The woodcutter

The relentless morning sun shone brightly in the clear blue sky, and the warm summer air shimmered in a mirage over the asphalt road across the courtyard. Sweat ran down the wrinkled forehead into his cataract ringed eyes, and the cotton shirt turned sticky as he entered the front porch. Wiping off the sweat, he wrapped a cotton towel around his forehead and dragged the equipment into the courtyard.

Ten minutes later, he was sitting under the shade of the old Mango tree. “I am getting too old for this.” he told himself through the panting, “God, just give me the strength to complete this one last job.” Looking up at the spider’s web of branches spreading out in all directions, he reminisced about the warm afternoons and the cool evenings when the expanse of their shade had provided relief to the entire village. He was proud of that tree. It was a thing of admiration and beauty. People from surrounding five villages spoke at great length about the famous Mango tree in his courtyard. “They will hate me for this old man,” he talked aloud, “But you know it has to be done, don’t you?” The entire structure shook slightly in the warm summer breeze, silently signaling its approval.

Clearing his throat, he prepared the batteries and gave the behemoth one last look.

He held the chainsaw up against the thick trunk and pressed the button, drowning out all the sounds in the deafening roar of the machine. ‘Grrrrr….’ the stainless-steel blades rotating at over 10000 rpm cut through the wood like butter, spraying chips in all directions as the tree creaked it’s dying breath. Within a couple of minutes, the old relic came crashing down, only a thick stump remaining in its place. It was more than 50 years ago when he had planted the sapling along with his father.

“It hasn’t grown yet,” a seven-year-old boy had come running back into the house.

His father had put down the newspaper, “It will take time, son. We planted the seed only yesterday.” There was a mischievous smile on his face.

“So….”, the boy started counting in his head, “Will it take a week?” the question was asked with some apprehension.

His father couldn’t help but burst into laughter. But he checked himself when the boy’s face turned a deathly grey.

“Will it take a month?” the voice suddenly turned high pitched, and his father found the frail arms were now tugging at his trousers, “Please don’t say it will take a year? Will it take a year? Will it?”

He picked up the boy in his arms and walked out into the courtyard. “It will take more than a year. Maybe three, maybe five, maybe ten.”

The boy looked aghast by now. “Hey,” his father tried to imitate a cheerful expression, “Now, don’t go all sad on me. Listen, some things just take time to grow, like this tree. It will take some time to grow. But one day, you will thank me for this.”  The words seemed to disperse some tension from the boy’s forehead.

“Now go out and play, and buy yourself some kulfi.” His father handed the boy a one rupee note, which instantly let the tree and its rather long growth phase slip from the boy’s mind.

“Now, the real work begins.” Presently he thought, as the chainsaw came to a grinding halt, and the old memories went back into the pandora’s box. Putting the exterminator away, he took out his trusted, double-handed ax and started cutting off the branches one by one.

In the early days, loggers primarily used axes to do their job. A team of lumberjacks would use long, specialized blades to bring down giant trees in the Himalayan foothills. But by the time he entered the industry, chainsaws had been introduced, turning all the processes automatic. Nonetheless, the people he went to work for still taught rookies how to bring a tree down and cut it up into uniform pieces with just an ax. “If you don’t know how to use an ax, you are not a logger. You are nothing but a man with a machine !!” he still remembered his instructor’s words.

Starting with the thickest branch, he worked in a slow, methodical manner by first removing the leaves and then hacking off the useless branchlets. There was stiffness in his hands as he worked on a tree after many long years. He had last worked on a logging assignment before Rakesh entered college. “Papa, you are too old to continue this job anymore. You should retire and take it easy now.” Rakesh had insisted, and unfortunately for him, everyone else in the family had agreed. A week later, he retired in a glorious ceremony in the company-owned farmhouse, with a trophy for lifetime achievement and standing applause for his last speech. After a  month, he moved back to the ancestral house in the village with his wife.

After completing the initial filtering, only the main trunk and some thick branches remained, while the rest of it got discarded on to the side. It was quarter past 12 by then, and he started to go back and eat when he noticed one of the neighbors at his fence.

“Namaste Sameer Bhai, how are you?” he rested his dirty hands on the fence and gave Sameer a curious look.

“Asalaam Wailakum Bhaijaan, I am good. How are you?” He couldn’t help but notice the anxiety beneath Sameer’s cheerful tone.

