The last of the straggling laborers hefted massive bundles of grain onto their weary heads and started down the path toward the storage shed. Only twelve-year-old Shridula remained in the field. Frantically she raced up and down the rows, searching through the maze of harvested wheat stalks.
Each time a group of women left, the girl tried to go with them, her nervous fear rising. Each time Dinkar stopped her. The first time she had tried to slip in with the old women at the end of the line the overseer ordered, “Shridula! Search for any water jars left in the fields.” Of course she found none. She knew she wouldn’t. What water boy would be fool enough to leave a jar behind?
By the time the girl finished her search, twilight shrouded the empty field in dark shadows. Shridula hurried to grab up the last bundle of grain. Its stalk tie had been knocked undone, and wheat spilled out across the ground. Quickly tucking the tie back together, Shridula struggled to balance the bundle up on her head. It shifted . . . and sagged . . . and sank down to her shoulders.
Shridula was not used to managing so unwieldy a head load. In truth, she wasn’t used to working in the field at all. Her father made certain of that. This month was an exception, though, for it was the month of the first harvest. That meant everyone spent long days in the sweltering fields—including Shridula.
The girl, slight for her twelve years, possessed a haunting loveliness. Her black hair curled around her face in a most intriguing way that accented her piercing charcoal eyes. Stepping carefully, she picked her way out of the field and onto the path. Far up ahead, she could barely make out the form of the slowest woman. If she hurried, she still might be able to catch up with her. The thought of walking the path alone sent a shudder through the girl.
Shridula tried to hurry, but she could not. With each step, her awkward burden slipped further down toward her shoulders. She could hardly see through the stalks of grain that hung over her eyes.
“Please, allow me to lend you a hand.”
Shridula caught her breath. How well she knew that voice! It was Master Landlord, Boban Joseph Varghese.
Afraid to lift her head, Shridula peeked out from under the mass of grain stalks. Master Landlord, fat and puffy-faced, stood on the other side of the thorn fence, ankle-deep in the stubbly remains of the wheat field. His old-man eyes fastened on her.
Shridula reached up with both hands and grabbed at the bundle on her head.
“Do not struggle with the load,” Boban Joseph said, his voice as slippery-smooth as melted butter. “The women can retie it tomorrow. Let them carry it to the storehouse on their own worn-out old heads.”
A shiver of dread ran through Shridula’s thin body. She must be careful. Oh, she must be so very careful!
All day long, as fast as the women could carry bundles of grain from the fields, Ashish had gathered them up. He separated the bundles and propped the sheaves upright side by side in the storage shed. Everything must be done just right or the grain wouldn’t dry properly. One after another after another after another, Ashish stacked the grain sheaves. By the time the last woman brought in the last bundle, by the time he stood the last of the sheaves upright, by the time he closed the shed door and squeezed the padlock shut, then kicked a rock against the door for good measure and headed back to his hut, the orange shards of sunset had already disappeared from the sky.
A welcoming glow from Zia’s cooking fire beckoned to Ashish. He watched as his wife grabbed out a measure of spices and sprinkled them into the boiling rice pot. But this night something wasn’t right. This night Zia worked alone.
“Where is Shridula?” Ashish asked his wife.
Zia bent low over the fire and gave the pot such a hard stir it almost tipped over.
“She has not yet returned from the fields,” Zia said in a voice soft and even. But after so many years together, Ashish wasn’t fooled.
The glow of firelight danced across Zia’s features and cast the furrows of her brow into dark shadows. Ashish ran a gnarled hand over the deep crevices of his own aging face. He yanked up his mundu—his long, skirt-like garment—and pulled it high under his protruding ribs, untying the ends and retying them more tightly.
“She should not have to walk alone,” he said. “I will go back.” Ashish spoke with exaggerated nonchalance. He would remain calm for Zia’s sake.
“All night!” Ashish said to his daughter when she came in at first light. He spoke in a low voice, but it hung heavy with rebuke. “Gone from your home the entire night!”
Overhead, Ashish’s giant neem tree reached its branches out to offer welcome shelter from the early morning sun. Twenty-eight years earlier, on the day of his wedding, Ashish had planted that tree. Back then, it was no more than a struggling sprout. Yet even as he placed it in the ground, he had talked to Zia of the refreshing breezes that would one day rustle through its dark green leaves. He promised her showers of sweetly fragrant blossoms to carpet the barren packed dirt around their hut.
