In the folds of banyan trees, between the treeish world and ours, are markets. Real markets, not the pale human sort that happen every week, as if things that are worth buying happen every week. A banyan market occurs one day a year, which is as often as trees are willing to entertain on such a lavish scale. And once a year is just barely enough time to make the stuff that trees dream of.
– Revathi Kumar, ‘Markets: A Beginner’s Guide’
• • • •
“Can I speak to your mother, please?”
The man at the door was the colour of dead roses. Dark red fading to ash at the pointy bits. Lavanya got the impression he had a lot of pointy bits, snaking out and seeking around.
Lavanya glared. She tried, rather. It was hard to look at him. Something drifted across her cheek, a cobweb maybe—one of the increasing number of things she and Appa were leaving undone around the house.
The man was saying something.
“No,” Lavanya told him, unhearing.
She shook her head for emphasis, and slammed the door for clarity. Just in case, she made sure to bolt all three bolts—even the top one that she could only reach if she dragged a dining table chair to the door and stood on it.
Lavanya scrubbed her face hard to get rid of the cobwebs. She didn’t talk about the man. Not when Amma woke up and asked what she’d missed. Not when Appa came back, rattled his keys in the keyhole, and found them inadequate. He panicked at once. He banged on the door and yelled for Lavanya and Amma. He rang the bell. Five times, six times, eighteen times. Then he went back to yelling and banging.
Lavanya said nothing, since she was busy dragging the dining chair back and standing on it and unlocking the top bolt. And since—unlike Appa—she wasn’t trying to wake her mother up.
When he was finally in, Appa bustled around putting Amma’s marigolds in vases. He gave Lavanya a long lecture on responsibility, furious and acerbic at being left to lurk on his own doorstep for a whole three minutes and forty-two point three seconds.
The dead-rose man seemed unimportant.
Lavanya didn’t mention the man later that month at Megha’s birthday party, when they turned the lights off and whispered spooky stories in the dark. Everyone had a story or two: coincidences, deaths, creepy friends-and-relations (it was Lavanya’s opinion that Swathi’s gross neighbour uncle ought to be in jail), rotting places, electronics that seemed to have personalities. When it was Lavanya’s turn, the man hovered in the front of her mind.
The words that came out of her mouth were different: “I threw the organic waste in the pit at the end of our road, yesterday morning. You know, next to the dead-end banyan? And I swear, it twitched at me.”
Technically, it was a T-junction banyan, but no one corrected Lavanya. They nodded, eyes alight. Everyone loved the dead-end banyan. This was a story so old, so often-told, it was practically the fifth member of their little gang.
“Banyan, huh? You should be worried,” Megha said. “Remember in the second standard? When it flicked a root at my nose? That tree is hungry all the time!”
“The hungriest!” Revathi agreed. She was their grossness specialist, the person who could turn nebulous fears and momentary misgivings into long, revolting stories that gave them all nightmares.
“Banyans have a special taste for human bodies. They like to savour people for months. They will marinate you in your own digestive juices. And then slowly, slowly, they’ll inch over you. A nibble here, a cut there, some slurping, some licking. A dash of your mind, pinch of your toes. Bit by decomposed bit. Sometimes a tree will eat a person for a full year.”
“Ew!” Lavanya said. She knew her lines.
“We’ll look out for you on the way to school.” Swathi patted Lavanya kindly. “It might eat you, but your spirit can’t be digested so fast. You’ll be hanging off the tree while the rest of us are worrying about portions.”
“Lucky bum!” Megha said.
Megha’s sniggers were always contagious. They curled inwards and licked up the last of the cake.
• • • •
Not every banyan hosts a market. The clean-up itself is daunting.
Then there is size. The denizens of the other worlds will not step into just any tree—only the largest and sturdiest banyans can accommodate the sheer number of dimensions required to host a group of makaras out for a drink, or an apsaras’ night out. Personality counts, too. A really good market feels mellow, welcoming. Celebratory but not riotous: forest folk and rivers and cloud-yakshas and aurochs all eating and drinking and hobnobbing and bargaining.
These things take a while to coalesce, settle. One century, two. You need to be a real people tree.
