Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree
- by Nibedita Sen -
The moment I swallowed the pret, I knew I should have taken my grandmother’s advice. Never yawn under a banyan tree, she used to warn me. A ghost might jump down your throat. Well touché, grandma. I’m sure you’re shaking your head at me in heaven, but consider this: Was it really fair to expect me to believe not just that ghosts were real—and lived in banyan trees—but that they liked to cannonball down people’s throats?
It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, either. After months of sighing about her lack of grandchildren and leaving copies of matrimonial magazines where I would find them, my mother had finally persuaded me to meet a nice young Bengali (Brahmin) boy—the son of the sister of the chartered accountant of one of her colleagues in the Fixed Deposits department of the State Bank of India. “Let him buy you lunch,” she implored. “Just give him a chance. And if you happen to start comparing horoscopes, that’s fine.” Now, I could have told her it was pointless, but a free lunch didn’t sound so bad, especially once I got to texting with the nice young Bengali (Brahmin) boy and he suggested the new fusion cuisine place on Ballygunge Street. We Bengalis don’t have a food of our people so much as we are the people of food, you see. Visions of five-spiced baby potatoes tossed in vegetable oil and fish croquettes with mango mustard were enough to make me quickly text back: How about Saturday?
His name was Rahul, and he was nice, young, Bengali, and a boy (and Brahmin)—four of which were fine and one a deal-breaker. Not that I was about to tell him that when he was buying me lunch. At least not over the main course, which was pork vindaloo with wilted greens. I’d picked it because of the four red chili peppers next to it on the menu. It’s hard to discuss horoscope compatibility when you’re both breathing very hard and drinking multiple glasses of water. Look, I wouldn’t be a single twenty-year-old female academic if I wasn’t good at this, okay?
Unfortunately, Rahul was a persistent one. He patted his sweaty face with a napkin and took another swig of water. “Soooo,” he panted. “What do you, uh, do?”
I fingered my phone, mentally wording my restaurant review for Zapple, where I’d recently gathered enough points to make it from level 10 Super Foodie to the coveted level 11 Epicure. “I’m a junior research fellow at Jadavpur University. I spend all day with my nose in a book. I’m not very social, really.”
“I’m also a terrible cook. That’s why I eat out all the time. Which is why I’m fat. But hey, hey, hey, you know what they say, the best things in life are edible, right? Haha. Hah.”
“I, uh, see.” His face had taken on a strangled cast. My plan was working. I almost felt bad, but you can’t take any chances in the matchmaking-avoidance game. Then his phone rang and we both subsided a little with relief. “I’m sorry, it’s my tutor from the third of my four chartered accountant extra preparation classes. I need to take this. Excuse me for a moment?”
“Sure,” I said. “In fact, be right back myself.”
Just so you know, I don’t make a habit of yawning underneath banyan trees. This isn’t because of my grandmother’s warning, but because there just aren’t that many of them up in North Calcutta. The banyan tree just outside the restaurant was a grand old specimen, though, some fifteen feet of knotted branches reaching for the sky. It had a full head of dangling roots whose hairy tips nearly brushed the street.
This was where I decided to stand and smoke a quick cigarette, to prepare myself for the rest of the ordeal. This was also where the combination of afternoon sun and the rice I’d just ingested began to work their magic on me, and I yawned. I yawned so hard the rickshaw-wallas sitting on the pavement by their line of rickshaws looked at me askance.
And the pret jumped down my throat.
It tasted faintly like chicken samosas and Tetley tea. I swallowed, and then promptly burped in astonishment. The rickshaw-wallas clicked their tongues at my unladylike behaviour. Hand over my mouth, I wondered if I had any spare antacids in my purse. Then the pret began making itself comfortable. I dropped my cigarette and dashed back into the restaurant, blowing past Rahul at our table before he could open his mouth.