But no breeze pushed its way through this morning’s sweltering stillness, and the relentless sun had long since scorched away the last of the white blossoms. Still, the tree was true to its promise. Its great leaves sheltered Ashish’s distraught daughter from curious eyes.
Zia stared at the disheveled girl: sari torn, smudged face, wheat clinging to her untidy hair. Zia stared, but said nothing.
“Master Landlord told me I must go with him.” Shridula trembled and her eyes filled with tears. “I said no, but he said I had to obey him because he owns me. Because he owns all of us, so we must all do whatever he says.”
“Please, Daughter, stay away from Master Landlord,” Ashish pleaded.
“I did, Appa!” Shridula struggled to fight back tears. “I dropped the bundle of grain off my head and ran away from him, just as you told me to. He tried to catch me, but I ran into the field and sneaked into the storage shed the way you showed me and hid there. All night, I hid in the wheat shocks.”
“That new landlord!” Zia clucked her tongue and shook her head. “He is worse than the old one ever was!”
Zia reached over to brush the grain from her daughter’s hair, but Shridula pushed her mother’s hand away. Her dark eyes flashed with defiance. “Someday I will leave here!” she announced. “I will not stay a slave to the landlord!”
Boban Joseph was indeed worse than his father. Mammen Samuel Varghese had been an arrogant man, a heartless landowner with little mercy for the hapless Untouchables unfortunate enough to be caught up in his money-lending schemes.
Yet Mammen Samuel took great pride in his family’s deep Christian roots—he could trace his ancestry all the way back to the first century and the Apostle Thomas. He also clung tightly to the fringes of Hinduism. The duality served him well. It promoted his status and power, yet it also fattened his purse. Even so, Mammen Samuel Varghese had not been a happy man. He seethed continually over the sea of wrongs committed against him, some real and others conjured up in his mind.
Still, it had always been Mammen Samuel’s habit to think matters out thoroughly. In every situation, he first considered the circumstances in which he found himself, then measured each potential action and carefully weighed its consequence. It’s what he had done when he lent Ashish’s father the handful of rupees that led to his family’s enslavement. Only after such consideration would Mammen Samuel make a decision. His son Boban Joseph did no such thing.
No, Young Master Landlord was not his father. During the years of Ashish’s and Zia’s childhood, Mammen Samuel Varghese maintained tight control over his house and his settlement of indebted slaves. But age did not wear well on him. And the greater Mammen Samuel’s decline, the more wicked and cruel Boban Joseph became.
Soon after Ashish took Zia as his wife, the elder landlord began to release one responsibility after another to his first son. Boban Joseph eagerly snatched up each one. Soon Boban Joseph began to grasp control of matters behind his father’s back—always for his own personal advantage. This greatly displeased Mammen Samuel. Even more, it worried him. Boban Joseph was his heir, but something had to be done to place controls around him.
As the season grew hotter and the harvest more demanding, Boban Joseph accepted the agreement reached between the laborers and his father requiring them to work a longer day—begin before dawn and continue until after dark. But he refused to honor his father’s reciprocal agreement with the workers—to allow them to rest during the two hottest hours of the afternoon.
Only when a young man fell over and died of heatstroke while swinging his scythe, and the next day one of the best workers fell off his plow in exhaustion after begging in vain for shade and water, did Boban Joseph reluctantly agree to grant a midday break. “Only long enough for a cold meal out of the sun and not a minute more!” he instructed the overseer. (Since Boban Joseph spent his afternoons stretched out across the bed in the coolness of his own room, he never knew that Dinkar allowed the workers extra time in the shade.)
“Stay away from the fields today,” Ashish told Shridula.
“But the harvest—”
“The harvest is not your worry, Daughter. Busy yourself with work here in the settlement. Make it your job to be of help to weary laborers.”
“How can I do that?”
“Fill water jars for the women. Gather twigs and lay them beside the cold cooking pits.”
Zia scowled at her husband. “It is not right that you stand the girl up in front of Master Landlord’s revenge,” she said. “He is a spiteful man. And brutal.”
Ashish knew that. More than anyone, he knew it.
“Master Landlord knows Shridula is your daughter,” Zia pleaded. “And he will never forget.”
