The Overtakers

 

At dusk, after a light shower, the bonsais tremble in the breeze. When night deepens with the hissing rain, their tiny leaves and branches shake feverishly as if in a storm. From the deep recesses of their pygmy bodies cracklings could be heard, as though the plants were stretching their limbs. Atiq watches as the tiny plants become enormous in size, grow in height, shoot up four-five stories to almost touch the sky. At such times a greenish aura oozes from their thick stems, their bulbous leaves and branches – and gushes forth in waves toward Atiq. His sleep gone, Atiq gropes for the torch under his pillow.

           These days he has grown used to it; no longer thinks it a nightmare. He knows what the bonsais are capable of.  

Aditya Babu assures him Atiq watches only himself in his dreams, ‘Each one of us has a yearning to reach the sky. And it’s only in dreams such yearnings become strange and outlandish. They even grow roots. I hope you’re trimming the roots regularly? If you don’t, you won’t be able to control your bonsais.’

 Aditya Babu had given one of the krishnachura trees Atiq was trying to domesticate. Last week he had trimmed the roots; the tree looked distinctly sullen. In the beginning most trees are like that. Often, in the very first round all the leaves fall off and the bare stem dries within days. Those which can stand that first shock still look half-dead. One must be careful during these times – keep the half-dead plants alive and in opportune moments, cut more roots off, prune some more branches.

For Atiq, his problem was to find trees that fitted to be made into bonsais. There were not many in this region. Banyans and peepuls were the only suitable ones – shaggy head, lots of branches vying for space; they looked fine when he brought them to shape. If Atiq was able to do the krishnachura it would have been an experiment for him, an achievement as well. He wasn’t fully sure about the height he should allow the plant. If he let it grow a foot and a half, would it look bushy enough? It was difficult to guess because it was a new plant. Another thought bothered him. Would the plant flower? If it was really a krishnachura, then flowers were important. Bengalis are known for their fondness for scarlet red when it comes to krishnachura.

 Atiq had thought long about making indigenous plants into bonsais – like nagkeshar or nagalingam in common parlance, botanical name korupeta gayenensus, or the other ones like jarul – lagerstroemia, or tamarind – tamarindus indica.  Or, maybe even neem –azadirachta indica. If only he was able to do a jackfruit plant! Maybe suitable trees were there in forests and jungles, but people wanted familiar plants. A common banyan or a peepul, planted in a small pot, roots hanging from the branches, looking ancient – is indeed a sight worth watching. An unfamiliar, strange look on a familiar object.

The night the bonsais had created chaos in his dreams the very first time, Atiq had not dismissed the visions as impossible. He had jumped out of his bed and gone to take a look at the dark terrace. He had laughed at himself – what a fool he was! In the pitch-black darkness, the rows of dwarf plants, nearly fifty of them, had kept still, holding up their shaggy dark heads, patiently awaiting him. Atiq could not see the Krishnachura in the crowd. From then on, he liked to keep a torch under his pillow. It was good to take a turn in the middle of the night. He had also reminded himself – one never knew what might happen!

After Atiq had inherited the eight-by-ten attic and half the terrace – his share of the family property – he had thought of raising chickens, keeping cages on the terrace, but he wasn’t really serious. When his brothers and sisters heard about his plans they were furious: the rascal! Atiq had smiled broadly, saying, ‘You’ll get eggs for free.’ Even then his siblings had not understood he was kidding. They had remembered Atiq’s lack of success everywhere – holding down to a job or a business or even managing to go abroad. Now after inheriting a portion of the house (it maybe only an attic but the terrace was pretty good), he was ready for his revenge. But nobody had thought he would shift to bonsais from chickens. It was natural that there would be a few potted plants on the empty part of the terrace – whether ten or fifty, it didn’t really matter. In the beginning, nobody had really known what Atiq was up to. He had started off quietly enough. But revenge was the last thing on his mind. It was more a whim, a little obstinacy. His resources included a small amount of bookish facts (he always clutched Kanzamita Eko’s book under his arms), and the rest was stolen knowledge he had acquired moving about the city nurseries.