The restaurant only had two single-occupancy toilet stalls tucked away in an alcove in the corner. I’d figured out what was happening at this point, so I sat in one of the stalls, underwear down around my sandal straps, and began looking up exorcisms on my phone. It was at this moment, as I scrolled through the unhelpful annals of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, that the pret first spoke:
“Order the cumin seed crème brûlée for dessert,” it said. It had a quavering, faintly peevish old-man voice. “And an order of pecan rasogollas. And some rice pudding, too.”
The pret, I realized in horror, was Bengali, too.
Someone knocked on the door. “Meena?” Rahul called. “You’ve been in there a while. Everything okay?”
“Weak as milk-rice, that boy,” said the pret. “You can do better.”
“I’m fine!” I said. “Totally fine!”
“Should I just go ahead and order dessert?”
My search had finally turned up two promising results: a temple in Rajasthan and another in Gujarat. Both still performed exorcisms for the princely sum of five thousand rupees and three boxes of chickpea-flour-and-sugar sweetmeats. The money was supposedly for the priests, and the sweets for the gods, but I had the sneaking suspicion the sweets, too, would end up going down the priests’ gullets the way the pret had gone down mine. Five thousand rupees was a month of my stipend—and Rajasthan was at the opposite end of the country (and Gujarat was a vegetarian state, so that was out of the question). I concluded that you couldn’t put a price on a ghost-free digestive system, and pulled up the number for the temple in Rajasthan.
The pret clutched me in panic, somewhere around the region of my diaphragm. “Wait!” it said. “Don’t do it!”
“Give me one good reason,” I wheezed once I’d recovered enough air to form words.
“Meena? Who’re you talking to?”
“They’re going to cut down my banyan tree! I have nowhere else to go!”
“Not my problem,” I said, but I felt a twinge of compassion despite myself. Or maybe it was just the pret pinching my liver.
“You don’t understand! This tree used to stand outside a stable when I claimed it! Then they went and turned it into a restaurant and I’ve been in agony ever since. Do you know what it’s like to be able to smell fenugreek fish steak wafting up into your branches all day when you haven’t had the ability to taste anything corporeal in five hundred years?”
“I guess I’ll just go back to our table . . .” Rahul mumbled outside.
It was a good thing I was in a toilet, abode of sudden flashes of brilliance, because one struck me just then. “What if I save your tree?” I said to the pret. “Will you get out then?”
The ghost went quiet as it thought this over. “Fine,” it said, grudgingly, “on one condition.”
“You order the crème brûlée. And the rasogollas. And the rice pudding.”
Well, this date was already a disaster. I could live with Rahul judging me for eating three desserts.
I dreamed of my grandmother that night. She floated at the foot of my bed in a perfect Lotus pose, wrapped in her favourite cotton saree. Her plump bare feet were tucked up against her knees and her gold-rimmed spectacles glinted in the light from the street. “What did I tell you?” she said in the sepulchral tones of the fond and ever-disappointed Bengali grandparent. “Never yawn under a banyan tree.”
I was ravenous that morning—well, more than usual. I devoured sixteen of my mother’s golden, fluffy curry puffs and two plates of potato curry, making her squint suspiciously down her nose at me. “Do you have worms?” she asked. I deigned not to answer, but left the house with the pret’s satisfied lip-smacking in the back of my mind, and the thought that we were going to be spending a lot on groceries if I didn’t exorcise my unwanted guest soon.
Rupsha Majumdar had been my classmate in my undergraduate days. More to the point, she was now a junior sub-editor with the Times of India. We’d arranged over texts last night to meet during her lunch break at the Coffee House near Presidency College. It was the first time in a month I’d seen her, and my heart expanded three sizes as I laid eyes on her dimpled face. She pushed her sunglasses up her forehead, put out her arms, and hugged me. My heart shimmied to a catchy Bollywood number as I inhaled her lingering aroma of coconut oil and peach lip balm.
“How’ve you been?” she said.
“Mmmmmrf,” I mumbled in reply.
“So this is why you were so eager to help me,” the pret said sourly.
