Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Wood for the Trees (2009)

This story is set in India but the style owes more to the early stories of RyĆ«nosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese writer I was reading at the time I wrote the tale. It was published in my TALLEST STORIES collection in 2013. The idea that people marry trees is not an invention, however, but something that does actually happen in certain circumstances. I have hugged many trees in my life but never married any of them...

I’m stopping at Jitvapur now, so I might as well tell you a story connected with this place. Jitvapur seems no different from any other little village in Bihar, which as I’m sure you know is the poorest and most rural district in India, but appearances can often be deceptive.
Just like certain bridegrooms…
Not long before my arrival, there was a wedding here and everybody took part with the gusto typical of such happy events. Needless to say, Jitvapur is a very traditional community and all the customs were strictly observed to ensure a fruitful and fortunate marriage. Even the most absurd superstitions were carefully heeded, so that destiny would have no compelling reason to cause trouble.
The name of the bride was Amrusha, the groom was called Rakesh, they were healthy young people well suited to each other, and everything seemed in its proper place as far as anyone could tell, so a prosperous life together was warmly anticipated by all. There had been a small problem at the beginning of the arrangement, due to the fact that Rakesh was a manglik, but that was sorted out now.
A manglik is a person born under the astrological condition known as mangal dosha. In other words the planet Mars was in the second, fourth, seventh, eighth or twelfth house of the Vedic lunar chart when the individual entered this world. In India the condition is widely believed to be extremely bad for marriage and if a manglik marries a non-manglik the outcome is certain to be death or even divorce! The government of India has repeatedly attempted to discourage this superstition but in regions as remote as Bihar it persists strongly.
Two mangliks may marry each other safely because the negative energies will cancel themselves out. But Amrusha wasn’t a manglik. On the contrary, her horoscope was impeccable. So her match with Rakesh was dangerously unbalanced.
Nonetheless there exists a solution to remove the difficulties. If the manglik submits to the ceremony of kumbh vivah, in which the manglik marries a banana tree or a peepal tree, all the bad luck will be neutralised. Bizarre as it may sound to our ears, people in India do still marry trees, and in fact a famous actress did so just a few years ago. You have probably seen her photograph in newspapers even if you haven’t sat through any of her films.
Anyway, Rakesh had endured the kumbh vivah rituals and married a tree, so the final obstacle to his union with Amrusha had been removed in the approved fashion. He was first taken to the tree in a baraat accompanied by dancing villagers and hired musicians and many of his cousins sang songs to him along the way. Various rites were performed by purohits and he saw that the tree was already decorated as a bride. After the couple were pronounced man and tree the feasting began and the guests offered shagun to Rakesh, which he gratefully accepted.
A ‘baraat’ is a marriage procession in which the groom rides on a horse to meet his bride, while a ‘purohit’ is a wise scholar with a comprehensive knowledge of rituals, and ‘shagun’ is a unit of good luck usually wrapped up like a parcel in a blessing. But Rakesh already knew all that…
Clearly I am explaining for your benefit alone.
That was how his first wedding went and because of its success Rakesh was ready for his second. His horse was a beautiful and noble steed and the musicians played even more sweetly this time and the singers sang with even greater devotion. There was a pervasive but unspoken feeling that this occasion was more authentic than the other and that Amrusha was somehow a more deserving bride than the tree. She certainly looked radiant when he approached her and dismounted.
Suddenly this touching ceremony was disrupted by an intruder…
“What do you think you are doing?” demanded a voice that was powerful and yet insubstantial, as if it issued not from a mouth powered by lungs but on the surfaces of leaves rustled by the wind. Rakesh glanced up.
“I am getting married to Amrusha,” he answered weakly.
“But I’m your wife!” cried the tree.
There was a lengthy pause and everybody involved in the procession shuffled their feet and looked down at the ground, too surprised to even gasp or jump back, but Amrusha kept her nerve and gazed without flinching at the uninvited guest. She decided to explain the situation as clearly and concisely as possible.
“Yes, you are his wife, but only in a symbolic sense. Rakesh is a manglik, you see, and he had to marry you to make it possible to marry me. It was never intended for his marriage to a peepal tree to be taken seriously…”
“A peepal tree? A peepal!”
And now a large branch dipped down with a handful of twigs at its end bunched into a fist and this fist came to rest under the quivering chin of Rakesh. “Bigamist!”
The bridegroom wasted no time in taking to his heels. He ran towards the horizon, his feet throwing up clouds of dust that failed to hide his escape route. With a furious sigh, the tree set off in warmish pursuit, because anything too hot in a wooden lifeform might start a lethal fire, but Rakesh already had a notable headstart. First the tree tried to mount his horse and ride off after the errant husband, but the horse associated the shade of a tree with a rest period and refused to budge. So the tree had to rely on its own motive power. Instead of using its exposed roots as legs, it fell to the ground and began rolling at high speed like a gigantic pencil across a sloping desk. If it caught up with Rakesh it would probably crush him.
It was only at this point or even a little later that the wedding guests realised the tree was a banana.
Amrusha was shocked. “What a scoundrel he was! It seems I’ve had a lucky escape. Good riddance to his kind!”
Because of the distance and fading light, it soon became impossible to see the two receding figures and nobody got to learn if Rakesh reached the safety of the mountains to the north. Perhaps he is still running and the banana tree still rolling. Amrusha remains upset by the whole affair and is still unmarried, but that’s hardly surprising bearing in mind that these events took place only a week ago…
Yes, when I arrived at Jitvapur the story was extremely fresh, even though one of its elements had gone off. It would be hypocritical of me to apologise for that pun, because I intend to deliver another. Where I come from, when a human couple get married they say ‘I do’ to each other but trees only say ‘I would’. That’s a fact.
I did consider calling this story ‘Would for the Trees’ but that play on words seemed inappropriate because none of the characters speak fluent English in public, not even the tree. I’m fond of literary conceits but I do have limits. Having said that, this text does contain at least one other trick, a deliberate deception.
The truth is that I’m not really stopping over at Jitvapur right now. In fact I’ve never even been there. Which makes leaving in the morning much easier.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

