The Tree | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 27, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:10 AM, February 27, 2021

FICTION

The Tree

Doctor Mahtab Uddin looked at the luminescent hands of his watch: 9 pm. Not that late, he thought and sat down on the circular cement platform not far from the patient's house.  The platform encircled the base of the great banyan tree – one that was believed to be over two hundred years old; it was said to be standing erect when the Borgis had attacked. Countless passersby sought rest in its shade, and the tree -- with its canopy of enormous branches and benevolent leaves -- was never known to have said no.

The doctor wanted a breather. The nonstop flow of patients kept him busy during the visiting hours, and then there were house-calls to make. Some patients even appeared at his doorstep at unsocial hours. He could never say no.

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The patient had had a close shave. He had advised the son to take his mother to  Dhaka. "Have meals timely, and take your medicine punctually. The rest is in Allah's hands," he had said to the patient with a smile.

His forehead rippled for a second and then straightened out: the fused light bulb over the gate outside his house needed replacing. His three sons, two daughters-in-law and three grandchildren were arriving the following day. The youngest son Moyeen's interests lay in everything else but studies. He had demanded an exorbitant sum so he could go to America for study. The father was certain he would one day marry a white woman with blond hair.

The breeze had dried his sweat, but the dizziness returned. Taking out a handkerchief, he wiped off the dirt from the lenses of his glasses. He needed a new pair. Numerous times he had meant to visit an ophthalmologist in Dacca, but it was impossible to work around his tight schedule.

The property he had amassed over the years was to give his progeny a solid footing; they were his insurance policy against the ravages of chance. The house in Dhakaa was finished, and the old house in Chuadanga had no dearth of room when most of his children came round to visit once a year with all his grandchildren running around and giggling.

9:30 -- time to leave. The road was dark except for a street lamp with one tube-light flickering feebly; some crook had made away with the other one.

He hailed a rickshaw.

"Jhenaidah Bus Stand".

The rickshaw-puller nodded.

"You look new here, baba," he said. "Where do you sleep at night?"

"In the rail station."

The baithak khana outside the house lay fallow. The veranda had a deer head mounted over the entrance to the only room. The carcass of a steel bed frame had once been shoved inside nobody remembered when. The servants, after their half-yearly cleaning expeditions, complained about enormous rats, colonies of ants and jungles of cobweb that held sway there.

"Stop," the Doctor said.

The consequences of asking a total stranger to sleep in his house had not escaped him, but he wanted to give the poor kid the benefit of doubt.

"You can sleep in the veranda at night until you get a roof over your head," he tucked a five take note in his hand.

The rickshaw-puller looked on.

Rabeya Begum was at prayer in a corner of their room. She always had the dim light on lest the Doctor bumped into the furniture. The bluish glow fell over everything: the showcase, the four-poster bed, the desk, the ceiling fan that hung low from one of the joists. The mosquito net lay bunched neatly across its awning. The palm-leaf hand fan was on the desk – a blunt reminder that power-cuts were routine.

 "You're late again," she sat by him. "You need to slow down. The body can take up to a certain limit."

 "I will. Let me work one more year, and then I'll stop for good," he smiled.

"Come have dinner, and don't forget about your medicine," she left the room.

The Doctor stared into the panes of the showcase opposite. A cavalcade of past events paraded by: his mother's death when he was thirteen, raising five younger siblings, his father's second marriage, completion of MBBS,  marriage at twenty-one, first job, frequent job transfers, retirement in 1971… burying four children.

But a lot remained still. Six children waited to be married; and he had to make sure they were well provided for. He was not ready – at least not yet.

***

Jockey Aushadhaloy sat smack dab in the middle of Borobazar. The large signboard had a yellow background, against which the name was emblazoned in red in Bangla and English. Shelves of boxes and bottles covered three sides of the walls inside. The ever-busy compounder's counter in the front and an alcove for storing medicine at the rear hugged the Doctor's cubicle from both sides.

Gobindo always arrived at 8:30 am sharp. He then swept the floor. To top off, he sprinkled water to check the encroaching dust mites. Twice a week he dusted the framed photo of Jockey -- the Doctor's youngest child who had drowned seven years previously.

An indisposition made the Doctor arrive later than usual today. He  felt cheerful though as his house would be full again briefly. He especially looked forward to seeing Diya and Rayan -- his oldest grandchildren. He oversaw the progress of their studies whenever he visited Dhaka.  He was their taskmaster at these times – not their grandfather.

The patients who visited today complained of stomach ailments and gastritis. What the Doctor always advised fell on deaf ears: eat less spice and rice. He joked that Bengalis would have fared much better if they hadn't gorged themselves on rice three times a day. He remembered, encouraged by his advice on protein intake, Rayan was an avid dal lover. He wished most of his patients had had the brainpower the four-year-old did.

The last patient left at half past four. The Doctor tried to stand up, but dizziness forced him to sit down again. The blood pressure must be a bit high. But he was going home after this, and a thirty-minute rest should do the trick.

 "Where's the doctor?"

 Hearing a familiar female voice, he came out.

"Chacha, father's burning up!"

***

The Doctor came out of Shamsuddin's house at 9 p.m. His friend's wife wouldn't let him leave, and he really could never say no.

The Doctor hurried, and got on the first rickshaw he found. The veins on his temples throbbed. He needed rest. But all would be fine the moment he saw his home filled with gaiety.

The house in Mymensingh in the sixties had always been full. Relatives from his in-laws' family and his own visited round the year. The old red building with high ceiling from the British Era housed at least thirty people at any given time. Every meal was a feast those days.

The rickshaw pulled up. The headache was at work with a vengeance. He walked with measured steps to not lose balance. The well-lit windows on the second floor ripped through the darkness outside. Tittering children's voices drowned out the chirping crickets. Was Rayan driving the adults crazy with his volley of questions again?

"Rayan, Rayan," he called out, walking up the stairs.

At the door, his daughter-in-law touched his feet. "Abba, Rayan fell asleep. Shall I wake him?"

"No, let him sleep," the Doctor swallowed his disappointment. "How are you all doing, ma?"

"We're all fine. But you look unwell."

"Y-yes," He trudged towards his room.

Rabeya Begum was at prayer as usual with the dim light on. She heard the footsteps come in, but there was no sound for seconds. Suddenly, a bulk descended on her.

"O Allah!"

"What's happened?"

"O my God!"

"Place him on the bed…slowly."

"Call in a doctor, now!"

"O Allah, what will happen now?"

The power-cut struck on cue. In the commotion, it was impossible to distinguish weeping from talking and shouting. After a while, crying took over.

----------

Rayan woke up early in the morning by the sound of sobbing that oppressed the atmosphere. "Ammu, what's wrong? Why is Dadu sleeping on the floor – anything wrong with his bed?" he asked.

A fresh roll of wailing went up. He was confused: had he asked anything wrong?

Skirting the crowd, he stepped into his grandfather's empty room and looked out through the window. In the distance a huge tree reared its head, dwarfing everything else. Rayan had often wondered what its name was. He wanted to ask Dadu. But he's asleep, he reasoned with himself. Anyhow, he would wait until Dadu woke up.

 

Tanvir Malik's first book is a collection of short stories called Short Takes: Stories from Bangladesh. A teacher by profession, he enjoys reading, travelling, and painting. 

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