Birds singing on my shoulder in harmony it seems,
How they sing… how they sing… how they sing…1
The Zone of Silence
Winter had yet to arrive, and with the approach of autumn, a lot of activity had begun in the pleasant surroundings of the Hospital Complex. Many animals were busy storing food from here and there, preparing to hibernate for the upcoming cold winter. The song birds were busy in lining their nests with moss and straw to keep out the chilly winds. Life was busy everywhere, except for the trees. They stood all around the buildings, covered with leaves of rust, brown and yellow. Every now and then, some old leaf would lose its youthful energy and detach, landing softly on the earth, which was now a carpet of golden leaves. The sal and the mahogany would look jealously at the conifers which stood evergreen, spreading a mesmerizing glow to the yellow-brown landscape. A signboard nearby read “Zone of silence — Please maintain silence, Hospital nearby.”
It was one such lovely afternoon when Kittu (who was then a little baby) came to live with us in the Hospital Complex. The earlier home where the Sen family lived was stuck amidst a dusty, dirty and dingy by-lane, hemmed in by ugly buildings and odd structures of all kinds. As the car carrying the Sen family had taken a slow turn that afternoon to enter the Hospital Complex, Kittu felt the world changing all of a sudden. A beautiful garden came in view, with dalhias and roses, phlox and sweet peas, complete with a lawn of velvet grass, a small pool nearby, and rustic seats all around it. All this was surrounded by the tall trees — the trees that made you straighten your shoulders, stick out your chest and breathe deeply. They added a charm to the whole locality — a pleasant greenish yellow light shimmered all around. Kittu still had not learned to talk but that did not stop a heart warming “AAAEEEE…eeee” which meant “I love this place, I love this place! Yayyyy!!”
That day, the silence of the evening was broken now and then, with wild noises coming from Kittu’s house. Huge chaos, boxes everywhere, keys lost, food eaten out of plastic bags, furniture being moved from one end to the other and then, nearly around midnight, slowly the whole thing started falling in place. Kittu began exploring the new house — it did not look strange any more. The good old smell of dal cooking was coming from the kitchen and the ‘new house’ was ‘home’ again.
Bonny, the dog, loved to play ‘detective’ — sniffing and scratching for some hidden treasure. He was playful and smart. He knew exactly when the children would return from school in the evening. When he would hear the school bus, his ears would perk up and he would rush to greet the children. Soon the evening would be full of loud ‘woofs’ from Bonny, running and jumping around a team of children playing football.
One such evening, Minni came running nervously and delivered a shocking news. There had been a meeting in the Hospital that day and it was decided that the tall trees are soon going to be cut.
“Why? What harm did they do?” shouted Chhotu.
Bonny had stopped running and came close to the children, as if to join the serious discussion. Minni recited with speed, “According to our new neighbour, Dr Sen, the tall trees block the view of the car garages and also new quarters are going to be constructed for the nurse-training section.”
All of us looked at the trees — what ‘view’ will chopping of the trees expose — a car park, buildings, the garbage dump and the medical shop. “Is that a ‘view’?”, shouted Anjali.
We all roared in frustration — the situation demanded an immediate response from the team. We had grown up with the trees and loved them — they were our long standing friends — and no one could remove them while we were there!
The whole thing was followed by an intense discussion session — the main target of our attack would be Dr Sen and his house. A plan was sketched and named ‘Operation G’ (G for green). Numerous suggestions came up from many members of our team:
“Punch him in the nose!”
“Beat him with a brush!”
“Shake him until he rattles!”
“Stamp on his foot!”
But secretly we all knew that we were not the sort to punch noses. Instead Operation G proceeded as follows:
Minni, early in the morning, on her way to school, took out her compass and poked holes into the milk bags outside Dr Sen’s door. The milk began to drip and it made us all feel better.
Dholu chewed a gum and stuck the mess into the keyhole of the house.
Chhotu sprinkled some sugar from their balcony into Dr Sen’s, to attract thousands of industrious ants.
Me and my sister splashed ink on their clothes as they flapped on the line.
My sister went one step higher — she caught cockroaches in matchboxes and posted them in their letter box!
Bonny, of course had to contribute to all this action — he kicked their garbage pail over and wagged his tail in joy.
A strange deal
Sadly, Dr Sen and his family soon traced the misdeeds to the G-team. We heard he was in tremendous rage and wanted to punish us all.
Mrs Sen, however, was eager to know why we did such things. She called us one evening and demanded a full explanation of our action. We said that operation G, as the name suggests, was an effort from our team to save the trees of the locality from being cut, since the trees were our friends and we loved them dearly. Mrs Sen just smiled and led us to their bedroom. A little baby was sleeping peacefully and while sleeping, a sweet smile was spreading all over its face. She turned towards us and said, “Now, I guess you folks are already in big trouble if your parents come to know of what you have done. Now here is a deal -– if you promise to include my Kittu in the annual children’s play organized by your team, I promise we will not complain to your parents.”
The G team initially supplied a stream of protests — honestly Kittu did not know how to talk, how on earth were we going to fit him in? Mrs Sen, however left it in our hands, “You guys need to figure something out — after all, this is all your fault.”