An Inconvenient Fruit (2010)

This very brief story is the first in a sequence of absurdist tales featuring a protean character by the name of 'Thornton Excelsior'. The stories were collected in a volume called The Lunar Tickle, one of my personal favourites of my books. The stories tend not to be based on empirical logic but on the logic of word and ideas association. As I have said elsewhere, this is quite a common technique with me.

It is unknown how Thornton Excelsior obtained the peach that destroyed the world by flooding it with juice. He simply doesn’t remember; the catastrophe was so immensely unexpected that it wiped his memory clean. He sat on his porch on a rocking chair and bit into the flesh of the fruit. And that was that.
Once the restraining skin of the peach was broached, the juice inside exploded outwards. The pressure of the spurting liquid jettisoned the fruit out of his grasp and it soared over the horizon and into the sea. The waves lapped themselves like cats made of milk. If he hadn’t been sitting on a rocking chair the recoil would have killed him.
The juice spread across the surface of the ocean. Already the slick was larger than a province, a state, a federation. Thornton was aghast; it’s not something that I recommend, being aghast, but you are welcome to try for yourselves. Sweet sticky juice rising inexorably, pouring over dykes and into flood plains. Inundation!
Presidents, kings and generals pointed the finger at him. They made an extra long finger by welding iron tubes together and poked him with it. He recoiled and hid under a table; but the steadily rising liquid forced him up the stairs and finally into his attic. The hollow finger followed him. Then it spoke; a voice vibrated out of it.
“Thornton, old son, don’t worry about a thing. Those presidents, kings and generals are superfluous and will come to a sticky end. But I have taken a fancy to you; and I will save you. I command you to build an ark, a vessel that can sail the tide of juice and keep you alive until the crisis is over; but this ark mustn’t be made of wood or fibreglass or other conventional shipbuilding materials. To surf a global juice surge, only one substance is proper: planks of frozen clotted cream! Do you hearken to me, Thornton Excelsior?”
“Yes, yes! But who are you?”
“I am Zesto, the God of Fruit. Do what I command and all will be well. After forty days, give or take a month, the juice will recede and the ark will settle on solid ground. Then you may rebuild civilisation from scratch, or if not from scratch from itch. You may also found a religion in my name.”
“Must I take one pair of every beast?”
“Animals on a ship made of clotted cream… Don’t be silly!”
Thornton constructed his ark and it floated on the juice without sinking. The voice that lived in the tube never came back, not even when there was a violent storm. But Rosie O’Gassy said, “What the hell am I doing in this paragraph? I’ve never even existed as a character before.” And Thornton Excelsior answered with a smile:
“You don’t expect me to save humanity on my own?”
He was the first of the dessert fathers. His ark went rancid a long time ago, so there’s no point looking for it; but I won’t stop you if you insist. And Zesto put a giant banana in the sky to symbolise his promise that the world would never again be drowned in juice. There’s a pot of yoghurt at the end of it, supposedly.
As for the presidents, kings and generals: they were impeached.