Not That Kind of Indian

It’s the oldest oak tree in the neighbourhood, or so the previous owner told me and I have no reason to doubt him. It stands 50 feet high, and like the iron pillar of New Delhi, so wide that you cannot put your arms around it.

But it wasn’t looking too healthy, and so i called an arborist ( Apparently, that is what the tree removal guys are officially called) to see about getting the tree taken out.
He introduced himself. “Jack.”
“Shyam,” I said, shaking his hand.
“How do you spell that?”
I spelled it for him, knowing that the spelling wouldn’t really help him with the pronunciation.
He gamely tried again,”Sham,” and then asked me, a bit irritably I thought, “Where are you from?”
I was tempted to say, “From Peoria,” just for the heck of it. Instead I replied, “From India.”
I nodded, and we stood there for a moment, nodding and smiling.
That was the conclusion of that part of the conversation and we turned to look at the tree in the front yard.
“What do you think?” I asked, hoping that he would inform me that all my neighbors were wrong, that the tree was, in fact, on the threshold of a major revival.

He looked at the tree, his right hand shielding him from the sun. I saw a squirrel fluttering on a high branch. Squirrels in America are huge, I thought, not for the first time. The other day, I’d surprised a squirrel that had found its way to the garage. It looked me in the eyes and made a barking sound. I was, I have to tell you, a bit intimidated.

The expression on the tree man’s face was not very reassuring. “It’s dying,” he said, flatly.

I pointed to the green leaves, a bit like a patient’s relative, pointing to the heart monitor hoping that the blips are a harbinger of the patient’s recovery. But the arborist shook his head, “Those are just suckers, they happen when the tree is dying.”

How much? I asked. To remove the tree.

He looked at it. Stood back and looked at it some more.

“About $2400,” he said.

“$2400,” I repeated. I had long ago stopped converting dollars to rupees in my head, but still did it occasionally when I wanted to experience a sense of mild shock. Imagine that, I thought. 100,000 rupees to get this tree out. Unbelievable!

When I first left India, and moved to England, to take their licensing exam so I could work there, I happened to run into B one of my classmates from bangalore medical college. He was beaming broadly, looking on the verge of some ecstatic experience. Guy must’ve passed his exam, I thought to myself.

“Hey, watsup?”

“Man,” he said gesturing with his chin to his hands. He was carrying some heavy looking shopping bags. “Got 2 pints of milk for 40 p,” he said.

Soon I was finding similar joys in the supermarket. What? Fish fingers for 10p today? Baked beans for 15 p? And could that be just 5p? It was canned tomatoes, but I could put it to use.

Most of us had a budget of 40 pounds a week. Every penny (50 paisa in Indian currency) counted.

So it was a measure of progress, I suppose, that 10 years later I stood here outside my house in America, wondering whether I should get rid of the tree at 100,000 rupees a pop.

“You could leave the stump in,” Arborist Jack was saying. “There are guys who will come here, carve something out of it. You know animals, bears and stuff like that.

Or,” he suggested, “they could make you a totem pole.”

“I am not that kind of Indian,” I replied.

July 28, 2008 | 9:14 am | By Dr Shyam Bhat