A chance encounter with a ‘budding’ politician

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This is a fictive but ticklish anecdote about a chirpy little girl from California who seemed to have a sharp mind and a zest for putting it to good use.

It was 45 years ago. I was in my first year of college.

It was the carpentry shop supervisor Velayudan who suggested it in the first place. “The Adyar Banyan Tree is the biggest tree in the world,” he said, “It has been there since pre-historic times and it covers 5 acres.”

His buddies nodded in agreement, but they had a brief debate about whether the correct Tamil name was aala maram or arali maram. When I looked it up later, it was not so far from the truth, although you could quibble about the details.

On a typical sweltering Madras afternoon not soon after this discussion, I set out on my wobbly Atlas bicycle to see the famous banyan tree. It wasn’t far from our campus, but the Theosophical Society grounds were harder to find than I thought. In typical Madras fashion, everyone I asked said “just go straight”. I had almost given up in favour of a tender coconut, but the vendor pointed me to the entrance. A further kilometre or so inside the sprawling grounds and there it was.

There was only one other group there, which looked like an extended family, with an older man, some middle-aged people and two young girls. I left my bike unlocked (it would only take one blow with a stone to break that lock anyway) and walked around. The tree was big, very big. There was a sign saying it was over 400 years old (not quite pre-historic) and the oldest in the world. I figured it must have been planted about the time Babar fought the battle of Panipat. It covered about an acre — not the five that Velayudan claimed, but an acre is plenty big for a single tree. It wasn’t until I saw the giant redwoods of California years later that I was so impressed by a tree.

I sat on the stone bench, watching the other visitors. The two young girls were perhaps 10 and 6 years old. They wore identical tops and jeans. Even on that hot day, they both had more energy than me, clearly much more than their grown-up family. The older girl was clearly the boss, and the younger one seemed to accept this.

“Who are you?” The older girl asked me.

“My name is Krishna, I go to college nearby. What are you doing here?”

“My sister and I are visiting thatha. I am 11 years old, my sister is 6 years old. We live in California. Have you seen the giant redwood trees?”

“No, I have never been to California. In fact, I have never left India. But I will someday. I want to go to Chicago.”

“Chicago is not in California. My mom teaches in Berkeley. Have you heard of it? I am in grade five, my sister is in grade one. I can do multiplication. Ask me a question.”

“I am sure you can. But what are you doing in Madras?”

“We came to visit Thatha. We come to Madras every year. Thatha and my chittis take us to the beach and tell us good stories. We love to walk on Marina Beach. It is the longest beach in the world. Have you seen the Gandhi statue? We like to get peanuts on the beach, but they call them groundnuts. Amma thinks it will make us sick but it doesn’t. I love eating masala dosas at Woodlands. I am going to make them myself on TV someday.” She said all this without pausing for breath.

“The way you talk, I think you are going to be a lawyer someday. And maybe a politician. I am sure you will be on TV. What do you think of the banyan tree?”

“It is like a forest,” she said. I thought that was a pretty astute remark for a 11-year-old.

“Did you know it was here when Columbus discovered America? A ghost lives in it. It likes to gobble up little girls.” The Columbus part wasn’t quite true, but I figured I could get away with it.

“Columbus discovered America in 1492. That sign says this tree is 400 years old. And we don’t believe in ghosts.”

I was not doing very well against this 11-year-old girl. I was tempted to tell her my JEE rank, this usually worked with older people. But better sense prevailed. I sat back and smiled, wondering if all American kids were this way. The stone bench was nice and cool and the shade from the banyan tree was a relief from the heat. I watched them for a few minutes, carefree and energetic. At 17, maybe I was already feeling old.

Presently, the older members of their party were ready to leave. The two girls ran after them, the older one trailing her sister.

I got back on my bike myself, thinking I should get back to campus before it was dark. Also, I was getting hungry and the hostel mess would be opening for dinner soon.

“Wait, you didn’t tell me your names,” I called after them.

“My sister’s name is Maya.”

“And yours?”

“Kamala”, she said. “My name is Kamala.”

(This is a fictionalised anecdote that may or may not have taken place in exactly the same way as narrated, or at all)

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