Our Gulmohar Tree

Unlike all the other big words I learnt in my third standard classroom, I learnt the word ‘development’ one evening at the school playground. The playground was not really a playground; it was just a wide open space of red mud with two huge mango trees and a majestic Gulmohar tree that together formed a triangle. These trees were very important to us because as village kids you tend to make use of sticks and stones more than penalty cards and dice. When we played ‘Hide and Seek’ the Gulmohar was the ‘Den’, when we played Blind Man’s Bluff the trees were our boundary, we’d even drawn 3 wickets in red chalk on the tree trunk for our cricket matches.

We were a big group of kids who got together every evening at the Gulmohar tree to play; my friends, my brothers’ friends, our neighbours, their cousins and their cousins’ friends. One evening we were playing ‘Hide & Seek’ and everything was going off well, until I peeped out of my hiding place to look at a white Maruti Omni that drove into our playground. I got spotted for popping my head out and so I climbed the gulmohar and waited for the others to get caught. Three men stepped out of the Maruti. Two average looking men and the last guy was short, grumpy and looked important. The small man scanned the area, his eyes darting from the road to the school to the trees.

Our school principal, Sr. Flora joined these men and they started discussing their “plans”. Though I did my best to eavesdrops, I only heard words like “structure”, “permissions”, “slabs”, “develop”. I didn’t have a clue of what they were talking about, but with all the pointing the small man did I knew it meant something big was about to happen. Half an hour later, the principal and the 3 men shook hands and parted. One to the convent, three drove off and we continued our silly games.

Summer began which meant we spent more time around the Gulmohar tree than at home. The men in the Omni made regular visits over the next few months. A parent-teacher meeting was organised one evening on our playground. There was quite a buzz about it around the village, everyone was trying to guess what the school was planning on doing. On the day of the meeting, a pendal was built, speakers installed and mikes checked “hell-oh..test..1..2..mike check..hello”, even the new plastic chairs from the school assembly hall were brought down and arranged in neat rows. Like most events in our village people came in early to grab a seat but it’s actually because they had nothing better to do. There were mats laid out in the front and my group of friends and other kids were sitting there cross legged and fidgety.

*Photo Courtesy -http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/gulmohar/Interesting

Our principle, the 3 men from the Omni and the head of the Parent-Teacher Association sat at a long table covered with a white table cloth and 5 glasses of water standing in a line. Our Principle spoke first, welcomed everyone and said what we were to discuss today had been well thought out and in the interest of all, more importantly that there were snacks and rasna to be served to everyone after the meeting. Then Mr. PTA-head said that it gave him great pleasure to announce the plan to build a ‘sports complex’ of international standards. Confused, the audience was quiet; some of the children sitting next to me mumbled in konkanni, not the response Mr. PTA-head had pictured. Our principle began to clap and nod her head in approval and then like the plague the applause spread throughout.

He then went on about how the school believed in an all round education where studies and sports were given equal importance. The management and staff nodded their heads in agreement we kids, just looked at each wondering whether we’d heard right. Mr. PTA-head then said that for years, our students have been denied the opportunity to quality sports equipment and infrastructure. This time all my friends and I nodded our heads. It was time, he said, that they have the support, the training and the facilities to pursue their dreams.. to pursue a career in sports! The crowd erupted in applause.

I don’t remember what exactly the Omni man said because he was talking in numbers and dates and something about a poor chap with square feet. The meeting ended after an hour and all the villagers stood in line for their snack while the children ran around excitedly at the thought of a fancy sports complex and also because of all the sugar in the rasna we drank.

A week after the meeting my brothers and I went on a three-day summer camp to south Goa. We were so jumpy on our ride back, waiting to meet our friends, waiting to awe them with our spectacular stories and brave adventures; only to be struck speechless by what we saw or rather didn’t see. The Gulmohar was gone. All of it, they didn’t even leave a root behind. The shock and pain that pierced through our souls cannot be explained. All my friends felt angry and cheated, I wept more for the tree than Heidi cried when she was forced to leave her beloved mountains!

Eleven months later the sports complex was finally inaugurated with similar settings – techni colour pendal, big speakers, plastic chairs and lots of orange rasna. Our local MLA cut the red ribbon and gave a speech about the sports hall being a great initiative, about moving forward and how he was thrilled to have a five star sports complex. As an eight year old, I was familiar with the starring system and if Miss Blanche ever gave this grey block five shiny stars she’d better have given me seven for my somewhat cursive handwriting. If you looked at it from the top (you know like you look at your Barbie house) it was a rectangular box with some shutter windows. The borders of a badminton court were painted in white on the cement floor and there were 2 poles that held a net across the center of the hall. There was a table tennis table, a couple of chess boards and two separate changing rooms for girls and boys.

When it first opened it was so new, we were scared we’d break the glass panes hitting a six. Over time we found it small, hot and claustrophobic, so we abandoned it altogether. Thirteen years have passed since that bloody sports building was inaugurated and I can say with confidence that more people have done illegal stuff in it than actually played some sport.
During the construction period we were forced to find another playground. We shifted to the fields but that didn’t work out too well because the ground wasn’t smooth enough for cricket and the farmers didn’t like us running over their precious crops. We then had to cycle all the way to the church grounds but that was far and we were always treated like aliens invading someone else’s sacred playground. Eventually our evening ritual of playing died out and we hung out with the TV. When we did play, we did so in smaller groups and treated that sports complex like we treated Rupesh, the boy who had snot all over him, – acknowledging his presence but never bonding with him.

Cover Picture Courtesy – Dinesh Valke