“Fine, fine. What happened, you look a little tense?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering….” Sameer’s gaze drifted for a second towards the pieces of wood lying where the spectacular Mango tree should have been. “..about the tree?”

“Oh, yes. I cut it down.” He replied matter of factly.

“But it was planted by your father, all those years ago….” There was a hint of sadness in Sameer’s voice.

“Yes. It was.” The conversation no longer interested him, “I needed wood for some project.”

“A project, in these times?” Sameer doubt was palpable. There was no work on the market, while the disease ravaged the economy. Add the fact that he was a retired woodcutter; finding a job during normality would have been near impossible for him.

“Its….,” he paused, “a personal work.”

“Oh, I understand. A man must keep himself busy with something during these tough days. Guess we will never have our usual evening chaupal in your courtyard anymore.” He added after a pause, “Once things get better.”

“Ah, yes. Once things get better.” This phrase has kept the people alive for the past six months while the disease ravaged the population and left every household weeping in its wake. ‘False hope is the only way humanity has survived plagues, droughts, wars, and even genocides. False hope is all we humans have.’ He remembered the lines he had read long ago in a General’s autobiography.

“And how is Rakesh?” Sameer’s question broke his line of thought.

He turned his face away, “You know how it is, Sameer Bhai….” he replied after a pause.

“I understand. Why doesn’t he come back here? The jobs have dried up in the city, and it is much safer here in the village.”

“They won’t allow anyone to leave the city boundaries. Fear of spreading the infection”, he gave a forceful shrug.

“Oh…” Sameer decided to hold back whatever he wanted to say.

“I’ll get going Sameer Bhai, I haven’t eaten anything since morning. Namaste.” he waved goodbye and walked away.

“Allah hafiz….” he heard Sameer call out from behind his back. As he entered the house, he looked back to watch Sameer, still standing at the fence with a dismal look on the face.

Two hours later, he was cutting down the wooden monolith into uniform pieces when a piece of conversation from the past came haunting back to him.

“What happens to people who die Papa?” the seven-year-old had asked one day.

“When someone dies, they turn into stars,” his father had given the usual reply, which most seven-year-old received when they ask tough questions to adults. “But only if they were a good person.”

The seven-year-old had nodded in return. It was good enough for his little mind for the time being.

This strange conversation played in his head countless times, while the sun settled down into its evening glow. It was dusk when he completed the job. He went inside the house to wash his hands and get some water when the mobile phone rang.

“Hello,” he spoke with hesitation.

“Am I talking to Mr Ghanshyam Das?” a female voice asked on the other end. He could have disconnected the call at that moment. He knew who had called, and he knew why they had called. There weren’t many reasons people received a strange call these days. But he had to be sure, for the sake of it. He had to be sure, even if it quashed the last semblance of hope in his heart. ‘False hope.’ He muttered under his breath.

“Yes,” he spoke into the headset.

“We are calling from the District Hospital in Lucknow. We regret to inform you that your son Rakesh is no more …..” The female voice droned on, “Infected ..…tested…… virus……. transmission…… tried our best……no cure…… “. The words made sense only sporadically, and everything else seemed to suspend in a vacuum as his soul floated through time and space, re-watching all the memories which spanned more than two decades, wishing it could go back to the times when it wasn’t there for him, silently wishing he could relive it all, and regretting the fact that he could have been a better father but never was.

“Sir, sir, Mr Ghanshyam Das, Sir.” Finally, the female voice was able to bring him back to reality.

“Yes.” He replied after a pause, wiping away the tears with the back of his hand.

“I need to know if we should dispatch the body on our own, or should we send it to this address the patient had mentioned?”

He looked out into the courtyard as the voice on the other end droned out his village’s address. “Yes, the address is correct. You can send the body. All the preparations are in place.”

He hung up the phone and went out to the front porch. The sky had turned purple already; nightfall was approaching fast. 

Walking out into the courtyard, he proceeded to sit on the thick stump. A wooden pyre had been constructed next to it, made up of Mango wood. The stars slowly came out, in the zillions. It was a beautiful sky, and he couldn’t recall the last time he had seen so many stars. He lit up a cigarette and continued to watch the starlit sky as more and more of them came into focus. And then he wept.

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