The human forms were not visible clearly as the sandstorm blew its part over the rolling desert land. It was a tiny village set in the northwest of Rajasthan. The gypsies set their caravans on the outskirts of that village. Their camels stood nearby. No one ever cared about the name of the place.
Bela was preoccupied with her doll: wrapping a red dupatta around it, putting it to sleep, and bathing it the very next moment. She never played with other children of the entourage. Walking with her feet delicately placed on the sand, she intently gazed at her footprints. The sand would blow them away.
The village had sparse grasses and few Khejri trees. Bela chose one and sat beneath it. The tree was almost barren. Few leaves hung on its branches. The fruits have all dried up, making them useless for human consumption. The lore had it that the tree was once an abode of an ascetic. The ascetic left and the tree was left with few leaves.
She studied the leaves with utmost dedication. After a while, she questioned her mother who was working nearby.
"Ma, why are there so few leaves on this tree?
"I don't know beta. Maybe it's dying."
"How come? See the barks are still strong. I think the tree is unhappy."
Her mother smiled back at her.
"Then what will you do now?"
"Nothing. I will play with it and it will become happy," assured Bela.
Her mother knew that Bela had always been a playful and kind child. She would often find her nurturing small birds and feeding tiny ants.
The next morning she brought her doll with her and sat underneath the tree. She would talk to the tree and sing songs to her doll. Then she started bringing other toys as well: a handmade boat, a string-drawn cart, and a few wooden utensils. She cooked for the tree and fed her doll. A gust of wind blew, and the leaves fluttered, nodding in acquiescence.
New leaves started sprouting in a few days. Other children joined Bela in her play. Initially, she disapproved. But with time she learned the joys of the company as well.
The children made a circle around the tree and sang folk songs they heard from their grandparents and parents.
It's been two months: the time for the gypsies to leave this place and move to a new one. The head of the group had decided to move to a happening place where their business would flourish. The village hardly had money to buy their camels or goods.
The tree was verdant with leaves and fruits. It had fodder for the animals and food for the gypsies. But Bela had to bid adieu to the tree. She hugged it and cried.
Years passed on. Bela grew up to be a beautiful woman. But she could never forget that Khejri tree. She decided to visit that place with her father since she didn't remember much about it. Only the calming breeze of the leaves was etched in her memory.
As she reached that village, she couldn't find that tree. She had forgotten the exact place. There were numerous such trees though their numbers have dwindled over time.
After a prolonged search, her eyes fell on the broken branches of an old Khejri tree. Only a few leaves remained of it. The branches were weak. She went towards it.
"Pappa, I am not sure if this is the tree."
"It doesn't matter. This place and memory do," her father said.
Bela hugged the tree and smiled. She remembered her friend: the days she played with it, the nights she slept under its shade. The wind blew. The leaves danced in happiness...
"I am a gypsy, you are a tree
with roots drawn deep within:
My wanderer's heart
seeks respite beneath
your caring retreat.
The earth that holds you
bear me as well,
the hands that made you
fashioned me as well.
You are a tree, I am a gypsy
doesn't matter anyway..."
By Nandini Sengupta