The Mango Christmas Tree

This story is set in the early part of the 20th century. Swami lived with his wife, Lakshmi, and their 10 ten year old son, Hari in a small quaint town in the state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India. Theirs was an upper class Brahmin family which followed the old established traditions with great deal of reverence. For example, Swami would wake up every day at 4:30am, take a bath at the village well and do his prayer/meditation rituals from 5-7am. His son, Hari, was now being trained into these traditions, often to his dislike ' especially the part of getting up and taking a bath at 4:30am! But as Swami's father had taught him, tradition was tradition and there was no room for flexibility. It simply had to be done. And so Hari had no choice but to follow his father's wishes ' no questions asked. Lakshmi played her role amicably by getting up early, and taking care of the household chores with a sense of duty and care.

Professionally, Swami was a musician of some repute. He was trained to sing classical south Indian Carnatic music since his childhood by his father who was a well-known musician and guru in their district. Swami loved his music and was known for his classical compositions that were famous throughout the state of Tamil Nadu. Most of his songs were also written by him in the language of Sanskrit. He was especially a master at improvisation composing music on the spur of the moment; some of these spontaneous compositions had turned out to be very popular especially among the rural population as they beautifully combined devotional lyrics with musical rhythm.

This was also the time when the British Empire was exercising their full control throughout India. The 'White Britishers' were holding top administrative positions at all levels of the government. The impact of the British Raj (or rule) was now being felt in the cultural realm as well. Various western and Celtic tunes could now be heard throughout India on the radio or the gramophone played in public and private places. But Swami had made sure that, at least in his household and circle of influence, the old traditions were strictly maintained and not 'corrupted' by what he called the 'new-fangled foreign music that lacked substance'.

Recently, a British family had moved into Swami's neighborhood ' Arthur, Lucy and their 9 year old daughter, Catherine. Arthur worked in the municipal court office at a high-level administrative position. Lucy was a traditional homemaker spending much of her time taking care of their daughter and supervising the household help. Catherine went to the local catholic school which was the school that catered to the educational needs of the Britishers' children.

Within days of their arrival it became clear to people living in the neighborhood that Arthur's family was not the usual British family who mingle only among Britishers and keep their social interaction with the local folks at a minimum, work-related level. Arthur and his family seemed more open to meeting and understanding the local culture. They even ventured into the local cuisine and recipes ' at least those that were not sizzling spicy hot.

Arthur's family soon got accustomed to ways of their neighbors and neighborhood. 10-year old Catherine was a free spirit and was completely at ease in the local Indian surroundings. She mingled effortlessly with the local kids who were fascinated by her fair skin, green eyes, blonde hair and cheeky smile. All the kids naturally gravitated to her seeking her attention which she knew full well. Among her many talents she had a special and innate ability of being the center of attraction among her peers. This she did by using an astute mix of indifference and attention, true to her well developed feminine chromosome. However, there was one kid who seemed beyond her reach and circle of influence ' and that was Swami's son, Hari. When Catherine asked her father about Hari's aloofness, Arthur explained that it was because of Swami's strict code of conduct for Hari. However, what they did not know was that Swami was mistrusting of the motives of the British and was concerned that their old traditions would be morphed into something cheap and meaningless. So he had taught his son, Hari, to keep away from the fair-skinned Britishers.

Within a month of arrival of Arthur's family, it was the Christmas Holiday season. Their first Christmas in the neighborhood was indeed remarkable. The neighborhood witnessed the arrival of a spectacular 12 foot Evergreen Coniferous Christmas tree that was specially ordered and brought from overseas adorning the front yard of Arthur's home. Arthur, Lucy and Catherine in what was obviously a labor of love, spent 2 days of intense effort to decorate the Christmas tree. The end result was indeed worth all their effort. Not only was the tree breathtakingly beautiful but it exuded a festive vibration that attracted visitors from even neighboring towns. However, all this fanfare for the Christmas tree stopped cold at the doorstep of Swami's home. Not only was he not impressed by this 'foreign tradition' but he felt that this was additional evidence that these foreigners were bent on corrupting the sacred traditions of India.

A year passed and things moved along in the usual way and both Arthur and Swami's families moved their own ways without much interaction. It was once again Christmas time but this time the Christmas tree outside Arthur's home had yet to make its appearance. Grapevine had it that the special ordered tree from overseas had not yet arrived as everybody waited eagerly for its arrival. However, when no Christmas tree arrived a week prior to Christmas day, people in the neighborhood conjectured that there would likely be no festive look outside Arthur's home this year.

It was 22nd December and the kids from the neighborhood made plans to go for a picnic to the top of a nearby hill, because of its beautiful location and panoramic view. They packed their food and started on a 2 Km uphill climb. Catherine was leading the pack and she was especially delighted as Hari was part of the picnic group. This time Hari's father had relented to Hari's Indian friends' pleading requests and allowed him to go for the picnic.