Banyans are famously sociable. All kinds of birds and animals and insects hang out on them, under them, in the hollows and nooks of their trunks. Wasps are possibly the banyan’s most-trusted associates, for their entire lives are lived within its figs—hatching, eating, sex, death. (Kumar 34)
It was exactly a year later when the knock came again.
“Can I speak to your mother, please?”
“No!” Lavanya said. The dead-rose man went deader and rosier, and his ear hair curled into long dry-blood tendrils. Roots, maybe, ends tender and pink. They twisted in and around and replaced his eyes in a way that made Lavanya feel dizzy.
Lavanya slammed the door. Her mother was rarely conscious these days, and if Lavanya and Appa’s marathon bouts of Lavanya’s-Career-Options yelling didn’t wake her, then the brief door-bang was unlikely to.
This time she texted the group: Some creep at the door. . . wanted to talk to my amma.
Her phone pinged at once. Twice.
This was Swathi, and even if her name hadn’t been there, her default word would have made her presence clear.
tell ur appa!
Revathi, of course. Who hadn’t, in four years, told her parents about Swathi’s gross neighbour uncle, even though they were friends with him. She said they wouldn’t believe her.
No, Lavanya replied, jabbing hard at the keypad. She left out the “hypocrite” and hoped Revathi could tell.
It was a while before the last text arrived.
Was he hot?
Lavanya laughed and texted back: Gross @Megha. He was OLD.
• • • •
An accurate and deeply offensive term for a banyan tree is this: strangler fig. Banyans are—and there is no polite word for this—clingy. They like to find a nice solid tree and sprout in a soft elbow somewhere. Then they grow and grow and grow. Each new root and leaf and branch yearns outwards.
Banyan trees have a lot of time, and they like to spend it holding on. Their roots lean down and clutch the ground, until slowly, over a hundred years, they become marvellously buttressed and folded in on themselves.
Worlds sprout inside their hollows, places where the most delicate of things—firefly-lamps, wasp-dreams, mammoth-ice, the memories of the dead—can be stored, stacked, displayed, sold.
The original tree, of course, that first limb the banyan clung on to, is dead by then. Few beings can hope to outlive a banyan.
Once a banyan is a market, all kinds of petty details must be dealt with—invitations to the right people, striking dread into the hearts of the wrong ones; peeling the air just so to allow everyone to see and be seen; making sure that everyone has a chance to meet their dreams. (Kumar 76)
That year, Lavanya’s mother was herself only rarely. Appa plied her with her favourite flowers every day—roses and marigolds as bright and vivid as he could find occupied every non-medicinal space on her bedside table. Lavanya made her socks, stripes of all the most lurid shades of wool she could find: bloodred and emergency-light orange, paddy-green and Gelusil-pink, pus-yellow and bruise-purple. When the disease permitted it, Amma loved them.
“Beautiful! My favourites,” she’d say in her stranger’s voice before closing her eyes again.
Most of that year she was either asleep or fled: her body was there, but the real Amma was away, on the run.
In the mornings, Lavanya would arrange the table while Amma was still asleep: pills and a flask of hot water. Fresh socks and hankies in the drawer next to the endless Vick’s jars. Flowers that showed even the slightest sign of withering would be removed and tied together. Lavanya dropped them under the dead-end banyan on her way to school, along with the rest of the organic waste. She always felt lighter after. It was the same feeling she got after her period, as if she’d emptied out her body a little.
Rains brought with them the recurring cobweb feeling—of being touched, learnt, wrapped up—but these days it felt comforting. Lavanya stopped attacking the door-frame with the long-handled broom.
In the yellow hour between her evening curfew and dinner, Lavanya daydreamed about tying a balloon to Amma’s spirit and watching it rise out of her when she fell asleep. Then she’d follow the balloon and see where Amma really spent her time.
Sometimes this daydream was so vivid and consuming that she could actually see it—Amma floating gaily out of the window and across the city smells, until at sunset she drifted inevitably down into the spirit market that, Revathi said, took place by the dead-end banyan.
