Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition
She gazed at the mango tree outside - the sapling she had planted fifteen years ago, which had given her many luscious crops
Sita sat in her wheelchair, awaiting the cup of tea which Mala promised almost an hour ago. Over the last few years chronic arthritis had seeped into her limbs making them twisted and swollen. The pain was unbearable sometimes. But today the strong painkillers seemed to have worked.
She gazed at the mango tree outside - the sapling she had planted fifteen years ago, which had given her many luscious crops. But as she looked, Sita gasped in dismay, for the tree next to it had grown enormous. Its unwieldy branches smothered almost the entire mango tree.
"Mala," she called.
"What?" said Mala, bringing the cup of tea. She placed it carelessly on the table spilling some of its contents.
"I want to get that big tree felled so that there will be more room for the mango tree."
"I told Kumara to cut down the mango tree, it's useless now - we never get any fruits from it."
"No!" cried Sita, "You must never cut my mango tree."
Mala strode off in a huff.
Sita sipped the tea and grimaced at its cloying sweetness. How could Mala have forgotten that she couldn't take sugar! But she said nothing, not wanting another altercation with Mala.
She rested her eyes on this matronly woman who stalked the corridors of her house, and recalled how Mala came to her ten years ago. A slightly built, timid girl.
Sita remembered Mala crying.
"It's my sister, her husband died and the inlaws have asked her to leave. She and her little boy have nowhere to go," Mala sobbed.
Sita's heart grieved for them.
"Mala," she said, "they can come here."
The following week Chula and her son Kumara arrived. Chula resembled Mala in her slender build and quiet ways. Kumara was a lively ten year old.
Sita loved having a child in the house! She did up the old store room for them. She found a school nearby for Kumara, and delighted in buying him his books and clothes.
Chula helped Mala with the household chores.
But those days were gone. Polished floors and gleaming furniture had given way to grime and dust. Chula hardly cleaned the house these days. There she was now, cutting some material at the dining table, dragging the scissor along its wooden surface. Kumara whiled away his time sleeping late and listening to loud music.
Sita felt broken and dejected.
The doorbell rang. It was her friend Sushila.
"What's it" she inquired, sensing Sita was upset.
"It's - my mango tree, they want to cut it. It's the other tree that should be chopped" her words came out in a flurry.
"I will arrange that," said Sushila.
It took some hours to fell the tree. First they trimmed the branches and then got to the main trunk. Finally, only the stump was left. The mango tree could now be seen clearly. Its branches were bare and scraggy, and hung with an air of despondency.
Mala watched, her face sombre.
Some weeks later when Sushila visited, she found Sita greatly excited.
"Sushila, look - there are so many new branches and leaves on the mango tree!"
Sita glowed with exhilaration. Indeed, the tree had sprouted several fresh shoots with tender green leaves.
They sat in amiable silence.
Then, Sushila spoke - softly, "Sita - intruders stifle - you must get rid of them."
Sita nodded. "I know - but - I'm scared."
"It's for your own good", said Sushila, laying her hand on Sita's shoulder. "I'll help you."
"Mala" Sita called out firmly, "I have to speak to you."
My darling daughter,
I am thinking yet of the days when I was ill, not only did I have time to appreciate my friends but also it gave me time to reflect on so many things - I thought of how careless we are in the remarks and comments we make. We don't think of how they could affect others. Sometimes we pride ourselves on our honest opinion of others - little realizing that opinion can hurt another. No one likes to hear that he is clumsy, is slow, has no fashion consciousness - a hair style does not suit one - or that one's children are not as brought as someone else are.
Why must we be so frank in our criticisms and so niggard in our compliments? I think perhaps we have within ourselves a cruel streak which makes us want to hurt others. Then priding ourselves on our frankness we belittle them - without realizing that our comments can make all the difference to that person's life. Often our criticism can make one lose confidence in oneself - then life becomes so difficult so frightening.
Daughter, I wondered can we not be charitable in our comments, give to others the confidence they need by praising whatever efforts they make. Surely it is not ours to judge the efforts of another, rather let our love and understanding give them the strength they need to cope in a world that is so competitive.
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