Before he died, Karamuva was the best tree climber of the village and the clusters surrounding it. He loved to clamber up anything green with stalks and leaves, planted to the earth and capable of withstanding human weight. From ground zero, he could race to the top of the canopy within seconds, rubbing shoulders with the mint fresh growth and hanging on to tender shoots like a feather. His horizontal movement above the land was equally breathtaking. Part trapeze artist and part gibbon, he flitted effortlessly among branches and trees in seamless locomotion.
Few fruits grew on those lands that were untasted by Karamuvah but his heart harboured a special love for jamuns. Being part of an enormous household whose children were perennially scouring the pots for more food, he had turned to the juicy purple-black berries to quench his pangs with a vengeance. Come summers and he would tie two large pouches to the left and right of his waist and disappear into the dense foliage of jamun trees that lined the meandering road to our village. In contrast to the clamour of the ground-borne children armed with stones and sticks, and the lesser climbers on the branches below making do with small change, he moved quietly from clump to clump at dizzying heights, balancing precariously on tapering boughs. All this while the black bulbous berries would find way to his right pouch and the less perfect ones in shape and ripeness would vanish to the left. Within an hour or so, he would be moving around with kilos of jamuns, fit enough to feed a king and his party. He would then descend softly with the adroitness of a squirrel, careful not to lose even a shriveled one from his booty. Many times, his descent was wrapped in mystery as he was known to have returned to the earth several trees away than the one he took the way up. Karamuva had elevated the humble act of plucking jamuns into a fine art not often witnessed in humans.
Every time Karamuva returned to the earth from these sorties he was mobbed by the boys. Smiling broadly, He would share the exploits out of his left pouch, trying to be judicious in his charity. After the hullaballoo, he’d produce some really good ones for the girls standing around; it was clear he had a soft corner for them. Being a girl, my sister immediately qualified for the plum juicy ones. But since we used to be the guests from the city, come to spend the summers in our paternal village, he’d gingerly pass down better stuff to me too from his right pouch. We soon learnt from our cousin that Karamuva would sell off the finer berries in a nearby market and sneak off to the nearby town to watch ‘films’. Once, he pushed me to pay a two rupee note for a part of the premium lot. But his conscience got the better of him and he came to our house to restore the rupee in the evening.
It was not as if Karamuva had never taken a false step in his myriad simian escapades. In fact, he had slipped countless times off the unshapely boughs and broken stalks but he had always managed to catch hold of a life-saving twig here or there. Yet, there were times when he had fallen straight to the terra firma after knocking around in the trees but he had almost always landed on his astonishingly rubbery feet, smiling away his wounds like a weather-beaten warrior.
No one in the village believed it was possible to master the trees the way Karamuva had without the intervention of unnatural forces of this Earth. My cousin Indar firmly held that Karamuva was being watched and guarded by a colony of ghosts that had haunted the jamun trees alongside the street since times immemorial. He had an easy explanation for the uncalled for benevolence of the ghosts towards Karamuva. Some years ago, when Karamuva’s father met his untimely end after being bitten by an angry cobra, his soul had flown straight to the legion of ancient ghosts. It was the father who had managed to earn the good wishes of the unrequited spirits in his son’s favour. How else could a human glide like that among the trees as if treading an invisible web spread under his toes? Other children were only too eager to corroborate his theory, adding a few quirky twists of their own.
We didn’t come to know about the fall for one long year as the communication channels were not very different from the Stone Age in those days, and that was not such a long time ago either. But, by the time we returned to the village for our annual summer escapade, the manner and reason of Karamuva’s fatal fall had assumed the status of a legend with several contrasting versions. Many children swore that he had stolen money from his poor mother to repeatedly watch his favourite film ‘Sholay’ for an entire week, thus upsetting his father’s ghost who had caught him by the toe and hurled him to the ground, ensuring he landed skull first. Then there were some, including our cousin, who held that Karamuva had coaxed a girl years older to him up the jamun tree to kiss her on an afternoon full with dust devils. It was a damned nasty thing to do for a thirteen year old boy and he couldn’t have chosen a worse moment than that. No wonder the colony of ghosts in the jamun trees had felt endlessly outraged. So they first shooed away the idiot of a girl who leapt to the ground miraculously and ran for dear life. Then they hung poor Karamuva upside down in mid air before dropping him to his gory end in the same state.
