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Photo Credit: Arju Sanjel      Instagram: @ArjuSanjel@artbyarju

When my grandpa was still a boy, the peepal tree stood tall on the chautara. The three circular stone steps leading to and surrounding was the resting place for the people of the village. The shadow it cast provided shelter from the scorching heat to the villagers and passers-by. The people returning to, and from the city rested to their heart’s content on the chautara. The tired passers-by, who were often hungry when they arrived at the chautara, ate the lunch they carried in their backpack. The peepal tree, although stood alone on the mid-hill, was never actually alone. The people resting on its lap always provided its company and the peepal tree reciprocated the favor. And even when no one was sitting with it, it was in the hearts of many who had had the chance of passing by.

Fifty years later, the village has now turned into a bazzar. The once six distant houses are now in the hearts of the six major toles. Our house, built by my grandpa, is one of the old houses- a magnificent old beauty. People look at it and tell tales of how the house was built.”The stones were carried from a village nearby, the woods from a forest nearby- around an hour and a half farther.”Grandpa had even managed to bring transparent glasses during one of his visits to the city. For years, the house was known as Sisa Ghar– the glass house.

Grandpa had probably sat on the lap of the peepal tree as he tired on this return from the city. He must have lowered very carefully, his prized possession, the glasses on the steps of the chautara. The shadow and the cool breeze a welcome relief. A much-needed rest. He must have taken out the boiled eggs from his khamdaani– tiffin box, peeled off the shells, dipped it in a pinch of salt and gobbled it up in a bite. His home was not very far now. He could rest. A two-and-a-half-hour journey and he would be home.I can vaguely remember grandpa telling me the stories of his travels. And, he never failed to mention the peepal tree. The peepal tree always stood two and a half hours away from home. And grandpa was grateful for it. He had an unspoken relation with it. It was his friend. A friend that was always there. Whenever he recited his stories, a different glow came to his face as he reached the chautara and ate his tiffin. Just as it did in his youth, the memory invigorated him in his old age.

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Last year, on the day of his birthday, I accompanied grandpa to the peepal tree. I carried, in my backpack just as grandpa did, some boiled eggs and a bottle of water. Grandpa, who was in his sixties, was still quite strong. Early in the morning after a heavy breakfast, the two of us left home. Each of had a ghangeru cane.
“Remember little-man; always use a cane when you travel.”
” I will always use this Ghangeru grandpa.”

It was midday with the sun high in the sky. The day was bright and the surrounding was radiating. Far-off you could see the blue hills with jungles and a few houses here and there. The blue sky and the blue hills were in a perfect marriage. The green hills in the foreground added further to their beauty. The silvery line at the base made the scene even more captivating. The river looked marvelous from the chautara on the hillside. The green rice fields in the basin with a narrow path running through it looked equally beautiful.

A little man was standing on the edge of the chautara with a sturdy cane in his hand. Nearby a small herd of goats were grazing the green grass. Every now and then, the little man shushed at the goats as they went astray into the barley field at the side. The little man brought the herd to the chautara every day, but today he was also there for himself. He was expecting his father to return from the city beyond the blue hills.

The sight of a humanoid silhouette on the path in the green rice fields excited the little man. Seeing those silhouettes made him euphoric. One of the silhouettes would be his father returning from the city. His father would bring him gudpak, which he would eat as he shepherded the goats.

About half an hour away was a tiny two-storied house with a thatched roof. That was where the little man lived. Today his father would be back, and although the house was not as huge as it was in the city, it was what he called home. It was his home. It was their home.
Throughout the day, people would pass by the little man and the chautara. There would be porters, travelers, and fellow villagers; some going to the city, some returning from it. Finally, almost at dusk, his father would arrive. His father would rest on the stone steps of the chautara gracing the cool breeze and taking time to catch his breath. The father and son would then head home. The little man, with a cane in one hand and a packet of gudpak on the other, would run excitedly in front of his father. Every now and then, he would use the cane to guide his goats.
“Be careful little-man. You may fall down. I do not want to see your mother angry the very day of my return. Walk with me little-man.”

Thus, began our hike to the chautara. For grandpa, it was a journey into the past, into his memories. For me, it was something I would cherish for the rest of my life. The steep, uneven, stony path we took that day was indicative of the realities of human life. It was life’s way of telling me, it is not all going to be smooth.

Grandpa had handed me a ghangeru stick just as he had to my father and his father had to him. In this journey, we both needed a cane and, in life’s journey, I would need a cane too. I did not know it back then but grandpa had given me a valuable lesson.

Along the way, as we came downhill through the hillside forest, we came across the remains of a small two-storied house. Algae and ferns ha covered it and only its structure was apparent. It looked almost like a tiny bust by the hillside. As we reached it, grandpa stopped by it. His cane firmly fixed on the ground, grandpa stared at the apparent bust. He remained transfixed as I noticed his watery eyes. Still, those eyes had a sense of delight about it.
As grandpa gazed, probably, to the days gone by, I busied myself to playing with the touch-me-not and jumping around. As I touched yet another touch-me-not and giggled at the amusement, grandpa came to me.
“Are you done playing with the lajawati, little man?”
“Touch it, grandpa. Touch it, touch it.”
“Little-man, when I was a little man like yourself, I used to spend hours playing with the lajawati.” grandpa smiled.
“How far is the chautara grandpa?”
“Not very far now little-man. It used to take me about half an hour from here. Let’s see.”

After almost an hour later, we reached the chautara. The peepal tree looked glorious with its lush green wide canopy casting a huge shadow of relief and reinvigoration. The minutely audible sound of the leaves raffling, the faint sound of the river flowing at the foothills synchronized perfectly to arise a feeling of calmness in the passersby.

As the cool breeze touched our skin, a feeling of exuberation ran through us. Then came the realization that we had made it, that we had reached grandpa’s peepal tree. As I sat on the stone steps of the chautara by my grandpa, I felt something I had never felt before, an overflow of calm and joy and I could sense the same in grandpa too.

Grandpa had countless memories here as a village boy and as a traveler from the bazaar at the hilltop. As a boy, his eyes had mapped the blue hills, the silvery river, and the narrow path through the green fields. And as a man, as a traveler, he had traveled through them. And the chautara had been his resting place- the peepal tree a constant in all of his journeys.

From my backpack, I took out the eggs and the water bottle, peeled off the eggs and gave one to my grandpa.
“Here grandpa…an egg…just like you used to have.”
“Little-man, do you have some salt too?”
“Yes, grandpa. Here.”
“Did you bring these from my youth or my childhood, little man?”
“I brought it from the market, grandpa. And mother made it.”

After the lunch, I napped on grandpa’s lap. When I woke up it was almost dusk, grandpa had been patiently waiting for me to wake up. Unlike the hustle and bustle of midday, it was eerily quiet at the chautara. In the absence of the birds chirping and distant animal noise, the sound of the leaves and the river was not the same. In the distant, dark hills had laid claim as the sun accepted defeat. Darkness was taking over.

“Little-man, it’s time. We have to return home.”

As we left the chautara, grandpa took one last glimpse of the peepal tree. And as we turned our back and headed home, I could see tears roll down grandpa’s eyes.

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