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Wednesday 16 August 2017

The Fallen Oak

After having worked for years in the tea-estates, all the plantation workers lost their jobs when the tea-estate made way to a large holiday resort. Under their very eyes, they saw the plantation they had tended to being razed and cleared for construction. 
Aroo's Baba had been in shock for several months but finally realized that he would have to make a living in some other way. Being good with wood-work, he took up carpentry at a furniture shop while Ma went to work at a nursing home, both a few miles away from their village. 

Even as the family was coming to terms with their new life, fate struck a big blow in little Aroo’s life. Ma and Baba were both killed one late evening on their way back from work when their bus toppled into the ravine.
Aroo was taken away to Kolkata to live with distant relatives. They took good care of her and ensured she went to the municipal school and passed her SSC. One of her school teachers ran a computer training institute and Aroo had her first brush with the internet and computers while working at the center doing odd jobs. She picked up the basics in no time and soon moved on to learning softwares with help from the instructors at the institute.
By the time she was twenty-two, she had a good job at one of the better software training institutes in Kolkata.

All this time, the hills and the crisp air of Darjeeling beckoned her but it was only now that she had enough security about her to venture back to her roots.
Her native village at Lamahatta was not the same place she had left. The large resort had finally been been built and the village had lost all its serenity. Many more hotels and lodges had cropped up in the ten years she had been away. Tourist buses and vans buzzed to and fro, while shops had sprouted faster than mushrooms all over the place.

Aroo made her way up the steep slope leading to the little cluster of homes. She recognized many old faces but they just thought her to be an off-trail tourist. She stopped to chat with Lina kaki and Bahadur kaka and they were thrilled to see her. They exclaimed and fussed over her and soon the entire hamlet was around her. They had been a close-knit community and remembered her family very fondly. Lina kaki made sure she was sufficiently fed before handing her the key to her house, one that had been locked for the last ten years. No one had claimed stake to it or tried to usurp it and Aroo was humbled by this fact.

Picking up her light airbag she made her way along the road leading to her home. People had always teased Das dada that he was crazy to build a home that was open to the cold winds from all sides but he went right ahead and built his house, just the way he wanted - With a view that was priceless and out of this world.
She was shivering now as she stood in front of her house, the cold breeze rattling the broken panes and roof tiles.

Gingerly, she stepped up the three steps to put the key into the rusty old lock. Surprisingly the key wound smoothly; she slid the latch and the door was open. 
The place looked exactly as she remembered it from ten years back. There lay the tacky mat on the floor where Ma took her catnaps and the old trunk which served as a wardrobe for all three of them. The old frames of Gods now cracked and covered in cobwebs. The tiny kitchen where Ma cooked hot daal and thick rotis smeared with homemade butter. Tears blurred her view as she went further in. The single cot her Baba slept on bereft of the mattress, on which she often sat beside him listening for countless number of times to the story of a great treasure his great-grandfather had found and then hidden somewhere in the plantation. And there in the farthest corner was the wooden dresser.

She paused by the dresser, a beautiful one that her father had made for her mother. Old memories came gushing. She vividly remembered the great oak tree in the plantation that had crashed during a particularly bad storm that had hit the area. All the estranged estate workers had been called in to help clear away the giant tree. Though the main trunk had been lugged away at a good price, a few remnant branches and boughs had been left behind. Aroo's father managed to get a decent sized piece of the lumbar from the lot. He had been in a state of frenzy ever since he’d laid his hands on it. He painstakingly spent days and hours working on it until the wee hours. Scraping, sawing, carving, sanding and polishing the block of wood into a work of art for his wife, just like the one he had seen in the 'memsaab's' room - A Dressing table. All it needed was a mirror to be placed on top, one he planned to get at the earliest. In the meanwhile all their neighbors came to see Das dada's handiwork. Her mother's face had been suffused with pride and joy as she welcomed everyone home and showed off the object d'art that her man had made for her. 

Aroo too loved the dresser with its many drawers, beautiful carvings and smooth finish. She remembered the day her Baba had called her over excitedly. He showed her a clever little hideaway chamber within a drawer. He told her it would be the place where he would keep a wonderful secret for her, safe from everything. Aroo was thrilled to be privy to such a priceless secret. Only she, Ma and Baba in the entire, whole wide world, knew about it. 
The dresser never got its mirror; the fatal accident took away the master carpenter before he got around to it.

Shaky fingers now ran along the thick coat of dust covering the dresser’s surface. She marveled at the chiseled perfection of the intricate, decorative carvings. It was almost like that day, years ago, she could feel the same excitement building within her as on the day Baba revealed the dresser’s secret to his little girl.

Her hand reached out automatically to the last row, corner-most drawer. It slid open smoothly. She felt about the false backing at its end and traced out the slight gap in its panel. Pushing it gently sideways, her hand moved deeper into the secret compartment behind the drawer. Her fingers moved around and wrapped onto a palm-sized object covered in cloth. Heart beating, she withdrew her hand, bringing out the stashed hoard. It was a cloth bag; she recognized the cloth - Ma's old cotton saree. She tugged at the drawstring and peered inside the bag pulling out a perfectly polished wooden orb. What on earth was this? It felt heavy. She shook it; something shook within. But the orb was completely smooth, how did one open it? And how did this come into her poor Baba's secret drawer? Should she smash it open or should she let it be?

Nervously she switched the ball from one hand to another. The sun was almost down and the room was getting darker by the minute. She peered intently at the object, now shining her mobile-torch on it. She could discern scores of tiny alphabets in Bangla script on it. At the bottom she could decipher some words that made sense; it was her father’s writing!

It read:

The mighty fall but rise again.
Now what on earth did Baba mean by this cryptic message? And how was she to tell her Baba even if she knew? Aroo racked her brain hard...mighty-fall...did, did, did Baba mean the mighty Oak tree that had fallen and risen again in the form of his labor of love - The wooden dresser? She shone the light on the orb and looked over the random alphabets engraved all over it. Searching desperately, she found what she was looking for.

ত্ত – ক্ (Oak in Bangla) 

The two alphabets were next to each other! She ran her little finger over the alphabets, pressing them gently and with a soft click, the orb popped open.

Tucked inside a small piece of muslin was a fistful of the brightest red rubies she had ever laid her eyes upon. The treasure of her ancestors that had been lost, long-long ago!  tale her Baba never tired of telling her. A tale of lost fortunes and hidden treasures. Her Baba must have found it while clearing the fallen oak tree. A treasure that had been hunted for generations, now lay in her palm.


Disclaimer: The above story is a work of fiction. All characters and places are a figment of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any character living or dead is purely coincidental and unintentional. 
The image used in the story is for representational purpose only.

 The above story was shortlisted in the top three in the #StoriesInArt contest held by Tell-A-Tale.

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