Third Prize - 2020 Tower Poetry Competition, 'Trees'


The Banyan Tree

Mother and daughter share a bed,

sleepless in the unfamiliar night-time heat.

Daughter leans her cheek against the cool,

iron-barred window, feeling the thick breeze

and watching the cars scrape dust on the tracks.

Mother turns, a warm shift in the shadows

and a pale scent of lemon and salt,

and tugs daughter down, back onto the bed-sweat.

Daughter begs mother to tell her a story,

her voice thin against the shroud of air.

Mother sighs, and purses her lips to the

canal of daughter’s ear, and whispers,

Do you know why the banyan tree cries?

Mother traces daughter’s temple with her fingertip, feeling the

softness of dark, innocent skin as she shakes her head.

The banyan bears a fruit, but

it is not sweet like the mango, or curative like the amla.

Banyan fruit is bitter and bloodshot like an eye, bulging as it rots

because it can only be stomached in the worst of all famines.

But that is not why the banyan tree cries.

Mother wraps her arm around daughter like a root.

I was around your age when it happened.

I was walking home from school, kicking stones so hard they slit the leather of my shoe,

when I passed the banyan tree.

An old woman was perched in its ropes, skin wrinkled like a shawl,

and she waved to me—

“Beta,” she called, “I am an old woman and I am so very poor and so very helpless.

I climbed the banyan to try and pluck its harvest, but my sandals slipped as I clambered.

Will you please pick them up for me, and put them on my feet before you go?”

The sandals were brown and tough, caked in layers of earth and car oil,

but I picked them up as I was told, looking up into the canopy of the banyan

for the old woman. She beckoned, and swung her legs over the branch with her hands

the same way a fishmonger might slam his catch onto the ice.

I readied myself on my tip-toes to place the sandals on her feet,

but she did not show me feet to place her sandals on.

That is when the banyan started to cry, as

she presented me with two bloodied stumps,

worn and raw as mutton,

and I dropped the sandals and ran as fast and far away as I could.

Daughter nuzzles into mother’s breast, her small breaths

drubbing like a heartbeat.

Do you understand, now, why the banyan cries?

The banyan cries because it has so many hungry souls trapped in its belly,

it has forgotten how to feed itself.

The cowardly, the liars, the witches and the poor—

they all have nowhere and no one who wants them,

so, into the belly of the banyan they go

where their tears turn cold and feed the fruit of the banyan.