The spirit market, to hear Revathi tell it, was non-humans only. Humans couldn’t see it, hear it, smell it or even feel it. To Lavanya, the dead-end banyan only presided over a pile of garbage waiting for the municipal lorry to pick it up the next morning. To her amma, slipping further and further away from her body every day, maybe it was better?
Wherever Amma went when she left her body, it was a place that Lavanya could not follow into, not even in her daydreams. The spirit markets, so Lavanya had heard, didn’t deal in anything mortals could grasp.
• • • •
What does a banyan earn from a market? It’s hard to say. Stall rents are paid in dream slivers sliced off with sharp words. Things are bought and sold for fancies. A story could cost you years of your life, or your first-born daughter.
Tigers roam in human skin, claws retracted for disguise. A frenzied energy clings to them—beware! Yakshas buy and sell masks that will sink into your skin and shape you anew—lake guardian and knife-sharpener, rock-stillness and a gender unused.
The person sitting next to you might well be a djinn in disguise, waiting for a wish to claim you for their own. Here dewdrops could buy you a good large banana leaf meal—rice and tender vanara meat, curd and fried golden sampige flowers, and tiny lotus buds filled with soma. (Kumar 2)
You could only see the market if you were invited, Revathi claimed, and Lavanya wasn’t even on the potential guest-list because she was a boring human. Mortality kept Lavanya tethered to the mud: house, road, school, road, repeat. Only death could open that door. Amma was the only human Lavanya knew who qualified.
She told Appa once and he snapped: “If you ever read the newspaper you’d know that your amma is, statistically, one of a million people dying at any given time. What is this nonsense!”
Lavanya didn’t believe in prayer, but she left Amma’s dying flowers under the banyan tree every morning anyway. Just in case her spirit was visiting.
Revathi sometimes came with her, concocting elaborate stories of death and decomposition to distract Lavanya from schoolwork.
Once, just once, she asked Lavanya to stop.
“It’s enough, Lavvy. Why don’t you ever let things go? Just try,” she told Lavanya.
That was not Revathi’s job description. Lavanya felt furious. Swathi, yes. Swathi was the cautious friend. She got to tell people to be careful, not to do things, not to go too far.
“Shut up!” Lavanya yelled.
Revathi walked away.
They hung out in the group, still. Revathi still told stories, embroidering off-hand things Megha or Swathi said until they were all horrified or laughing or both.
Lavanya could feel that something had been cut. Some mental phone line was gone—cut, uncallable, uninstalled?—and Revathi was not going to fix it.
Lavanya? All of Lavanya’s mental phone lines were fraying that year.
• • • •
Despite the plenitude of roots, banyans are actually very simple creatures. They like life. They yearn for the stuff of it. Even the last bitter dregs of life are delicious to a banyan. Vetalas, for instance, are the stringiest and least digestible of spirit-forms. No one in their right mind would want what passes for life in a vetala. Banyans keep them around anyway.
Sometimes, rarely (once in two centuries or so), a banyan yearns for proper life. It remembers its original host tree and a deep hunger strikes it.
Who are we to judge? Which of us has not yearned for a meal we haven’t had to cook? (Kumar 24)
When the third knock came, a little less than exactly a year later, Lavanya was impatient for it. She had been feeling distant from her appa, distant from her friends. Apart. Megha and Swathi were drifting away like balloons.
Lavanya’s phone interrupted, tinny and pathetic. Revathi. Revathi, who had always lived in her own head, had, oddly, grown more solid. She sometimes met Lavanya at the dead-end tree, in the mornings, seemingly by accident. They rarely talked, except to complain about school stuff, chores, stuffed noses. When texts showed up in Lavanya’s phone, it was usually Revathi. She seemed unmoved by Lavanya’s furious silences, and a slow drip of meaningless things kept trickling from her phone to Lavanya’s: hearts, emojis, pictures of maggots and fungi and Revathi’s cat.
This was not one of those messages. It said: CALL ME. LIFE OR DEATH.
The knock came again.
It was almost time for Lavanya to leave for school. She was going to have to open the door anyway.
Her phone chimed in with another message from Revathi: NOW
More messages arrived, ping-pinging out:
NOT A JOKE
And a last one: PLEASE. LAVVVVVYYYY!!!!
