It was a warm, clear August morning; few remnants of the monsoon clouds scumbled the powder-blue sky. The shrine had opened several hours ago, although there hardly seemed to be anyone around apart from a frolicking black topaz-eyed goat–its owner unseen–and three middle-aged men in rumpled white kurta-pajamas disembarking from a Toyota Innova. It was still too early, perhaps, for people to thread their way towards a shrine in middle of the Rajasthani country-side, no matter how exhaustive their lists of favors to cadge from the higher forces.
A teenage boy in gray trousers and long-sleeved plaid shirt stood behind the shrine, evidently having assumed responsibilities as both the priest and the shrine caretaker; on meeting us, he asked no questions but responded readily to ours. Watching him laconically talk about the shrine, I was unable to place the expression on his face: boredom or indifference? Perhapshe perpetually wore this expression, his only accessory. When I requested him to tie the sacred saffron and red thread–a talisman– around my wrist, he did so, ensuring the knot was tidily secure. “It will only fall off when it has to,” he remarked even before I had asked.
A lean, diminished woman in a green sari prostrated in front of the shrine, alternately singing and rapidly uttering incantations; her eyes remained fastened shut throughout, seemingly possessing no volition to open. Her husband, presumably, silently sat next to her, almost as if he had happened to be in her proximity merely by chance and, thus, bore her no recognition. It was only when she began to sob, the music of her singing having disintegrated into bald sounds of desperation, that he laid a comforting palm on the small of her back, as if to remind her that he still existed and was part of that world which she so urgently wished a respite from.
Beyond the shrine, a monsoon rain-fed pond glimmered, occasional islands of shine speckling the pond’s otherwise mirror-hard surface. Trees stood ankle-deep in the water at edges of the pond; they looked awkward and uncomfortable, ostensibly appreciating the sudden invasion of water in their midst, yet simultaneously resenting it for having disturbed the existing landscape. For me, though, it was serenity post-carded and I stood by the wall looking down at the pond, reveling in the scene’s seeming inviolability: the pond, the trees, and the hillocks girding the pond, plumed with startling green bursts of monsoon foliage.
Glancing upwards and beyond the hillocks, I then noticed the clump of four acacia trees, extravagantly festooned with yards of candy-hued ribbons and metallic tinsel: they looked like surreal Christmas trees blooming in the desert. I wondered if these trees bore any relation to the many other such similarly dressed trees I had encountered during my travels in Rajasthan. I had bestowed the appellation of wish trees upon them: trees bedecked with tinsel-fringed red ribbons, threads, and jewelry, the branches laden with innumerable wishes and yearnings of those who had reposed their unwavering trust and faith within their sacred embrace.
“What are those trees?” I asked the teenage priest while he sorted out the prasad an elderly man had just offered to the shrine deity.
“Ghost trees,” he replied, after a pause. “Once people have been exorcised of ghosts and spirits that possess them, they toss these ribbons and garlands onto the trees.”
I instinctively turned around and began to walk towards the trees only to find him urgently calling out to me.
“You shouldn’t go near them,” he blurted out. “No one ever goes near them.”
“Why?” I asked. “Ghosts aren’t there anymore. They have all gone away, right?”
“But still…” His voice faltered, as did his expression; he then almost immediately regained his authority. “You just shouldn’t go there. If you want, you can still look at them from here, though,” he added.
Suddenly, although noon was yet to come upon us and the sunlight was still new, I found myself imagining the trees by night, especially on a full-moon night. I saw the tinsel of the ribbons glittering in the ivory moonlight, the trees themselves dark and indistinguishable beneath the mass of ribbons that lived within their branches. Unlike the wish trees, which were accustomed to bidding farewell to one fulfilled wish after another, the ghost trees seemed crammed with tenants that had no other place to go apart from these very branches. And yet, the trees– too ironically enough–had become pariahs themselves through the very act of giving shelter to these spiritual pariahs. For some reason, although I still wanted to see the trees up close, I found myself impelled to go no further. I merely gazed at the trees from the distance, noting that they were still in sufficient intimate proximity to the shrine whilst standing in a clump of isolation.
“I wonder what the other trees make of them,” I said, half to myself; the teenage boy shrugged, suspicion briefly clouding his eyes before turning into relief at the thought that I had not decided to commit the transgression, after all. “Well, can I photograph them, at least?” I asked. He nodded and having been convinced that I would not venture towards the trees, he returned to assume his responsibilities at the shrine, stoking the faith of the many that now lingered in front of the deities.
After photographing the trees, I made my way toward the pond below. I stood by the water, inspecting the jagged inroads it had made into the soil and the yellow tufts of blossoms that the trees had shed, which now littered the surface of the water. Near the pond, I then noticed that a tree stood inside a circle of white-painted stones: sun-bleached images of Hindu divinities and tinsel-fringed saffron flags were planted into the dried mud banked around the exposed tree roots. Here, the tree was a shrine in itself, eliciting, and indeed, bestowing faith and trust – and yet, meters away, a lakshmanrekha of fear and mistrust encircled the ghost trees, preventing them from ever being approached. Through no fault of their own, they had become repositories of apparent spiritual detritus – and were condemned for it. Yet, they nonetheless continued to live and thrive with dignity.
As I bade farewell to the shrine, my eyes strayed towards the ghost trees one last time: they now appeared to clinically survey me just as I had surveyed them earlier and when I turned my face away, I could feel their gaze briefly linger upon me, questioning before assuming indifference.
Priyanka Sacheti is an independent cultural writer based in Pittsburgh. Educated at Universities of Warwick and Oxford, United Kingdom, Priyanka grew up and previously lived in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. She has published numerous articles in various publications with a special focus on art and gender. She’s author of three poetry volumes and two of her short stories have been published in international anthologies celebrating Indian immigrant writing. She was also the co-founder of a Muscat-based grassroots art initiative, Khayaali. She curates her visual world at her blog: http://www.iamjustavisualperson.blogspot.com./