I thanked every god in the Hindu pantheon that no one else could hear the ghost speak. Once we were ensconced with coffee and kabiraji cutlets, I broached my plan. “Rupsha,” I said, “I need you to help me save a banyan tree.”
Give Rupsha her credit; she didn’t so much as blink. “Tell me more.”
“It’s the tree outside that fancy fusion place in Ballygunge—you know, Rhapsody. The owner wants to cut it down because it attracts birds, and the birds poop all over the pavement in front of his restaurant, including sometimes on his customers.” To my credit, I knew this because I’d stopped to talk with the man on my way out. I had a food critic from The Statesman here last week, he’d raged. Plop! Birdshit all over his glasses and down his expensive FabIndia kurta! He was so distressed he didn’t even order dessert! “What do you think? Can you make a story out of this?”
“That depends.” Like any good journalist, Rupsha had the ability to produce a pen and notepad from nowhere. “How old is this tree?”
“At least seventy. I found these photos of Ballygunge Street from the 1940s in the National Archive, and it’s in there.”
“Ooh, I don’t know—seventy’s only good for a couple paragraphs on page twelve. We’re a cricketing nation, you know—you have to bat a century before people sit up and pay attention.”
“I hear you,” I said, “I hear you, but consider this: banyan trees are thought to be sacred in our culture. There’s even that legend that they’re the abode of ghosts.”
“Point taken. Page ten.”
“Knows how to haggle,” said the pret. “I like this one.”
Rupsha shook her glossy, Amla coconut oil-scented head. She sucked on the end of her pen, exposing her two perfectly white front teeth with the little gap between them, and my heart moved into the “now we run at each other in slow motion” section of the Bollywood number. “Page nine,” she said, “and I’ll make sure it’s not next to the classifieds.”
“Yes,” I said in a daze, “yes, anything you want, whatever you—son of a pig.” The pret had seized me somewhere in the gastro-intestinal area and made like a washerwoman wringing water from her sheets. “I mean, uh, page seven and I’ll get you five hundred signatures on a petition. Deal?”
She thought about it for several moments, during which the pret and I held our collective breath. Then she smiled her dimple-stuffed smile and a layer of dirt evaporated from the tables and walls of the Coffee House, the servers stood up straighter, and the remnants of my coffee reheated itself and began to steam invitingly.
“Deal,” she said, “but these kabiraji cutlets are on you.”
“Celebration!” said the pret. “Order a second round!”
It’s not hard to get five hundred signatures in the second-most populous country in the world. I dropped a casual hint that it was anti-national to cut down a sacred symbol of our culture, and the saffron-clad Hindu fundamentalists fell over each other in their haste to click “sign.” At some point, Bhetan Chagat, the romance novelist who’d shot to fame with his recent hit, One-Fourth Wife, shared it on Twitter. After that, it was only a matter of sitting back with a plate of mutton biryani and watching the numbers tick upwards on my computer screen.
“So many people care about my tree!” said the pret. It sounded a touch choked-up.
“Sure,” I said, “let’s go with that.”
My phone buzzed, making me drop my fork. It was Rupsha. My stomach tilted from one side to the other, and not because the pret was disapprovingly shaking its non-corporeal head. “You dilly-dally like a Hindi soap opera,” it said. “Just tell her how you feel.”
I ignored the ghost and answered the call. “Good news,” I told Rupsha. “The petition went viral.”
“I knew this churel in Beckbagan once,” the pret reminisced fondly. “She had beautiful backward-facing feet and a belly like a huge clay pitcher. Her tusks were the envy of every ghost in town.”
“Bad news,” Rupsha said. “I talked to the restaurant owner. He has a permit from the municipal corporation to take down the tree.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “I mean, literally impossible. You can only get permission if the tree’s blocking some kind of civic construction project. A stranger on Quora told me so!”
“Fiends!” cried the pret. “Blackguards! Fusion-cooking crème brûlée-hoarding tree-killers!”