Six whole messages. Three months’ worth, more or less. Entirely too many. Lavanya opened the door with some relief.
“My mother’s dead!” she told the dead-rose man. “If anyone gets to speak to her, it should be me!”
“Come with me then,” he said.
Lavanya’s phone buzzed again. Revathi: I’LL TELL UR APPA
Some old spark of the Lavanya from last year wanted to text Revathi and crow at the truly weird man she was going off with. Just like that, screw school.
A long-ago child-Lavanya wanted to wait ’til Revathi called her father, and he called her back to panic and yell. Old times.
Lavanya put her phone away. She turned to the dead-rose man. He seemed tense, petal-edges vibrating with some plantly emotion she couldn’t place.
“All right,” Lavanya said. “Let’s go.”
Something sparked in the man’s eyes, a little streak of lightning, and Lavanya thought that perhaps he wasn’t so old after all, that perhaps he was a youngish person but somehow growing differently from her.
He held out his hand. There was a balloon in it, light and airy, green and pink blended and speckled. Lavanya took its string and felt the little tug upon her hand. She held tighter.
They walked out silently. Lavanya left the house door open out of spite.
The dead rose man matched his pace to hers, and their feet left no marks. Before Lavanya, the air seemed thicker than usual, a curtain to be parted at every step. The balloon bobbed, up and up and up. More splotches appeared on it, red and yellow and velvety-looking. The dead rose man seemed unaffected.
They took Lavanya’s usual school route. At the dead-end banyan, the man walked straight into the garbage pile. The balloon in Lavanya’s hand bobbed and yearned after him, and she was helpless to refuse it. The garbage pile had not—hitherto—been a tall pile, but now, as Lavanya climbed, the town she had spent her entire life in shrank and receded into nothing. Only a long highway stretched out before her.
It seemed obvious to step onto it and walk.
“What’s your name?” Lavanya asked after a while.
“What’s yours?” he asked back.
Lavanya didn’t reply.
The highway was curiously blank—endless fields of marigolds-and-parthenium below, endless clouds above. It dipped sometimes and rose other times, but that didn’t seem to make a difference to how dull it was. No sun moved behind the clouds. Lavanya tested her bladder and found it—unusually—numb. She tested her throat, her nose, her heart, her stomach. Nothing needed her attention.
How long had it been?
“No trees,” she noted.
“Onward,” the dead-rose man suggested gently.
Onward, Lavanya figured. They might as well.
• • • •
Humans can’t enter the market banyan the way everyone else can. First, they smell terrible and will chase away other customers. Some amount of de-humanifying must occur if their visit is to be successful.
Second, human minds will not see or understand the banyan’s space without proper preparation. They tend to lurk outside it and drop flowers. Some of them like to kneel or weep, or tie hopeful bits of cloth onto branches, as if the beaten down remnants of dead cotton are of any nutritional or aesthetic value.
Humans need to be trained into seeing the door into the banyan. This is a slow and painstaking process. Your perfect market human has to be a very specific emotional temperature, treeified enough to enter the banyan’s maw, and just human enough to feed upon. Few banyans—even the really hungry ones—are willing to take the trouble.
Most times, it’s easier to live on fig wasps. Figs are plentiful and easy to produce, and wasps tend to dive straight in without asking any questions. Wasps have few dreams, though. And their minds are acidic, short-lived.
A human mind is, once primed and ready, a much more rich and nutritious thing. Fresh, it will dance and dream and inundate both banyan and market with its fancies, a fresh rain to make everything glisten. After, even the sludge of it can feed a banyan for a whole year. Many a banyan market has failed from an inadequately-prepared human. (Kumar 28)
The marigold fields were now sometimes rose-fields, dark red and velvety even from a distance. Sulky.
Onward they went, and Lavanya started to peer accusingly at flowers to check if they were the same ones, circulating like a giant conveyor belt. She couldn’t tell. She swallowed and found she was still not thirsty. It was as if her body had been suspended with the sun, moving no farther than that morning.
What did that mean? Lavanya was three days from her period. Would she forever be there, pickled in hormones? Breasts swollen, back achy, and temper fraying?
Lavanya counted. She counted seconds, thousands and thousands of them.