We all felt like wounded soldiers — though it will not be hard to devise a play where Kittu can fit in, our purpose was not fulfilled. The trees were going to be cut anyway. To tell the truth, we were a bit afraid of the consequences of operation G and including Kittu in our play looked like a good way to save the situation. But the magpie–robin will never be able to trill joyously from the topmost branches, the fat green caterpillars will never be able to play hide and seek with the sparrows, the ants will never march up and down. And the saddest part of all — there will be no shimmering green light from the magnificent trees…
Who listens to the trees?
The trees of the ancient forest were very sad too. Autumn was eventually giving way to winter and the cold north winds began to blow. The red and golden leaves had long vanished and the ground was now carpeted in greyish white. “Brrrrr-it is so cold,” they shivered . Most of the time they would look at each other because they knew that any day those cruel humans are going to come and one after another their bodies will get ripped apart. All the excitement for the upcoming spring had died away, probably this place will never be the magical wonderland that it used to be in the spring.
“Look,” said the mahogany, “the children are rehearsing for the annual play at the new year eve.” It was indeed a wonderful sight — a bunch of kids wearing sweaters and scarves and talking like king or queen in loud voices. There was also a cute child in pyjamas – a new member in the team of the loyal children.
“Pity, they tried their best you know,” sighed the sal. “Why are the elder humans not able to listen to us? Why can’t they feel our pain? Why can’t they hear us crying?”
But someone was listening to the trees – someone knew what was going to happen and what needed to be done. For it is the heart which is fresh and less busy than all of us, that feels the pain in the winds when mother nature cries for mercy and help.
Do not worry, my dear friends, it is I who will protect you, for I know how to bring sympathy in people, how to make them feel a pain that they do not realize themselves. My childhood is going to be spent here and I need your love and charming magic to spread all around me in each and every spring in the coming years… While I grab a book from the book shelf in the rehearsal room and start chewing it and idle my time away making those meaningless sounds, do you know, my lovely friends, do you know my dear squirrel and ants, that I secretly have a plan? While I sleep peacefully, my dreams carefully construct the plan that will make everything perfect and everyone will be happy…
The day of the play arrived. We all planned a final rehearsal and felt the excitement in the air. Amidst all this, our Kittu had started its little game – it grabbed a book from the shelf and kept chewing it innocently at one corner. The play was a popular children fairy tale where the queen does not have a son for many years and ultimately, a fairy brings life into a wooden doll and gifts it to the good queen. Here was where our Kittu had to play an important role. The wooden doll was going to be secretly replaced by Kittu and one of us would scold and frighten Kittu from behind so that he would cry out at the audience – showing signs of life. (This was just for the sake of the play and once over, we decided to hug and ease Kittu’s feelings.)
But when do our neat plans actually work ?
As the evening came and winter’s chilly winds moved from tree to tree, Kittu heard a gentle voice coming from the trees:
Do Do Do Do Do Do Do Do Do Do…1
Will it be so easy to make me cry? And not a soul knows what I had secretly brought from the bookshelf with me. Let us all see what happens…
The perfect ending
Meanwhile, the play was proceeding fine. The good queen crying for mercy, the evil queen’s dirty tricks to drive her out of the castle, the faithful minister – everything went fine. At last the end scene appeared and Mrs Sen went to the backstage to make Kittu cry (much against her will). Minni was hiding under the curtains to replace the wooden doll on stage with an alive, crying Kittu.
Well, as I said, you will never have everything to happen according to plan: Kittu did not cry. It just looked at Minni who was standing nervously with shaking hands and at his dear mother, making desperate attempts to make it cry. It was not working at all. I was almost on the verge of suggesting Minni to just replace the wooden doll with a not-crying Kittu (that would kill the perfect ending to the play but still would save the situation).
Amidst all this, Mrs Sen suddenly noticed that Kittu was holding something in its little hands. It was a book with a beautiful cover, which I recognized as the popular classic “Heidi” that my sister purchased few months ago. Mrs Sen, in her frustration, tried to just grab the book but suddenly she felt a little force clinging to it from underneath, the source being Kittu’s arms. Mrs Sen could grab the book away only after she had to apply her full force.
All of a sudden Kittu’s usual radiant face looked pale as a ghost. It was a moment of silence when we all felt that boiling-up phase before little children start crying horribly. If I remember correctly, the loud and clear cry that came soon was audible over a wide range that night. It was a cry that shook all of us and Minni, with shaking hands, replaced the doll with the crying Kittu.
Lights fell on Kittu and then the good queen shouted in delight to the world “ Oh… There is my lovely, lovely child!” and took Kittu in her arms and soothed until the baby became normal again.
Mrs Sen was standing in the backstage, hands over mouth, shocked in surprise, as her eyes slowly fell on the book she had just grabbed from her child, with the front cover showing a smiling, little girl, holding flowers in her hands, surrounded by goats and above all, by giant, tall alpine trees…
We were all very happy that night. But more exciting news came in the morning, when Minni came running to tell us all that Dr Sen had announced all the tree-uprooting programmes were to be cancelled. We did not understand then how all this happened but years later, when we grew up, we really did. But a bigger and more amusing question still remained unanswered — was it all just a strange coincidence, or was there a gentle spirit inside a new-born child that could sense a pain in the air and came to help all of us, in a way that would touch all of our lives, and specially the trees that would continue to clock the passage of time…
I have got halo’s made of summer, rhythms made of spring,
I got crowns of words woven, each one a song to sing,
Oh I sing, Oh I sing, Oh I sing…1
1: From the song “Something in the Water”, composed and sung by Brooke Fraser, which was a global radio success and won the Vodafone NZ music award in 2011.