They got to the top of the hill by noon, spread out their sitting mats and lay out all the food. It was quite a feast as they enjoyed each other's food, laughing and playing with each other. Catherine and Hari hit off quite well with each other and soon separated from the group lost in a deeply engrossing conversation. They walked to the nearby natural water spring and sat down on the rocks discussing the various aspects of their traditional upbringing and their parents' attitude to life. An hour flew by as if it was a couple of minutes.

As they were sitting and talking, suddenly, Catherine jumped up and shrieked loudly that she had been bitten by a scorpion. As Hari looked he saw a dark black scorpion disappear behind the rocks. Catherine was holding the calf of her left leg tightly. In front of Hari's eyes a large swelling appeared in the area where the skin had been broken by the sting. Hari recalled that his father had always said that a scorpion bite could be dangerous and sometimes lethal. To minimize the impact the area had to be isolated. So, he immediately took his handkerchief and tied it tightly above the bitten area on her leg. Meanwhile, hearing Catherine's shrieks all the other kids came and were stunned to see Catherine writhing in pain, in a state of delirium. They all seemed shocked and nobody knew what to do, especially as Catherine's condition seemed to get worse.

Hari knew that he needed to act fast. His father had told him that scorpion bites needed to be treated rapidly and he also knew that his father knew of a remedy that was handed down to him through several generations. With the help of friends, Hari quickly converted two of the seating mats into a makeshift sack. They put Catherine in this sack and carried her down the hill with two kids holding her leg in a still position. The downhill descent was pretty quick and within minutes they were at Swami's house. Luckily Swami was home that day and Hari rushed inside and informed his father of the situation.

Swami, realizing the gravity of the situation, asked Catherine for to be put on the floor in the central courtyard of the house where there it was a bit cooler. He then rushed inside his study room and found the piece of paper from his grandfather that had the recipe for the antidote to the scorpion's bite. With the help of his wife, Lakshmi, he started to mix together the herbs in their prescribed proportions and shortly he had the antidote ready. Lakshmi placed Catherine's head in her lap and poured the antidote into Catherine's mouth. At first Catherine's convulsions prevented the antidote from going into her mouth. But after 2-3 unsuccessful attempts Lakshmi was somehow finally able to get Catherine to swallow the herbal preparation. The effect was dramatic. Catherine's delirious state subsided almost miraculously and she calmed down. Seeing this, Swami was reassured and announced that the first signs were favorable and showed that things were on the right track. But he also warned that Catherine should not be given anything to eat or drink, not even water, as it would diminish the potency of the antidote. Meanwhile word reached Arthur and Lucy of Catherine's mishap and they both rushed over to Swami's home. As they arrived they were shocked to find Catherine lying on the floor with her heard in Lakshmi's lap. She seemed unconscious and was breathing heavily. Swami put his arm around Arthur's shoulder and asked him to sit down. Swami asked Arthur not to worry as he explained about the antidote and his faith in its efficacy. Arthur was skeptical of what he thought was some 'hocus-pocus' preparation which may actually put his daughter's life into further danger.

But before Arthur could openly voice his skepticism, he saw Catherine's eyes opening. Seeing her parents in front of her she cried and reached out to her mother and narrated the episode up until she could recall. Arthur's happiness knew no bounds and his eyes shone with infinite gratitude to Swami's family. But more than the gratitude, he felt humbled; humbled by the magnanimity of this family! Hari was a special hero and rightly received accolades from everybody for his swift thinking and action. Soon, Catherine returned back home with her parents, fully recovered from this traumatic incident.

The next evening, when Swami returned from his musical performance at a wedding, he saw a large group of people gathered around Arthur's home. As he drew closer he was amazed to see the spectacle. The huge mango tree in the front yard of Arthur's house was mobbed by all the kids of the neighborhood. His eyes turned misty as he saw Hari, Catherine and all the kids of the neighborhood decorating the mango tree with all the Christmas ornaments. Seeing Swami standing at the back, Arthur reached out to him. This time it was Arthur's turn to put his arm around Swami's shoulder. Arthur said ' 'You know we have a saying back home. Man proposes and God disposes. See, I wanted this fancy Christmas tree from England. But God said ' wait you don't need that. There is a Christmas tree right in your house. Why can't you see that? And you know who showed me that ' my daughter. Catherine got up this morning and told me that she had a dream that the Mango tree in our front yard was decorated as a Christmas tree. Friend, your antidote not only saved my daughter's life but also opened my eyes to the true spirit of Christmas. And I see it unfolding in front of my eyes with these kids decorating our beloved Mango tree'.

Swami stood there in a daze. He could not believe what he was seeing and feeling. His heart melted as he sat down on the country cot in front of this bejeweled and alive mango tree. He slowly reached out for his Tambura, the Indian drone instrument. He closed his eyes as his fingers effortlessly played the instrument. The crowd's din dampened immediately as everybody saw Swami in a trance-like state. Tears streamed down his face as he lost himself in the beauty of the music. But this time the music was different. His revered Sanskrit devotional lyrics were the same but the musical tune that came from his heart was not the traditional Carnatic Indian music. It was a soulful Celtic tune that he played instead. Barriers were broken, both inside and outside; and in that moment, space and time disappeared in a realm of divine oneness. 


More by :  Maalok

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