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Musings: Under the Tamarind Tree

By Bharti Kirchner Email By Bharti Kirchner
September 2020
Musings: Under the Tamarind Tree

Sweet, bitter, sour—that’s the taste of tamarind. Not only does it remind us of life, as the author found out, but it can provide comfort and teach us to face challenges with resilience.

The tamarind tree towered on an empty lot near our house in eastern India. It was more than 50 feet high and 10 feet in diameter, a massive specimen of Tamarindus Indica. Standing under its evergreen canopy on a hot dry day, the sun blazing above our heads, my friend Pree and I, both eight years of age, cooled ourselves. In the intermittent breeze, the feathery green leaves of the tree swayed and rustled, creating an ever-changing lace-like effect. But it was the dense branches loaded with greenish-brown pods that were of interest to us. Each capsule, about 5 inches long, contained seeds—hard, glossy-brown, and square-shaped. In this tiny town, with few opportunities to amuse ourselves, we played the “seed” game: How many seeds did a tamarind pod contain?

Pree pointed to a curved, rather largish specimen. “I bet this one has four.”

“You’re wrong,” I replied. “It has five.”

“Prove it.”

Thereupon I reached up, broke off the pouch from its stalk, opened it, and counted the number of seeds nestled inside. Lo and behold, there were six. Neither of us had won. The game didn’t end there. Once the encasing is opened, you must taste the pulp, which is, after all, the treasure this tree produces and what has made it famous. I worked around the shiny seeds, scraped out the soft, sticky, fleshy paste with a finger, and shared it with Pree. For a moment, we each savored the mouth-puckering tartness. Not enough. We tried another pod, with its texture reminiscent of dates, and another, until our overloaded taste buds could take no more.

Before returning home, I collected a few more of these gifts and took them to my mother, who knew just what to do with them. At dinner time, she tempered the sour pulp with dashes of salt, sugar, cumin powder and other spices to make a chutney. The zingy sweet-sour flavor, with a bitter aftertaste, complemented the meal and pleased everyone in our extended family. Judging by the expression on their faces, it aroused a mixture of feelings, sadness and ecstasy being among them. It even brought out the philosophical nature of my elderly aunt, Sonali.

“That’s the way life is, dear ones, bitter, sour and sweet,” she said to us children. “Never sure which one you’ll get when. Take it as it comes. That is what the tamarind tree teaches us.”

* * *

And remember I would that wise saying even decades later. Now I live in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather is cool and damp, with fog and drizzle our constant companions for half of the year. In dreary winter months, the sun seldom shows itself and darkness descends early. Still we consider ourselves fortunate. After all, we have ocean, forests, and mountains, as well as ideal conditions for growing a wide variety of edibles.
But a pandemic changes the game. Like a lightning flash, the novel coronavirus, a deadly, invisible threat hits the U.S. and devastates most of the nation. Even in our sparsely populated semi-rural region, we can’t be sure how to protect ourselves. Our movements are restricted. Fear and anxiety cast their shadows. Social distancing increases the physical space between us. Solitude becomes the norm, rendering our days soft and shapeless. We try to color them brightly. Some rebel against the isolation orders and venture out in public without a mask, considering their personal needs to be above the safety of others. Little do they realize they’re being watched by their neighbors, who might be mumbling under their breath: Be selfless. Be kind to others. Wear a mask.

During this grim period, we derive solace from philosophical words such as these: “We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”

Then, an unexpected bit of news shocks me. Anu, a community organizer, has contracted Covid-19. A middle- aged woman, she is beloved for her luminous face and a vibrant public persona. She could always be seen out there helping those in need. With relevant, often humorous anecdotes from her personal life to share, she is “real” with us. It is as though we’ve always known and understood her and vice versa. Before going into quarantine, she asks us to keep our spirits up. Reminds us that despite the physical separation we’ve been experiencing, we still “share the moonlight.” Her parting words reassure us: “Don’t worry. I’ll be back soon.”

A heavy silence settles over our community. Masked faces on the street hold wary expressions. The sunlight has a watery quality. I re-experience the taste of tamarind, which now has a bitter edge. Even so, recalling the warmth of the sun’s rays and the stability of the tree, I don’t let go of the hope of Anu’s return.

* * *

 

Upon finding a few spare hours for reflection, I went back to my childhood. This time, along with the story of Pree and the tamarind tree, I recalled that of Nan. She was a neighborhood girl, seventeen and pretty, her lips tinted purplish-red like a plum at its ripest. In between counting the seeds of a tamarind pod, Pree and I would notice her walking by. She would stop a short distance from the tree where the jungle began, spread a mat on the ground and congregate with her friends, three or so boys of her age and older. In what would become an afternoon ritual, they would share cigarettes, with insects droning above their heads. All afternoon, we were aware of Nan as she laughed, joked, and smoked with her buddies.

“Shouldn’t she be at home, doing household chores?” Pree asked me.

“I suppose so.”

“I’m convinced that Nan tells her mother she’s going to visit an elderly uncle or study with a friend,” Pree said.

I scoffed. Nan never did any of those things. Only Pree and I knew her secret. She seemed to have fun, this independent girl who violated local customs but managed to avoid retribution. We wanted to grow up to be like Nan. Mainly, we wanted to grow up. Then came a day when Pree and I played under the tree as usual, but Nan was not to be seen. The spot she and her buddies occupied remained empty. Only a single bee buzzed. What happened? The news came within hours. Nan had disappeared from her home in the middle of the night, quietly, with no sign of coercion anywhere.

My stomach churned. I stopped snacking on tamarind. “Has she been kidnapped?” I asked Pree.

“No, silly,” Pree replied. “She eloped with one of those boys, not of a good sort.”

“Will she ever come back?”

Pree couldn’t answer. Nan never returned. The police had searched everywhere and concluded that she’d been killed. An arrest was made, although her body was never found.

“What do you expect?” said a neighbor. “She was a bad girl.”

How could someone vanish without a trace? How do you handle their absence? Pree and I returned to the tamarind tree, a constant in our lives, more such questions arising in our heavy hearts. I overheard an adult explaining it this way: Feel the loss but move through it. Healing will follow. Within a few months, my family and I moved to another town. Although I adjusted to my new locale, it was not the same. We did not have a tamarind tree in my new neighborhood, nor was Pree there to play with me. Even at that tender age I realized I’d have to deal with the changing nature of life.

* * *

Back to the Pacific Northwest: Anu is recovering. She has had good medical support and made excellent progress. If for a moment, we breathe more easily. Questions and answers fly in our community.

“Will she ever come back among us?

“How could she not? She’s so spirited.”

“But will she be the same?”

“Who could say for sure?”

Before too long, Anu returns. We catch her on a Zoom meeting, looking as fresh and alive as before. The pandemic isn’t over yet. Although we’re out more, we still must weather a crisis that could go on for years. I visualize the tamarind tree, with its lacy leaves, and the sun playing on them. I feel the weight of the pulp-laden pods and re-live the sweet-sour taste in my mouth. By its constancy, by being a symbol of comfort and
resilience, the tree has taught me how to face most situations with equanimity.
Aunt Sonali’s voice echoes in my ears: “Take it as it comes.”

 



Bharti Kirchner’s eighth novel, Murder at Andaman, will be published later this year. She’s the author of seven previous novels, four cookbooks, and scores of articles and short stories. She can be reached at bhartik@aol.com. To comment on this article, please write to letters@khabar.com.

 

 


 


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