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Monday, August 26, 2013

The Hanging Tree

One doesn't need to go far to look for stories. You can find many in your backyard itself. Searching for my roots, I have found several. And the one I am working upon now, began the way many have, with a question. What could impel a man to travel hundreds of miles from his birth place and embrace an existence completely alien to the one he had always known?

The man in question was my grandfather, who made a huge leap when he changed his religion and adopted a completely different way of life.

Of course, when I embarked on my exploration, I realised that whatever answers I might find could only be conjecture. But this is what fiction is all about. Facts that can be turned into story. Questions that sprout more questions, in the course of your quest to answer them. Questions that will continue to proliferate even after you've completed your book.

But where does this 'hanging tree' fit in, you may well ask? What is the connection? The fact is that my grandfather belonged to a nomadic community that roamed between three different villages that lay far north of my home town. When I was a young girl, despite my curiosity about his past, there was no question of my travelling to his home region, though the boys in the family did. Naturally, I eagerly questioned a boy cousin who once visited the village  nearest to us, and while narrating his experiences, he mentioned a place where they hanged criminals. Years later, a reminiscing aunt talked about this  again. Neither of them were very specific, or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, but I conjured up the image of a gallows.

Just a few years ago, I got a chance to fulfil my curiosity when I travel to two of the villages my grandfather had lived in. When we arrived at the first, enquiry led us to a deserted house. It was the kind common in the hills--slate roofed, double storied with narrow, carved doors and windows. The usual paved courtyard surrounded by a low wall enclosed it. But when all the pictures had been clicked, and we stepped out of the ruined gate to return to out car, a woman among the cluster of curious folk who had escorted us said in an undertone, 'There used to be a tree here, on which they hanged people.' A moment of astonished silence followed, during which I recalled the gallows I had imagined. A tree? Suddenly it felt more plausible. Then a man added, 'It was a surahi tree (a species of cypress). Someone chopped it down a few years ago.'

I recall feeling a little embarrassed about the presence of this hanging tree in my family history. Especially because the way this information was shared, with a smirk of macabre satisfaction. As if encouraged, another man pointed towards the river gushing below--'There are caves there where lawbreakers were imprisoned.'

At that time, I was working on my historical adventure novel Caravan to Tibet and part of the reason for the trip was to get a better sense of the locale I had set it in. But this new, somewhat gruesome information added a different dimension to my grandfather's early life.

There was a story brooding over the place the hanging tree had occupied. Some day I would write it, I thought. And this is what I am doing now, seeking answers to a new question. Can a hanging tree hold the key to an old, old mystery?
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