Many years later, after I grew up to have a family and a car of my own, I was driving through the neighbouring districts of my native town in a sweltering May afternoon. It was that time of the year when the first batches of jamuns had already started mellowing on the thick umbrellas of trees. Sure enough, the bitumen-starved road to Lucknow was pock-marked by the splattered purple berries here and there. Thick with the memories of the childhood summers, jamuns and the legend of Karamuva, I was feeling tempted to stop by the roadside and pick a few of them just as I would do in the good old days. My wife and daughters were dozing deeply on the rear seat and they were least likely to object to my earthly craving. However, my reverie was being punctured again and again by a spanking new Volkswagen Polo, which it seemed was being driven by several nincompoops who would stop and change the driving hand every few miles. They would fall back with every stop but would rush to overtake me quickly.
As I started passing through a sparse market alongside the highway, my eyes lit up when I noticed a wiry boy desperately trying to sell jamuns to the passersby. I thought it was best if I stopped and indulged myself in an old pleasure, reminiscing the long bygone moments. It would also put enough distance between us and the idiots driving the Polo who were getting intolerable by the minute. The boy was charging ten rupees for a bunch of jamuns put in dry leave cones and I took only one, aware of the disinterest of the others in the berries. When I could not find a lesser denomination than a hundred rupee note in my wallet, the boy rushed to the nearby hutments to get the change. I kept waiting for him for the next five minutes, the engine of the car running. Just as I started to think he had conned me for good, he emerged from somewhere and came back running to the car. I looked long at the dark, scar-marked face of the boy as he stood with a bunch of ten rupee notes in his hand extended towards me. He wore a tea-shirt of indeterminate colour and a pair of trousers with lop-sided legs.
“What is your name, boy?” I couldn’t help asking.
He snickered nervously, “I am Karamuva!”
I couldn’t believe what I heard. I must have kept staring blankly at him for a long time.
“Here, take your change back,” the boy broke my trance.
“What did you say was your name, again?” I wanted to confirm what I’d just heard.
“Why, Karamuva, sab!” He half sang it in annoyance this time.
“Fine, Karamuva!” I said, trying to steady my breath. “You can keep the change.”
It was his turn to get shocked and gawk at me with a gaping mouth. I propelled the car ahead.
Immediately afterwards, the potholes gave way to a newly laid patch of asphalt and I pressed the accelerator with gusto. However, barely minutes into a decent drive I thought I saw a giant tree lying astride on the road ahead. As I moved closer to the spot, I could make out the huge trunk filling the entire road with its dense branches and foliage. Suddenly, my pulse quickened as I caught sight off what appeared to be the rear of a car, peeking from right under the prostrate trunk. As I parked my car to a side and ran towards the spot I could see countless pieces of broken windshields sprayed all over the road along with bits of plastic interspersed with a rich crop of jamuns. ‘O, my God! O, my God! O, my God!’ That was all I could think! It was the very same car, the Volkswagen Polo, that had been driving neck-to-neck with us minutes earlier but all that could be seen now was a barely recognizable mass of jumbled, twisted metal. It must have happened seconds before although I was sure I’d never heard a thud or a roar of a falling tree probably because I had the music on. Flattened to mid-riff, it sat very squat, compressed amazingly low into the road. The bonnet had ripped open and its contents had lodged into the trunk to become one with it. The car had probably met the falling tree bang onto its face and the roof. A pale green liquid had started seeping out of what was once the front of the car and mixing on the road with the deep scarlet streak oozing out of the driver’s location. With a sickening heart, I realized that nothing much could be attempted there without a crane and a rescue team with gas-cutters.
‘Accident! Accident!’ Someone shouted behind me. I looked back to realize I was no longer alone there. Another car had come to stop along with a state transport bus. I could see many people running towards the wreckage now.
Even as some men started tugging away at the old knotted branches of the tree, my thoughts were all a whirlwind. I looked towards my car which was neatly parked to the side of the road and realized how perfect in shape it was, its contours shining in the sun; and how beautiful its inhabitants looked standing on the road now gesticulating madly at me, mouthing words that I could not comprehend. Suddenly, the image of Karamuva flashed before me with a stunning clarity and his face smiled broadly as he extended jamuns from his right pouch towards me. I almost caught myself extending my hand to receive them and shook myself out of the daze with vigorous jerks to my head. I wondered whether I had been dozing and dreaming it all while I had driven. I felt my tongue thicken and realized I was perspiring. I ran towards my car and jerked open the front door only to find the jamuns still stuffed in the cubbyhole under the steering wheel.