Monday, December 21, 2009

Under the Banyan Tree

Even though my cousin had forewarned me that our ancestral place had changed beyond recognition, I had not prepared myself for the shock that awaited me as I approached the village after a long interval. The place, where once a mighty branching banyan tree stood, was now a bare expanse of paddies. The tree was very much a part of the lives of the villagers, who loved and venerated it. On summer days the ground under the tree resonated with the din kicked up by the children from the nearby school during the recess hour. The noise of the children matched the ongoing racket of the birds in the branches. After the children went back to their classrooms, the cowherd boy took out his flute and played melodious tunes as the cattle grazed the nearby fields. Weary travellers passing through the village rested or slept under the canopy, their heads pillowed on the gnarled roots of the banyan. Peasants took a break from their day’s work and relished their mid-day meals in its cool shade.

All these activities ceased as night fell, wrapping the whole tree in misty darkness. The oversized canopy, the myriad aerial roots and the medley of bird sounds rendered the atmosphere eerie. No one came near the tree during the night. The only exceptions were the nights of celebration. The annual village drama was staged on the make-shift podium built under the banyan tree. The same platform also doubled as a Durga Puja pandal. On those festive days the whole area became a small fair ground, complete with shops, food outlets and the like.

Once, an itinerant circus had pitched its tent under the tree. It became an instant hit in the locality. People from all corners flocked to the ground. But the show was cut short, when tragedy struck. A female trapeze artiste lost balance and fell to her death during one of her performances. The circus vanished from the village, with the dead body, before the police arrived the next day. The incident caused a great emotional turmoil among the villagers, who arranged a puja few days later to purify the banyan tree and also to placate the dead girl’s spirit.

A villager, passing through the ground late one evening, reported having seen a woman weeping under the banyan tree. Everyone agreed it was the ghost of the circus girl. The hue and cry over the sighting of the female ghost petered out, when it was discovered that the woman was indeed a housewife from a neighbouring village, driven out by her husband. She hid somewhere during the day and wept as she took shelter under the banyan tree during the night. The matter ended to everyone’s satisfaction when our mukhiya called forth his counterpart from the other village along with the contrite husband, and amicably settled the issue in the presence of village elders.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Speed Banking

Not long ago banks used to be sort of community centers where you spent languorous afternoons chatting up fellow visitors as you waited for your cash or draft. You knew jolly well that even if you moved heaven and earth you could not speed things up. You took it all in your stride and tried to make the best of the situation. You studied human nature from your vantage point, as you disinterestedly browsed the part of the day’s paper that fell your way. It was fun to see the clerks animatedly handling the voluminous ledgers, pepped up by endless rounds of tea and gossip. Life inside was indeed hectic, while very little really got done. At the end, when your business was completed, you came out with a sense of having accomplished something.

Not anymore. Banks are fast changing their ways. Speed is the buzzword for them now. Your account will be opened before your coffee gets cold—boasts one bank; while another sends the mobile ATM around, so that you may draw money nearer home. In the name of dispensing prompt customer service, banks seem hell bent to dispense with the poor customer.

With all kinds of machines crowding the scene, your business is done in a flash, without your having to visit the bank. Some banks even slap you a charge for visiting their premises. Banks would be happy to see the back of poor you at the earliest, or better still, not see you at all. But is speed the only thing that the customers want? Not always, as an enterprising banker learnt the hard way.

This young manager took over a branch which catered to a large number of pensioners. On every pension day, usually the first working day of the month, the branch turned into a veritable fish market, swarming with old pensioners. The total lack of order started to grate on the nerves of the new manager. He took stock of the situation and found out that just one cashier attended to all the pensioners, causing lengthy waiting time for them. Thinking that the pandemonium was a show of protest by the senior citizens over slow service, he made up his mind to set things right. On the next pension day, the whole bank was waiting to greet the pensioners and in a very systematic way they were disposed of one by one. During the lunch time as the manager was praising himself for a job well done, a host of old customers barged into his cabin and demanded to know why everybody wanted to drive them away from the bank. They said they eagerly looked forward to that particular day of the month, to be able to spend some time with old friends and colleagues. They enjoyed every bit of the hullabaloo as it brought some excitement to their monotonous lives. They would not mind waiting longer for their pensions. The enthusiastic manager had to reluctantly revert to the old ways.

Monday, December 7, 2009

In The Rain

It had not rained for a couple of days and that morning was particularly sunny.

"Just the right occasion to shun the rain-coat, which hangs around the neck like a millstone," I mused.

As I started to the office without my waterproof for the first time that monsoon, I felt light as a cork. Office work kept me busy during the day, so I didn't bother much about the weather. But in the evening as I emerged from the hall, a deafening sound baffled my senses. The heavens had opened up!

The heavy torrent lashed against everything that came its way, showing no signs of fatigue. That was enough for me. Suddenly, I was gripped by a strange impulse -- a kind of primordial instinct to step out into the open and enjoy the downpour.

The next moment, I was on the road. The piercing raindrops hitting my face at full force caused some pain in the beginning. But remembering the dictum 'inconvenience is adventure rightly considered,' I took my discomfort as a part of the game.

As my mobike gathered momentum, my spirit soared higher. I felt like the monarch of the road, with no speeding vehicles, blazing headlights or nagging traffic police to bother about. It was I and I only, with the rain to attend upon me.

Soon I was wet like a drowned rat -- water oozing out of my body, dress and shoes. I hummed a tune to buck myself up. People, squeezed under every conceivable shelter on both sides of the road, watched me in total disbelief. Some of them even whistled and shouted. Were they cheering my sangfroid or hooting at my craziness? I didn't care about it and continued with my adventure in the rain.

On reaching home, the first thing I received, apart from a few suspicious looks, was a steaming cup of tea. I don't know whether it was a reward for my bravado or a remedy for the inevitable cold, but to tell you the truth, it was the most satisfying cup of tea I had had for years. What a nice way to round off the delightful experience!

A parting bit of advice for readers -- next time you experience the deluge, turn your backs to umbrellas and raincoats, and jump outdoors.