All that knowledge had not been totally useless. He had nearly learnt to keep the bonsais under control and to do two things together– keep the plants healthy and green and trim their roots and branches when required. He had not taken part in an exhibition as yet, but he was getting a name for himself. Sometimes people came to see. Word was spreading about his bonsais.

People came, mostly women.  Atiq had no fixed price, he would ask for a sum on a whim. They rarely bought and would comment with expressive gestures, ‘Oh how strange!’ If the women were young and good looking, he would raise the price. Taken aback, they would still move around his plants, managing their trailing sari ends, looking deeply at the strange, eccentric looking plants. One or the other, with eyes swimming with tears, would say, ‘How cruel!’

A woman had one day called from the Japanese Consulate. Enquiring about the names of the trees, their height, age and treatment pattern, she expressed her interest, saying, she would come to see for herself. Listening to her enthusiasm, Atiq said, ‘Come, if you can climb four steep flights.’ The woman seemed over enthusiastic. ‘Don’t worry’, she said, and really turned up one day. Crisscrossing the maze like streets of Kalabagan, sweaty and dusty, she reached his house. Atiq wondered where could he take her to sit? The attic was impossible. Maybe in Boro Apa’s room on the second floor?

 Atiq was furiously thinking when she said impatiently, ‘Let’s go.’ Her high heels stumbled on the uneven stairs. As Atiq climbed after her, he saw that the Japanese too had rounded features; he had always thought them flat and squashed.

The woman observed the plants carefully bending herself almost to the ground. Atiq found out she was quite young. After finishing with the trees, she looked him over – as if she was still looking at the plants, but not bending over this time, just tilting her head back a little in a quizzical gaze. Atiq wanted to know if she liked the plants. The woman then surprised him by pointing at the krishnachura. He tried to explain, it was not ready, it’d take some time. The woman insisted; it didn’t matter, she wanted it. Atiq showed other plants, ‘Look at this one, it’s 100% ready; all you have to do is to take it in and …’ but she kept repeating, ‘Will you give me that?’ At last they had reached an agreement. Atiq would look after it one more week, and then reach it to her.

Hearing about it, Aditya Babu had said, ‘So, you have started earning too, eh?’ But selling only a couple of plants in three or four months was not worth; it should be more, four or five a month, may be more.  He further said, it was work that needed brains as well as brawn. ‘A challenging task – no easier than your engineering tricks. If you relax, your bonsais won’t be under your command’, he had cautioned.

Atiq was fully convinced and had replied, ‘Relax? No way.’

In spite of that, the bonsais threatened him every night. As soon as he closed his eyes, they came charging at him. A few of them would appear so enormous… they almost touched the sky.

 Aditya Babu kept guffawing, ‘If you were a real gardener this wouldn’t have happened. Your problem is…anyway. Cut the roots frequently.’

‘I do.’

‘Of the plants?’

‘Of what else?’

‘Cut the plant’s and some of yours too.’

‘Those of mine are already done. A chemical engineer turned gardener.’

‘Not so easy as you say. Such ambitions you’ve had…a good job, or a good business, or at least going to America where of course everything is good, no matter what one does – dish washing or whatever. You had the dream to climb high. Now you stop your plants from doing the same.’

‘What a comparison!’ Atiq laughed.

 

The Japanese woman was not content with just one visit. She was unable to save the krishnachura. She repeated her visits, ordered more krishnachuras. Atiq laughed, ‘Is it that simple?’ Thereafter, she would buy a banyan or a peepul.

Some days she would just walk on the terrace, carefully snaking around the dwarfish plants. There was not much for Atiq to do but watch her deep swaying walk from behind as she moved about. Often he thought, ‘What roundness! If only I planted her on a suitable pot, she would be absolutely stunning!’

