When we first moved to Basavanagudi in Bengaluru, a relative told Appa he should chop the top half of the Tabebuia tree growing in front of our house. He said that a tree growing taller than your house was bad luck, that it would stunt your prosperity. Of course, that same person also told Appa not to let daughters sleep under vaulted ceilings because it made them ambitious and they would never get married.
Appa studied the ceiling and the tree with caution. Amma made a fuss, not on behalf of my ambitions but because she had put her life on hold to build this house. The vaulted ceiling was her final touch. I have now spent 13 years under it and for 13 years no matter where I was in life and how many ambitions I had and how often they cut me, the Tabebuia tree dropped pink flowers every February.
During the pandemic, I took to spending hours on the terrace under the shade of the Tabebuia tree, reading, watering plants, and listening to short stories by women. Over Jamaica Kincaid’s words (Figures in the Distance) in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s voice one evening, I discovered rows of sugary dust left behind by ants on a pear leaf. I scraped some out, surprised when they made my fingers sticky. Kincaid’s narrator was saying that as a child, she was convinced that only people she didn’t know died.
I think back to the time my grandfather died; how his body had grown smaller in death and was being bathed under the Tabebuia tree even as Brahmin neighbours retreated into their homes, repulsed by the sight of bare-chested, thread-less Dalit men walking around. I think back more recently to the time my oldest uncle died, looking just as his father had, his small body cradled by the man bathing him.
I was brought back to the story when Adichie whispered “We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again,” her dipping voice both covering and revealing the child narrator’s goosebumps. I tightened my grip on the water pipe to manage...