The men never thought to ask. They watched as one wife rubbed her bare arm against a smooth branch; back and forth, back and forth she massaged, until they, hypnotized, wished she would rub so against them. Had they touched their wives like that? Had their wives ever really touched them? The men wondered why not. They watched as women, with bodies yielding and pliable as moss, hung over the tree's handsome limbs. Had they ever let their women so loosen themselves? The men remembered their own voices sharp with endless demands.

Hungry from the lack of home-cooked meals, and lonesome in homes where their words bounced off walls, returning to them, the men decided to get their wives back.

"But what must we do?" asked each man to the other, stumbling over the never-before-spoken requests. Not finding an answer, not able to approach their transfigured wives, they had no choice but to wait instead. And so they listened, sitting quiet and still, until finally hearing the tree’s gentle reply. While Lalita sang from her lofty perch, the tree joined her in verse, and in so doing, responded to the men’s request.

It was then that the men heard the sounds of the tree: its calming wind tunes, the tapping of twigs, the beating of wings, the humming of life. Before they had heard only the noises emitted by themselves—the rustling of their clothes, the grumbling in their throats, their own voices and breaths, their own blood rushing in circles within their own heads. The men discovered now how to perceive a world outside of them. They remained rooted to the ground. Except for Lalita’s father.

After listening to the duet of daughter and tree, Lalita’s father stepped forth from the tree’s long network of shadows and moved past the dowry cow trembling nearby. He dropped his cane, stood up straight, and walked over roots with feet lifted high. He glanced up at Lalita and turned away, embarrassed at how little he had known, at how much she had grown. When he reached the branches beneath her, he pulled himself up, scratching his legs and bruising his arms, until he sat panting on a thin limb not far from his daughter. He rubbed his cheek against the tree’s bark and felt its answering vibrations. Wet streaks from his withered cheek stained the banyan’s bark.

Lalita’s father lifted his face and looked fully at his radiant daughter. Startled at his bold look, Lalita drew away. But on seeing the awe in his eyes, she relaxed and stretched out her hand. With a moan that startled birds and scattered mice, he bowed his head and touched the hem of his daughter’s white sari, which fluttered above his eyes.

Hai Bhagwan!” he murmured, then shouted, as he thanked God for the sight of this daughter, transformed into a goddess by a deity-tree that held her like a consort.

Lalita joined in his bhajan, his worship song, her pitch matching his. When they first saw Lalita’s father, the women didn’t speak, but now they joined in the bhajan. The men, who had shaken their heads and prepared to spit at the sight of an old man climbing toward his once-beaten daughter, also sang. Soon the air rang with their chants.

When the men’s lungs ached with song and their mouths felt too dry to continue, they went to their wives with open arms. They bent their heads to the tree’s roots as they would do to the feet of a god. Only a god could humble them.

Like a temple, the tree gave them shelter. Drops fallen from leaves purified the men like holy water. Fruits growing near the tree became their prasad. The wives, who saw their men’s actions, delighted in such devotion. Banyan-blessed and wife-caressed, the men felt soothed and calm.

Years later, after Lalita and her father began to converse while sitting in banyan branches, after the men understood how to listen to the wisdom of a tree, after they petted and wheedled their wives, begging them back to their homes, after the village rang with temple chimes, the legend of Lalita and the banyan tree continued to be recited like a prayer-chant. Lalita, who had learned how to find herself, taught the people the way to look. The tree, which willingly spread itself, taught them how to expand. Roots freely sprang from mother trunks and turned into trees that then let out more roots. The banyan tree stretched across the world.

Shubha Venugopal is completing her MFA in fiction at Bennington College. She also holds a PhD in English and will soon be a professor at California State University, Northridge. Her works are forthcoming or have appeared in Gambara, Antithesis Common, The Angler, Literary Mama, Word Riot, Boston Literary Magazine, Elimae, Eclectica, Mslexia, Kalliope, and Women Writers.

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