The Great Cashew Tree Raid
When we were children, time was malleable, a thing to be played with. Lazy mornings spent filching grass, roots and all, from nearby fields to feed our pet-like cows, afternoons devoted to play, our spacious backyard tangled with supple brown limbs, the heavy damp air filled with young shrill voices peaking with calls of abuse at errant siblings and whoops of schadenfreude filled joy when one of us won. Our poor overworked mother was often out of the picture, and we children were left to our devices. This suited us just fine; the older ones would soothe her feelings of guilt away with quick promises while the youngers listened on eagerly.
Freedom. Of course, the risk of mother waiting by the river side as we returned panting and dripping from a swim across the river, flooded and swift flowing, was always there. But, we children were unconcerned with thoughts of punishment or beatings. We lived in the moment. And if the moment required us to swim the fast flowing river near our house for the sake of a bet? Then swim we would. It was the best version of freedom I’d ever known.
This life of quick decisions was paved with several (mis)adventures. Even when we were caught, which we were several times for we didn’t care about consequences then, our fear never reached the fever pitch of that summer of 1967. I was 10 and my younger brother and partner in crime was 9. The corner of Kerala we lived in at that time was crowded with fruit-bearing trees and lush greenery. Kuttapan’s courtyard had a luxuriant cashew tree we’d been eyeing for a couple of weeks now. Kuttapan was a sad-eyed, stumpy classmate of ours. Our efforts at friendship, the precious cashew tree always in the back of our minds, were met with uncomprehending noises. Kuttapan was perhaps not entirely altogether there?
Why ask? We’d just take it. Thus was hatched The Grand Cashew Tree Raid. We’d sneak in early in the morning, before the sun rose. Climb the tree and lay claim to the fruits of our ceaseless scheming. We decided one evening, tomorrow would be the day. I wore a cotton shift with deep pockets to bed. My brother, being an early riser, woke me up at 3:30 am the next day. Rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, we crept into Kuttapan’s backyard. The once familiar landscape was dark and foreign to us, leaves glistening and rustling darkly, ominous creaks and croaks surrounded us. We whispered words of support to each other, nothing but crickets and toads. Once we reached the cashew tree, all our fears were all but forgotten. We scrambled up its massive trunk and took individual branches, deciding earlier that a divide and rule policy would translate to more loot. I picked one of the lower branches and made my way carefully towards to outer reaches for the prize. Brushing away a particularly persistent branch, and slapping away bugs that landed on my arms, I filled my pockets with ripened cashew nuts.
There was a particularly tense moment were I felt my balance disturbed by the very same branch again while returning. The fear of being caught red-handed kept me nimble and we finally found ourselves at the base of the tree, whispering madly. We ran to our rooms, not caring for stealth anymore, our veins pumping adrenaline. Finally! We did it! We hid away our illicit stash and returned to bed, hearts thumping away in reedy chests.
The next morning, there was a crowd of people in front of Kuttapan’s house. We tried to walk by nonchalantly, but we were rattled. What was happening? Had someone seen us? My brother and I locked ourselves in our room and look at each other, fear and misgiving curdling in our stomachs. No way they’d have found out about us. No way two kids (9 and 10 we told each other, not even in high school!) would be sent to jail for a few cashew nuts! Even mother looked saddened while serving us breakfast. What happened, we asked, sweat beading our foreheads. ‘Kuttapan’s father, Mathai, hung himself from the cashew tree yesterday night. They found him today morning. The poor boy.’ mother said. I sighed with relief inwardly, so it wasn’t us.
I turned to my brother, and watched his relief turn to horror as it dawned upon him too. That persistent branch, that deceptively soft flesh like persistent branch… we ran to the fence adjoining Kuttapan’s backyard. There he was, policemen squabbling around his feet, arguing loudly about proper protocol. I had brushed aside a dead Mathai’s foot from my head.
The thought made my scalp itch.
‘You’re going to be haunted by his ghost now’, my brother cried. This was worse than being caught. My breath came in short gasps, I felt I would drown in the humid morning air. ‘Let’s ask Babu.’, my kid brother said. Babu, all of of 13, was our sage, our holy man. ‘hmmm… there’s only one way, you need to drop mustard seeds on his grave.’, Babu advised us looking a little spooked out himself. ‘Now, whenever, the ghost wants to haunt you for disturbing his remains, he’d encounter the seeds on the way out. Counting these seeds would keep him occupied him till the sun rises, by which time he would have to return to his grave.’ It was a sensible plan. Still, we lay in bed that night, wide awake
The next afternoon found us at Kuttapan’s father, Mathai’s funeral with two anna worth of mustard seeds in a little packet with a carefully cut out hole in it. Kuttapan stared into the freshly dug out soil. I tried to compose my face into an appropriate expression of grief, holding the steadily lighter growing mustard packet. My brother watched out for me. The funeral passed by in a haze.
We walked back home in silence that evening, relief loosening the tight knots in our chest.