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  • Writer's pictureCharles Pennefather

A tale of three trees

This was something I wrote over four years ago. Decided to post it because I still feel the same way about these trees.

My school is tucked away in a suburb of Mumbai, and it isn’t very old, as schools go. But it’s the only school I attended. The two long school buildings hid a big playground from the eyes of the world, and only those who cared enough to stop and peer through the almost-open walls of the school hall ever noticed children running around on the field every evening.

The school’s playground had a demarcation of sorts – three trees spaced out nearly along the length of the field, a short distance from the buildings. Nothing made them special, except for the fact that you’d need around five people standing fingertip to fingertip to encircle just one of their trunks.

If that was the size of their trunks, imagine how broad their canopy. I was only one of hundreds of boys who spent long, lazy, hot afternoons lounging in their shade with nothing more than a good book to keep me company. I was just a little boy when they cut down the one at the far end of the ground. I was so upset, I cried. It was cut down to make way for the basketball court – something I have used for two decades, now. But it still doesn’t feel right that a tree that majestic had to sacrifice itself just so I could discover the game I so love. Still, nature had the upper hand. The monsoons came and claimed the ground for itself, with the grass growing so high it would hide the entire school, should we have allowed students on it. Every so often we’d discover a big snake, and it would be killed. The two remaining sentinels stood and watched over us. They saw the rain come, the grass grow, get cut, the ground get overrun by boys of all sizes and shapes every day. Once in a while, they also had their fun at our expense, keeping a football or two from falling back to earth, or picking off a full-court basketball that anyone deigned to fling too high. We learned to throw flat passes, and avoided three point shots from the far corner of the basketball court. I’m sure they smiled down upon us.

A few months ago I found myself in the rare situation of having my phone with me while I watched my friends play. The light was fading, birds flew about – the parakeets and mynahs that call my school their home sang their songs prettily. The crows added their dissonance to the opera. Far away, painted storks flew across the sky in formation and black kites wheeled around in the best updrafts they could find. What really caught my eye was the tree at the edge of our basketball court – the branches were bare of leaves, but there weren’t any on the ground, either. This wasn’t its annual shedding. I snapped a photo of those bare limbs, still proud, still offering what little shade they could to us. It still dwarfed us, that tree. It hadn’t given up, I was sure of that. It still managed to pull up the concrete of our court slowly, inevitably, over the two decades I’ve been watching it. It was as sure as continental drift, and equally unstoppable.

Last month one of those branches fell onto the court. The school decided that the best solution was to cut down the tree… or so I thought. I went to the school today and found both the trees gone. I may not be a small boy who will cry, but there is a profound sense of loss because those trees, they are – were – constants. I sat under them when I didn’t want to go home after school. I rested in their shade when I was too winded from cricket practice. I spent months rehearsing a play in their shade. I beat the biggest drum in the marching band with them probably covering their ears and hoping I would stop. They were things I thought I’d show my children and tell them these stories. I thought they were eternal, that because they existed before me, they would exist after, as well.

They weren’t.

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