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The Hibiscus Tree: A Love Story Nipped In The Bud

Story‐ The Hibiscus Tree: “Have you ever dated, thammi*?” Sriya played with her cell phone as she waited for an answer.I smiled. My granddaughter often asked me questions that she never asked her parents. I was amused.

“Have you ever dated, thammi*?” Sriya played with her cell phone as she waited for an answer.

I smiled. My granddaughter often asked me questions that she never asked her parents. I was amused.

“I like the concept. But I don’t like that word—Dating. It sounds like something marked in red on a calendar.” I replied.

“You didn’t answer.” She raised a brow.

Winter was off to a weak start in the city. I looked at the muted afternoon sky, as Sriya and I sat on our balcony. From there, we enjoyed an aerial view of the complex.

There were tall buildings around us. In the park below, children shrieked as they tossed around the ball. But it couldn’t beat the soft December sun that teased my face in our open courtyard, at our ancestral home in Barakar.

The chilling afternoon wind, the chirping of a warbler, the smell of fresh jaggery and shredded coconut, as the two were combined to form delectable sweet balls — I still longed for those days. And then there was him.

“I don’t know if I can call it a date. But yes, there was someone.”

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“Ooh,” Sriya’s eyes sparked. She had already picked up the scent of a vintage romance. Now she wouldn’t let it go until I told her everything.

“You had a boyfriend?” She asked excitedly.

I chuckled.

“Please, please, tell me no, thammi. Was it granddad?”

I waved my hand dismissively. “No!”

“What was his name? Was he good-looking?”

I composed myself. The thought of uttering his name after so many years, the sound of which made my heart leap all those years ago — it all felt so unreal.

“Saumil.” I replied.

“Wow! Nice name,” giggled my granddaughter as she rested her head against my knees. “Was he handsome?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” She demanded. “Okay, tell me — did he have piercing eyes? Sharp features? Was he tall?”

“Those days, most people were tall.” I replied.

“Was he six feet or shorter?”

“Yes, I guess, almost six feet.” I felt the heat rushing up my cheeks.

“Thammi, you are blushing!” Sriya winked at me.

“Shut up, shameless girl.” I slapped the back of her head. “Don’t tell all this to anyone.”

“Okay, I won’t. But only if you tell me the rest of your love story. Not an Insta-version, okay?”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s not that great a love story. Those days, we had a lot of restrictions. Not how it’s done nowadays — you chat on the phone, you meet, and then the next thing you know—”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Still, I want to hear everything from the start.” Sriya pouted like a petulant child. She was, after all, a child. At 15 years, what did she understand of love? Why blame her?

Did I know what love meant when I was her age? But then, what brought tears to my eyes all those years ago when….

“Thammi, I am waiting,” she sounded impatient.

“I was about your age when I first saw him. They were our neighbours. We lived in a big house in Barakar, in Asansol. His family was originally from East Bengal. They had migrated to our side, post partition.”

“Hmm, that sounds very ‘Gone with the Wind-ish.’” Sriya added gleefully. “So, how did you two meet?”

“I was on the terrace the first time I saw him. I think I was drying clothes.”

“Did he see you?”

“Yes.”

“Love at first sight?”

“I don’t know about that. But he used to come often around the same time, when I would be on the terrace. Later, of course, we also bumped into each other on my way to school.”

“That’s so cute.”

“Then one day, he spoke to me. We had a hibiscus tree in our garden, with bounteous, red blooms. It was funny, really. They had the same flowering tree in their courtyard. Their tree was decked with orange hibiscuses.”

“What did he say to you?”

“He asked if hibiscus was my favourite flower. I said yes, but I liked the orange ones better than the reds.”

“Then?”

“The next day, their maid brought a basket full of orange hibiscuses and handed them to mother. They were for our puja, she said.”

“This is getting interesting. Then what happened? Did he propose to you?”

I felt a dull ache in my chest as I considered answering her question.

“We received a letter one day — from dacoits,” the throb in my heart intensified as I spoke, “They had announced the day and date when they would attack our home.”

“Dacoits! What dacoits send a notice prior to robbing a house?”

“In those days, dacoits or thugs were much more ferocious than the law enforcers. They believed their profession was one that entailed an open show of courage and bravado.”

I continued, “Of course, their reasons weren’t justified. They used to send a letter to the house they intended to rob, specifying the day of their arrival. It was like an open challenge — ‘We are coming to rob you. Do what you can.’”

“Why did they choose your home?”

“My forefathers were goldsmiths. We had a workshop in the basement of our home. Perhaps they thought we had a lot of gold hidden in our house. Back then, people mostly stored their valuables at home, not in the bank.”

“So, what did you do? Didn’t you inform the police?”

“There was an uproar in the house. Everyone was tense. My mother wanted to take all the women of the house to a safe refuge. But Baba disagreed. ‘We will stay here and fight together,’ he said.”

“My grandfather’s big elephant gun was brought out of its chest. Our servants got their hands on every item in the house that could pass for a weapon. Kitchen knives, rolling pins, sickles — all of it. Our dog was denied food the entire day and leashed — so it would be vicious towards the enemy.”

“That’s inhuman, thammi.” Sriya scrunched her brows.

“Yes, dear. I know.” I sighed. “That night, everyone ate measly meals, so they don’t fall asleep. We had to stay awake. The police were also there. They were five men, ready with their rifles. We waited as the midnight oil burned. Hours passed, until—”

“Until?”

“Until dawn broke on us.”

“What!” Sriya cried out, “… and the dacoits?”

“We heard howls and cries in Saumil’s house the next morning. Baba went out to see what had happened.”

Sriya kept quiet.

“I waited eagerly for Baba to return with some news. It was the longest hour of my life. When he entered the home, our family members were discussing if we should hold guard for the next few nights. ‘That will not be necessary,’ said my father.”

Sriya’s enthusiasm had evaporated suddenly. Instead, she looked apprehensive.

“The dacoits had mistakenly looted their house. Apparently, their target was the house with the red hibiscus tree. But in the dark, they mistook the orange flowers as red. One man had tried to resist them. They killed him.”

Sriya didn’t ask who it was.

A/N- Thammi: grandma in Bengali

Image source: still from the film Macher Jhol, sarangib from pixabay, PanuRuangjan from Getty Images, free on CanvaPro.

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About the Author

Amrita Sarkar

Amrita Sarkar is an aspiring writer based in India. Her short stories have been selected winning entries for The Times of India Write India Contest (Season 3) and The Hive Publishers anthology #Love. Her self- read more...

3 Posts | 1,271 Views

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