Betal and I

The Banyan tree has always fascinated me. It's the symbol of knowledge because under one such tree, Buddha attained enlightenment. The logo of National Book Trust is a Peepul tree. Wadala area of Central Bombay is named after the numerous Vad trees that it is home to. And not after Batata Wada as it is wrongly assumed. But these are not the reasons that I like this tree. I like it for its aerial roots that hang solemnly, from which I swing across at times. Just like Tarzan. Fully clothed Tarzan in the urban forest, my mighty call goes unheard in the din that surrounds me and there are no Gorillas to back me. And my Jane, well, that is another story. One of my favorite Peepul tree is the one at Horniman Circle. Right outside the gate, which has a small pyau(watering hole for the urban animals). The trap has dried out so you can sit on the parapet that surrounds the tap. I spend my time under this old tree. Especially during evenings. When the world rushes home and within a few hours the area is deserted.

It would be pitch dark if the bright signage boards of Bank of Baroda and Croma were switched off. I sometimes hope that there is a powercut and darkness engulfs the circle. I could then request the priest of St. Thomas Cathedral to toll the bell. And then they would come out. They, the residents of this tree. The residents of all peepul trees. The reason why these trees fascinate me so much. They house colonies of ghosts. The one I sit under is The Despicable Co-operative Housing society of the Dead, Horniman Circle, Veer Nariman Marg, Bombay 400001. No wise Indian would ever spend the night under its welcoming shade. Ghosts of the past and present reside here in almost complete harmony. Going about their business of haunting one and sundry as dusk falls.

Some of them terrorize me too while most of them have made peace with me. I am tired of the ones that keep haunting me. I am not scared, just annoyed. They never seem to get enough of it. Sometimes I feign fright only to keep them at bay. But I still have a Betal of my own to capture. Everytime I successfully hoist him up on my back and carry him upto Gateway to dump him in the brown Arabian, he tricks me and escapes. I am often seen walking around muttering gibberish to myself on Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg pretending to hold a shining sword in one hand. I walk past the Old Customs house and the mighty wall of Naval Dockyard until I reach the Police headquarters. Where I forget my promise and he rises above only to fly back to the Peepul at Horniman. I grudgingly have to retrace my steps.

But I can't let this go on. Betal brings with him stories that make me nostalgic and he makes sure that I dwell on the year that has passed by. A year filled with sad surprises, disappointments and near misses. He doesn't leave behind the good years either. He creates a conundrum of memories and throws it at me. And by the time I have figured some of it out, I feel the weight lifting off my shoulders and the evil laughter that echoes on the SBS Marg. And I carry my heavy shiny sword and run behind in mock anger and true frustration. For, the cycle is unending. If I pretend to walk away from the tree and into the calm environs of the Cathedral, my ears start ringing with his smooth voice. The voice that delivers minute by minute commentary of all that is happening in the past. Without excluding any detail, it drags on tirelessly until I am forced to pick up my sword and chase him down.

I wonder when I will meet my goal. I wonder when I will outwit Betal. But until then, like the good old Vikramaditya of Ujjain, I have to keep trying. 


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