When we moved to the farm a decade-and-a-half ago, the palmyra tree was already an adult competing for sunlight with the larger, greedier banyan.

During the day, a robin furtively darted into its nest tucked in the folds of the living palm fronds while at dusk bats flew out of the dense hanging bunches of dry ones to forage far and wide. Perched on its long stalks, spotted owlets ear-piercingly scolded the night.

When the palmyra fruits turned purple-black and fragrantly ripe, toddy cats moved in. They leapt noisily onto the palm fronds and dug their teeth into the juicy fibrous husks.

Once done, they dropped the heavy fruits onto the dry leaf litter below, shattering the quiet stillness of the dark. Sometimes two or more toddy cats squabbled noisily, and Rom would turn over, yell ‘shut up' (in my ear!), and resume snoring.

On hot summer nights, the wind whistled through the crown making an eerie rattling noise which, according to superstitious people, was the sound of ghosts. Taxi drivers who dropped us home late at night would look apprehensively around, and ask in hushed tones if we weren't scared to live alone in such evil company!

I imagine that, perhaps, a decade or so earlier, a whole grove of palmyra seedlings took root around the same time that the banyan established itself as a parasite on one of the trees. As the palmyra seedlings grew and their trunks emerged out of the ground towards the sun, the banyan spread its vicious branches and roots, ready to devour anything in its path. Years passed, and one by one, the strangler killed all the other palmyra trees until only one was left.

Some years later, we noticed that the crown of the palm tree was drooping, and we could only surmise that it had lost the battle for resources. Eventually the head fell down leaving the trunk standing, a stoic reminder of the life that was.

Within months, a pair of flameback woodpeckers discovered the dead tree and drilled several exploratory holes.

Finally, they settled on a spot near the top and took turns hammering out a nest. Weeks later, we watched a pair of young woodpeckers waiting at the hole impatiently for their parents to bring them food.

Once the young birds fledged, the family moved away, and were seen only occasionally until the next year. A couple of years later, other species of birds discovered this prime nesting estate.

The woodpeckers, the original home-owners, were chased away by a mob of rose-ringed parakeets. They expanded the nest hole, and just as they were settling in, a pair of collared scops owls moved in. The parakeets tried their bullying best to oust the owls, but were unsuccessful. They perched outside for days complaining noisily and petulantly.

Then the magpie-robins swooped in, and managed to throw the owls out. There was much flitting back and forth, and we thought the handsome little birds had established the hole as their own. But within days, the jungle mynas had usurped it.

These birds were just the larger claimants; quietly a number of small creatures have lived on the tree trunk for years — an assortment of geckos, the dramatically-hued rock agamas (like garden lizards, but black with red heads and a golden yellow stripe down their backs), millipedes, centipedes… They were all left homeless one night, when their world came crashing down with the tree. Until the log turned to dust, it continued to host toads, coral snakes, olive keelback watersnakes, beetles and their grubs, termites, besides becoming a natural incubator for gecko eggs.

As for the banyan, it has grown five to six times its original size, revelling in all the waste water from the kitchen. One day when we are dead and gone, it will likely claim our house too.

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)

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