From one Japanese connection, Atiq received more visitors – Japanese, Koreans; mostly women, sometimes accompanied by men; not all young, though some truly were. As he climbed up following them, he realised the difference. Not all were suitable for planting. 

Soon Atiq had greater number of visitors climbing to the fourth floor terrace. Was it because of the visits of the foreigners, he was not sure. Sometimes they came from nearby locations, sometimes from far away. They were mostly women, sometimes accompanied by men, sometimes they came alone or in a group, most of whom didn’t understand a thing. Shaking her shoulder bag and sagging breasts when a middle aged woman asked – cash or cheque, Atiq thought she would make a fine scarecrow if only he could fix her into a pot, upturned.

After a while Atiq stopped climbing the stairs; now he stayed mostly in his room. So one day they meet in the attic. Atiq wondered – what should he call her… lotus faced? Her face was shaped like a lotus leaf, under shimmering eyelids the watery sheen of a pond. As he looked, he was overwhelmed when, like an electric shock, the thought came to him: what a face to plant in a pot!

But day by day, Atiq realised he was moving away from the bonsais. Seizing the chance, the plants were becoming desperate. They frightened him at night almost on a routine. And at day time, looking at the plants searchingly he became confused to see the branches and the leaves growing too fast. The plants, it seemed, were no longer under his sway! Even when he trimmed the branches regularly, they just grew bigger and bigger. In his desperation to stop them growing slashing the roots and branches too zealously, four of the plants, almost ready for sale, died. Pulling out their skeletons, he thought it just punishment meted out for not being under his control.

 Aditya Babu came one day and said, ‘It’s like a jungle. I hope you aren’t using too much fertilizer.’ Atiq did not mention the plants were no longer under his control.

 

In the house the only person Atiq talked to was Boro Apa, his elder sister who, he knew, had still some tolerance stored for him One day her words suddenly came piercing, ‘Who is it you’re taking on?’

Atiq asked, ‘Why do you say so?’

‘What you are doing is sheer obstinacy. After years of study to become a gardener! You are unsuccessful, so you take it out on others.’

‘Who … ?’

‘You know. Those plants are innocent.’

Atiq laughed out loud. ‘No, not the plants.’

‘I know that. You want to teach a lesson to humans.’

Atiq listened quietly. Why should he tend plants to teach anyone a lesson! It could be that he was enjoying a feeling of true authority keeping the bonsais under his power, not letting them grow as they wished. Every night they surged out in his dreams and to take revenge on them he cut off their roots, even killing one or two. Or, could it be that a dwarf himself with his roots cut off too, he found a true copy of himself in the midget trees.

Yet it was astonishing to see how the trees were inclined to grow. Night or day, they had only one thought in their shaggy heads. Their sights were aligned to the sky. There was nothing called a sky over-head, yet, how desperately they tried to reach it. An uncontrollable yearning, like that of the humans!

Watching the plants day after day Atiq was thoroughly riddled. Where did they get their inspiration? ‘Darlings, you must not grow so much,’ he told them as he wielded his powerful scissors to crush even a few of the main roots – hoping this would dampen their spirits. Nothing seemed to work.  He was still shocked to see the plants grow splendidly. Ignoring his pruning, the leaves and branches shone with good health, their reddish green visages iridescent with greed; or was it that irrepressible yearning that kept them going? Atiq murmured to himself, ‘Let me see how you reach the sky. How far can your spirits take you? I have the keys to destroy your spirits as well as your heart.’ As he thought so, the right or left side of his chest, wherever his own heart lived, gave off a tremor, as if the organ stumbled.

Even Aditya Babu was amazed – ‘I have never seen anything like his. I have spent my life with plants, I know everything that is to know about them, but what are these up to? What is it you have done? You say you are pruning them yet they grow as strong as ever! Let them be, it’s not something you can do.’

Atiq replied sounding depressed, ‘I wanted to spend my life with them. I made so much effort. They were all right to start with. But why not now?’