“He must have bribed someone,” Rupsha said on the phone. “But there’s no way we can prove it.”
“That settles it,” I said. “I didn’t want to resort to these kinds of tactics, but it seems he’s left us no choice.” I wouldn’t have had an excuse to involve Rupsha if I’d gone straight to this, but that was beside the point. I shoved my plate of Biryani aside. Phone clamped between my cheek and shoulder, I pulled my laptop to me and brought up my Zapple user page. “This is what I’ve been training for all these years. I’m sure my 1,250 followers will be very interested to hear what I have to say.”
Rupsha laughed delightedly in my ear. “You know,” she said, “I’m really impressed that you did all this, Meena. I knew you were a history buff, but it’s great to see you’re so interested in current events, too.”
I took such a sudden gulp of air that the pret hiccoughed in outrage as my stomach tightened around it. My fingers stalled on the keyboard. “Y-Y-You mean it?”
“Be more assertive!” said the pret. “Sit up straight! Two spare tires are no reason to slouch!”
“Of course I do. Hey, we should go get dinner to celebrate once the article’s out. I don’t think we’re going to be welcome at Rhapsody anymore, but I know a great Thai place on Lower Circular Road that does a mean red curry. What do you think?”
“Say yes!” shrieked the pret. “Red curry! Pad thai!”
I didn’t even need the ghost jabbing my spleen to spur me into action this time. “Y-Yes,” I stammered. “Yes!”
Rupsha’s article came out on page three of the Times of India. In it, she wove a touching tale of neglected history and tradition gone unvalued, the ancient tree standing tall in the ruthless face of modernity. She even managed to get a quote from one of the rickshaw-wallas, saying the tree provided shade for them to nap in while they waited at the curb for passengers.
The owner of the restaurant publicly recanted his plans to cut down the banyan tree, though not before a flood of negative reviews took over Rhapsody’s Zapple page and reduced its rating from a 4.8 to a 0.2. Saffron-clad fundamentalist Hindus strung the tree’s branches with marigold garlands to celebrate its new lease on life, and passersby took selfies with it. One of the stray cows that wend their way through South Calcutta’s streets wandered up to the tree once the crowds dispersed, thoughtfully ate the marigolds off the tree, and dropped a steaming pat of dung on the pavement. The owner tore his hair and gnashed his teeth, but didn’t dare so much as shake a fist at the cow in case the fundamentalists turned on him for disrespecting a sacred animal.
Rupsha and I stood by the banyan tree later that evening. “Well,” I said significantly out loud. “This is it.”
The pret swirled reluctantly in my stomach. “Will you come see me sometimes?”
I couldn’t help but feel sad, now that the moment was here. The pret wasn’t so bad, for a stomach-snatching supernatural being. It shared my appreciation for food. We’d even been in agreement that biryani with potatoes in it was the best biryani: the most important test of any person or spirit’s character. “Sure, I’ll come visit.”
“Wow, Meena,” Rupsha said. “I had no idea this tree meant so much to you.”
The pret departed my gut with a tug. I burped again. The rickshaw-wallas shook their heads at me in renewed disapproval, and Rupsha passed me a strip of antacids from her purse. The pret settled into the uppermost branches of the tree. I caught a brief glimpse of it, limned in streetlight; long, bulbous nose, and hair-fringed skull. I heard its last words echo down to me, no longer inside my belly, but elongated, audible only to me. “Take her out to dinnneeeeeeer . . .”
Well, I wasn’t going to argue with that. And my newly non-haunted stomach, freed of its incorporeal inhabitant, was starting to rumble. I turned to Rupsha. “You hungry?”
© 2017 by Nibedita Sen
Nibedita Sen is from Calcutta, and a 2015 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She accumulated a number of English degrees of varying usefulness in India before deciding she wanted another in creative writing, and that she was going to move halfway across the world for it. These days, she does grad student things in Illinois while consuming copious amounts of coffee and videogames, and making far too many lists. She can be found on Twitter at @her_nibsen.