She leapt off the road and struck across the fields, counting steps. Between 83 and 84, the road was back, unfurling under her feet. And beside her, the man, serene as the fields.
Another 180 degrees.
Still there: the road, the man.
• • • •
Over the centuries, the most successful market banyans come to understand humans. They learn to appreciate their delicate variations. Locally-produced and fresh humans are highly prized, of course, as are those young enough for their minds to be pleasantly springy. Some banyans like their humans raw and struggling, while others prefer them docile. It is said the banyans of the Western ghats will only eat those seared by lightning. Ultimately, though, a human needs only to be willing.
Humans live so much in their own heads, and sneaking in is where the virtuosity of a market banyan really shines. A skilled banyan will try to meet the human halfway. As with wasps, special fruit are grown and deployed to tempt in a human, juicy and sweet to their hearts and minds. There is an art to getting a properly luscious human, science and craft and that ineffable sense of connection needed to truly domesticate and cultivate a human, to coax them into the banyan’s folds.
And then, it is said—whispered and rustled, really, in the rarefied world of the ficus aristocracy—their tender human dreams will power a market of unparalleled exquisiteness. (Kumar 3)
Lavanya turned and examined the dead-rose man. It was clear he didn’t like to be looked at—there was something about him that sent her eyes sliding away when she tried to catalogue details. Lavanya squinted at his face. One nose: ash. Two eyes: raisin. Long mouth: charcoalish. . . something sharp shot behind her eyes. Her head ached and the bile lurking in her gullet perked up.
Lavanya turned away, eyes swimming. She tried again.
It was impossible. He would not be looked at.
Lavanya felt a stab of envy. Here was a career to aspire to. Appa would hate it.
“How did you do it?” she asked the man. “Was there an entrance exam? Interviews?”
He shook his head. Gestured to the fields.
“Oh, all right,” said Lavanya. It was probably lunch time in school. Or even dinner.
She chewed morosely on a marigold.
It was many marigolds later that she noticed something moving at the corner of her eye. It was the dead-rose man, and he was growing into a tree. His tendrils burgeoned and burst into delicate pink leaves. As they grew, they sped up, and huge branches of tougher greens and browns began to arch across the sky. Already, it was clear that he was going to be massive: lots of glossy leaves and many trunks made of melded buttress roots.
The hollows of the roots were familiar shapes, needing only the usual garbage to make them homely.
The marigolds shrank away from the tree. So did the highway. Lavanya felt no such compunctions. Three years of marigolds and roses had passed, and now there was only her and a growing yawn in the tree-trunk, darkness spilling out onto her toes.
Figs lay trampled on the ground, red fading to ash. A pleasant wet-earth smell lingered. As Lavanya’s sight sharpened, the air solidified and resolved into shapes, thin and fragile and only tenuously human. Spirits, probably, vivid and gossipy and stripey as Amma’s socks. Their bodies swayed and bent differently from Lavanya’s. No joints or ligaments to tell them where to angle and how. Tails and whiskers lashed; heavenly anklets jingled; leaves whispered and rattled.
For a moment, Lavanya thought she heard a voice, faint and human. It was yelling. Of course it was—everyone Lavanya knew was always yelling. The word rattling around might have been no.
She shrank closer to the tree, so solid and immovable. A companionable root put itself on her hand, pink-edged and eager. A savoury roasting smell wafted through the door. More spirits arrived and drifted through the doorway, muslin-fine puffs swanning through on invisible hangers.
It was everything Lavanya had dreamt of.
“Amma! Are you here? Amma!” Lavanya shouted, and marched in.
• • • •
Banyans don’t like being called strangler figs. They find the name lacks nuance and poetry. It mocks their hopes and dreams, they say. And it hurts their feelings in a sharp waspy way.
It is, however, entirely accurate. True maturity, for trees, as for prophets, comes from accepting oneself. (Kumar 1)
• • • •
All quotes are excerpted with permission from ‘Markets: A Beginner’s Guide’ by Revathi Kumar. First published in The Branchings of Fate: 27 Prophets on Prophecy, ed. Sri Sri Sunayana Amma, FourC Press, 2103.