On a road near where we used to live a year ago stood a large peepal tree. The school bus stopped here in the mornings to pick up my son Rajat. The Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under a peepal tree. While we were certainly not similarly blessed, we did spend many pleasant mornings laughing and learning under our peepal’s leafy branches as we waited for the school bus.
Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka so revered the peepal under which Gautama gained enlightenment that he lavished necklaces of gems and pearls on it. Our peepal also sported adornments, albeit of a different sort, including signs for PG hostels, one for the JMJ beauty salon for men and women and a tyre advertising a “puncher shop”.
Rajat and I usually sat on a stone platform under the tree as we waited for his bus, often watching kites alight in the upper branches before swooping down on unsuspecting victims. The morning breeze sometimes set the leaves fluttering and occasionally sent some floating down, to be eagerly picked up by Rajat. We talked about different leaf shapes and how Ruskin Bond likens the peepal leaves to the perfect male physique: from the neck-like stalk, the leaf edges run out straight like broad shoulders to either side before curving around and tapering to a waist-like tip. We talked of drip tips – the pointed leaf tip – and how they helped leaves stay dry. When we read about seed dispersal in one of his books, Rajat was tremendously excited the next morning when he spotted some bird droppings under the tree with some seeds in them. Would they grow into more peepals?
One day, Rajat was suddenly alarmed: “Amma, look, the tree is dying. Its leaves are falling off on some of the branches.” Relief flooded his face a couple of days later when tender pink leaves began peeping out, leading to another round of questions starting with why the young leaves were red.
Summer came around, school closed and with it, the peepal was forgotten. And then all too soon, it was June. School re-opened and as we reached our bus-stop, we stopped dead in shock and disbelief. Work was progressing at a frenetic pace near our bus-stop. Bull dozers roared, road rollers screeched and men in hard hats supervised the tarring and widening of the service road. Of our regal, genial and generous peepal tree, there was not a trace – no stray leaves that had escaped the carnage, no roots, no wood, not even a stump. It had disappeared almost overnight.
I still remember the date: 5th June, World Environment Day.