The college declared, pompously, in its cautiously worded prospectuses, that its origins went back a little over half a century ago. But, as Sameer mused, the banyan tree located on the campus was probably, possibly even older. It could have been almost a century old. Sameer, seated on the concrete bench, built around the massive tree trunk, never ceased to marvel at the tree‚Äôs size and wondered what moments-both infamous and famous- the tree could have witnessed. It could have witnessed riots and rallies of freedom fighters, then fireworks and feuds exploding at the arrival of freedom, shouting of slogans, chirping birds, screeching hawks and bats, screeching radio broadcasts of mosques being torn down and temples being shelled. Now times had changed but still remained chaotic. The marches of smartly groomed NCC cadets now replaced the protesters on the streets. The radio sets had been replaced by TV antennas bringing home images of empires falling and men, flying through the air in those countless South Indian films‚Ä¶‚Ä¶
It could have been more likely for the banyan tree to have witnessed hordes of men uprooting dozens of trees, and clearing the foliage to make proper pavements of improper slabs and bricks. The men would have erected elegant buildings with spacious classrooms now weathered by the humid weather of the city. But while they would have been cruel in trampling through the grass and twigs, they had nevertheless designed rows of trees, kept much of the greenery trimmed but intact and, most importantly, singled out the Banyan Tree, either out of reverence for its leafy shade or a hideous fear for the spirits confined to its trunk by rough strands of thread wrapped tightly by those who believe in such things and more.
But today, as Sameer mused, a fire would silently, somnolently blaze under the benevolent shade. The fire flickered now, its flames bubbling over and it blazed silently but steadily, deep inside Sameer‚Äôs throbbing heart.
Clutched tightly, almost possessively, in his hands was a large piece of unruled paper, folded into two like a greeting card. In fact, it was a birthday card that Sameer had made for Nisha‚Ä¶‚Ä¶..
It had been nothing less than love at first sight. Sameer recollected it like a scene from a Bollywood romance film. The young hero sits and laughs with his best friends over teachers and their funny faces. Suddenly, time seems to stop. Then, in wonderfully deliberate slow-motion, a young, vivacious, pretty girl enters the scene. She is smiling widely-no it is not the devilish grin of the Cheshire Cat. It is the smile of unabashed youth in full bloom. It was a smile that makes the hero‚Äôs heart leap across beats like a galloping deer. Cue Music, the music of wide-eyed wonder, the music of entire worlds collapsing and music of true love. And Sameer tried hard to resist that impulse of spreading his arms eagle-wide like Shahrukh Khan in the midst of mustard fields.
He had hunted for her name in the list that was pinned on prickly felt behind a glass cover. But yet he could not muster enough courage to talk to her. It would be almost a month before they began to talk. She too found something irresistibly attractive in him.
It was the way how he used to be sometimes shy, and sometimes he would go out of his way to talk to her. Then, he would be nervous and excited at the same time.
From then on, it had been the usual things-talking about movies and dissing teachers, sharing books and jokes. And then there were times when they stared at each other in midst of morning lectures- and there was nothing more to say after all‚Ä¶‚Ä¶‚Ä¶.
Her friends, chirpy to the point of being irritating, now crowded the Banyan Tree. They had come with bags of gifts-parcels packed in shiny covers and even a large chocolate cake from the pastry shop nearby. They saw him holding his custom-made card and began to tease him. He smiled nervously, but secretly he was hating it. He was beginning to feel irritated. Friends always ruin everything‚Ä¶‚Ä¶‚Ä¶.
‚ÄėBut what should I gift her for her birthday? Man, I am really in a fix‚Äô, he asked from his friends, busy with their expensive cellphones and inexpensive chatter.
‚ÄėArre make a card for her. That is not all about drawing. It is also about writing some message, some nice message,‚Äô said Aakash.
That evening, as the sun sunk in the west and the cookers in kitchens began to puff off steam, he bent over a large sheet of paper and began to doodle with his crayons. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally managed to make a fairly good painting of a bright yellow sunflower and wrote down, after some deliberation, a nicely romantic if predictable message for her. But despite his efforts, he wondered now- what if it turns out to be a bad idea?
A starving crow dived and preened over the view beneath the shade of the Banyan Tree. It looked at the scene below. A young guy dressed in a white T-shirt and faded jeans sits while the girls in gaudy salwar kameez and with layers of talcum powder on their faces laugh and chatter. Then, they become silent- their eyes are full of expectation. They gaze in the direction of the college gate, some half a thousand yards away‚Ä¶. And their eyes light up. Nisha walks in, her gorgeous brown hair streaming down her slender shoulder blades, like a gossamer light drape that hides a shining light‚Ä¶ and she smiles shyly, self-consciously with both her eyes and her lips. She is nevertheless surprised by the sight of Sameer. What is he doing here? Was he about to gift her something? What was it? Questions buzzed around like hyperactive bees around a beautiful flower.
‚ÄėHappy birthday! Her friends cried out loud. ‚ÄėHappy Birthday‚Äô said Sameer, tersely. He extended his hand and felt that familiar feeling of excitement blended with fear. They exchanged secret smiles and smirks. ‚ÄėCome on, let‚Äôs leave them alone‚Äô, they whispered silently. They left the scene, giggling.
‚ÄėHere is a birthday card for you, Nisha‚Äô. Sameer handed the card to her. She accepted it, blushingly. ‚ÄėThank you, Sameer, let me have a look at it‚Äô.
Then, as she read the card, a deep blush, of deep red, bloomed like a rose on her face. Sameer had never seen anything like it before. It was a color of unabashed red, the red of roses, or gleaming Ferrai sedans, the red of fake blood of Hindi horror movies. Despite all that had it been abused for, the red color looked ethereal on her fair face. As its colors and hues deepened, the message was clear. She loved him. She loved his ways, loved his gift in which with a simple drawing and message he had conveyed his deepest and truest feelings. Above all, she was in love with him.
And he knew it too. Together, now, holding hands, they sat on the bench beneath the almost-hundred-year-old Banyan Tree, staring at each other. Time passed and the crow, a wily, ugly creature dived and landed on the bench. It scavenged for a free meal among the wrapped parcels and boxes.
The large chocolate cake, prepared with a lot of care and attention, was now being ravaged by the crusty beak of the crow. But they saw nothing else. They only saw each other‚Ä¶‚Ä¶..