Aditya Babu, who is also called gachbabu (tree-man) by some for his love of plants, took a round all over the terrace with a thoughtful face. Loosening the topsoil at the roots of the plants or fingering the green of the leaves, he spoke in a low voice, ‘I know how you had put all your efforts, kept away your dreams, your ambitions. Maybe you thought you could repress your own ambitions by not letting these plants grow? You’ve failed, you see. I think all your ambitions and dreams have now lodged in these plants. They won’t stop at anything….’

Atiq got angry. To vent his anger he suddenly grabbed the nearest plant. Grasping its shaggy head in a mighty grip he pulled hard. The plant came off offering the least resistance to the fierceness of his anger. And immediately his eyes were awestruck looking at the lower extremity of the miniature tree – there was no trace of any roots under the dust-ridden ash-grey stem.

 One silent afternoon, the woman with the lotus face submitted herself to Atiq in the attic. With overwhelmed eyes Atiq chose to play with her bare, smooth shoulders. This face would never aspire to touch the sky, he said to himself, if he could plant it fittingly in a pot. Touching and looking, looking and touching, Atiq went desperate for more. With quick fingers he searched for the veined roots beneath the ripe, wheatish skin. Focusing his eyes to his touch, he searched frenetically. It seemed as if it was with his eyes he was touching her, groping for the myriad branches of veins and arteries that were her roots. Balancing his elbows on her shoulders, he held her head in a tight grip with both his hands, but as he began to twist it trying to pull it off with the roots, he faced resistance. A scream whirled about shattering the half darkness of the attic.

That night Atiq did not dream at all. Unlike other nights he was not chased by the bonsais dancing up and down. But steadily a noise entered his senses – a relentless, rustling noise accompanied by a fresh jungle smell. He got up from bed. He forgot to pick up his torch from beneath the pillow.

Pushing the attic door open to step on the terrace, he felt a sudden shiver. He wondered where this shiver was coming from in the middle of October.  Soon he realised it was not cold out on the terrace. The shiver was coming from deep within his body, a trembling that did not let him stand upright. He squatted down; opening his eyes for once he quickly shut them, afraid to open them again. But when he finally opened them, the trembling took on him, shaking him all over. Fearfully he looked, for he had to. He then saw the unseemly sight – the bonsais were up at the sky. Shattering the fragile walls of their earthen pots, they were stretching straight up to the sky waving their branches and leaves in a fit of frenzy to grow taller, higher. A smallish moon hung far away in the sky. Breaking the moonlight into a million shards, the dwarfs seemed determined to reach the moon.

Dumbfounded, Atiq tried to stand up. He crawled forward with his stooping back and tried to stand steady on his feet. His frame trembled and his heart beat heavily. So many years of hard work…. Pressing a hand to his chest, he looked at the sky and then further away at the moon.

 He couldn’t remember for how long he was looking up. He wanted to live with his head bent – the reason he needed the dwarfs, the bonsais.

The trembling in his body increased. Atiq had difficulty standing. He was forced to squat, but his head was still up; it is impossible to look away. How could he not watch the bonsais toying with his defeat? They’re the overtakers. But was it for his eyes only to see this dancing of the dwarfs in the night sky, uncaring of the moon, of the storm or the rain, the danger …?

 Was it for him only to watch, with his body shaking and squeezing into a tight ball, hunched and tangled?

His heart was beating fast, even under the pressure of his hands. Would it be better to shout – a loud shout that would take away the shiver and raise the sleeping neighbourhood? All those who would wake up would be astounded like him, but then, they too would tremble – their whole bodies, their hearts inside the cages, and their heavenward eyes, sleepy and disbelieving filled with a wild astonishing feeling of release and freedom -- just like him.

 

 

Translated by Debjani Sengupta. Published in Yellow Lines,New Delhi, 2004

Translator: Debjani Sengupta is an Indian national and lives inDelhi,India. She teaches English literature atIndraprastaCollege,New Delhi,India. She has translated and edited a number of anthologies in English.