She was right, of course. For forty years, Boban Joseph had demonstrated a seething resentment toward Ashish’s family. He clung tightly to his own family’s humiliation that had been brought about when Ashish’s parents, Virat and Latha, dared escape from Mammen Samuel’s laborer settlement. Boban Joseph, then hardly more than a boy, greatly resented his father’s timid response to their capture and return. He didn’t hide his feelings; he let it be known to everyone that he considered his father’s actions shameful and cowardly. Boban Joseph himself had captured the runaway slaves and dragged them back in bonds. Yet his father ignored his demands to have them killed. Mammen Samuel wouldn’t even order a public flogging.
“You will stay here in the settlement today,” Ashish told his daughter. “You will be a servant to the workers, not to the master.” “Yes, Appa,” Shridula said.
“But watch out for the landlord. Should he come around, run to the forest and hide yourself. And do not come out until I am back.”
At midday, Boban Joseph pushed his way through the crowd of women unloading their head loads of grain and called out to Ashish, “Old man!” (Old man, he said, even though he was himself almost ten years older than Ashish!) “I do not see your daughter at work in the fields today. Where is she?”
Ashish turned his back to the landlord and untied another bundle. Paying Boban Joseph no mind, he separated the sheaves of grain. Long ago he had outlived his fear of the master.
“That girl of yours is nothing!” Boban Joseph spat at Ashish’s back. “Nothing but a worthless, disgusting Untouchable.”
With an expert hand, Ashish tossed three sheaves of wheat into the already-overflowing storage shed, then swung around and grabbed up the next one.
“A comely Untouchable, however,” Boban Joseph added. “In a dark and dirty sort of way. Yet there are those who like such girls.” Ashish’s eyes flashed and his jaw clenched. The landlord laughed out loud, scornful and mocking.
Ashish stopped his work and straightened his painfully stiff back. The wheat sheaf slipped from his hands. Stepping back, he turned around to look the landowner full in the face. “The pale English lady is but one day’s walk from here,” Ashish said. “She has not forgotten me. Most certainly, she has not forgotten your father, or anyone in your family.”
The smirk disappeared from the landlord’s lips.
Always, wherever Shridula went, Boban Joseph’s hungry eyes followed her. At one time, he had tried to force her to come up to the big house and work in his garden. There, from dawn to dusk, she would be always in his sight. Even more, she would be away from her father’s protection. But Ashish would not allow it. And although he was but a lowly Untouchable, and although Boban Joseph was his owner, Ashish prevailed because of his well-worn threat of the pale English lady.
It infuriated Boban Joseph. What did he care about that worn-out old foreign woman? That an Untouchable slave— the son of runaways, no less—should get his way was an outrage. Ashish belonged to him! And so did the girl. But Boban Joseph’s father had warned him not to press Ashish. “The British,” Mammen Samuel had said darkly. “Stay away from anything that touches on their affairs.”
Boban Joseph hissed to Ashish, “The time will come, Untouchable. The time will come.”
As a child, Ashish always dreaded the hot season, not for the discomfort alone, but because the heat took away the refuge of his family’s hut. He found it almost impossible to spend any time inside because the interior so quickly grew stifling. One might as well step into the cooking fire pit and sit down on simmering stones. In those days, no neem tree stretched out above the hut with shelter in its branches. His entire life, Ashish had longed for a place of refuge. For a safe haven. For a shady protection from the world.
The neem tree took root and grew quickly.
It had been early morning when Zia bore Ashish their first son. She tied the baby to her back and went to work in the fields the same as she did every other day. The child had grown big enough to run through the dirt and dribble water from a bowl onto the little tree by the time Zia bore their second son. When that one grew big enough to tag along after his brother and help water the tree’s roots, Zia had their third boy. By the time he was of a size to scamper about in the dirt with his brothers, the neem tree reached high enough to provide a bit of shade from the sun for all of them.
At night, Ashish spread two sleeping mats outside under the spreading branches, one for him and one for Zia. The three little boys curled up around them, and the entire family slept soundly and securely.
The life-giving tree; that’s what Indians called a neem. And that’s what it was, too, because each part of the tree nurtured life and brought health to the family fortunate enough to live under the protection of its shade. The bark, the twigs, the blossoms, the leaves—every part of the tree enhanced life. Even the bitter fruit could be boiled into a healing medicine.
Most certainly it was a life-giving tree—except for the one time Ashish needed it most.