Story Contemporary: Trees in Kew Gardens-Gurnam Gill

I had an irrepressible desire to see England. If a person has never been to a foreign land ever, he is bound to have a strong fascination for it. In a way, I owe it all to the generosity of Bhaji. Had he not come to England, how could I have sought the fulfilment of my dream? In India, the proffession of a teacher only provides for the basic needs of the family.

Last night Bhaji and his friend Subhash took me to a pub.It was for the first time that I have seen a pub. In such a place, beer tastes very different. Inebriated ambience, ornate expensive furniture, beautiful, smiling barmaids. One of them was fairy-like, blue eyes, velvety black hair, soft fleshy limbs and a slender frame. All I wanted to do was to keep guzzling endless pints of beer, without taking my eyes off her. Perhaps I was staring a little too hard so that Bhaji felt compelled to indicate to me that I shouldn’nt do it so shamelessly. I felt as though I was sitting in Indrapuri. And I couldn’t help saying, ” Thanks to you Bhaji I, too, could have a glimpse of heaven!”

” Just wait, once the layers of this heaven start unfolding before your eyes ever so slowly, you’ll get to know everything.” this was Subhash, adressing me.

Laughing mildly, Bhaji had looked towards the roof and said,” Initially when we came, we too, had been deceived in this manner.”

” What is to be deceived about? You told me yourself that one has to be prepared for the life of an ordinary labourer here. And after the works hours, it’s entertainment all the way through. In India even a judge can’t afford to visit such a place on a regular basis. ” For my own understanding, I wanted to get to the bottom of things.

Emptying out a glass as big as a jugin a single swig, Subhash said, ” You are here only on a short visit. You need to stay much longer to be able to understand things properly. Now sugercane juice, lassi or curd, saag and raddish might be just everyday things for a farmer, but people living in the metropolis could have a strong craving for them. In much the same manner, beer and bar are the reflections of a metropolis. Often the capitalist forces have a hand in pushing unsuspecting workers in a groove.” Subhash had tried to explain, though it hadn’t made much sense to me.

Then Bhaji said:” Subhash, the fact of the matter is that we haven’t really learnt the knack of living in a foreign land. This is the main reason for our loneliness and sadness.”

At that time, I had found the words ‘sadness’ and ‘loneliness’ somewhat strange. I thought to myself that this was something like beckoning death, while you were still enjoying yourself. What kind of loneliness and sadness were they talking about? They had the best of times, colour tellies and brand new cars. They were living in absolute clover, almost like maharajahs.

We emptied our glasses, came out and started homewards. That beautiful barmaid was still busy, filling up the glasses, flashing her smile at the customers as she went swinging from one to the other.

On the way Subhash started telling Bhaji, ” You’d perhaps recall that when Gurubaksh Singh Preetlari came to England, he had stayed with us for two days. And that’s when he had told us, ” Friends, you mustn’t live for the future. Neither has anyone ever returned from the foreign land nor will you return to India ever. It’d be much better if you were to develop some sense of sharing with the people here. History has been a witness that those who go to the foreign land rarely ever return, only there telegrams do. So you must learn to live in the present. One who doesn’t know how to live in the present can’t really live in the future either. In any case, future is far better than present.”

” Yes, I do remember it very well. When Ihad said ‘You’ve returned home yourself, but why are you demoralising us so much?’ he had laughed and said, ‘Come on yaar, everyone can’t aspire to become Gurubaksh Singh Preetlari.’ ”

“Bai, that’s really true. Everyone can’t hope to become Gurubaksh Singh.” All of us had repeated in unison.

During the first two weeks, I really felt quite bored. Sitting at home by myself, I would often feel tedium creeping into my bones. It was good in a way that, almost every day, Bhaji would leave different Hindi film videos so that I could pass the hours. Both of them would return home by six in the eveninig. The children would be in by four. But as soon as they came, they would either rummage through the fridge or start fiddling with the telley or clambering up the stairs, go into their rooms. I would make an effort to interact with them but they would not show much interest. So, even when they were home, I would feel rather lonely.

It was for the weekend that I waited most expectantly. That is when Bhaji would invariably take me out somewhere. Either we would go sight seeing, visit new places or friends and relatives.One Sunday it happened to be quite warm and bright. Even though it was March, the sunshine was as warm as if it was June.

Bhaji and Bharjai had decided to take me to the seacoast. I was, indeed, very happy. I hadn’t ever seen the sea before except in films. On the basis of those I had once sketched out the ambience of coastal area in one of my stories as well. But this Sunday I was finally going to the sea. Subhash and his family were also accompanying us. Bhaji and subhash were very close friends. Such a friendship is not possible without commonality of beliefs and human ideals.

It had taken us about an hour’s drive to reach the coast. The waves in theblue waters were rising towards the shore as if they wanted to greet the visitors. All the children set off towards ‘Fun & fare games.’ Bharjai and Subhash’s wife also decided to follow them. This is what mothers do when children grow up. Then they don’t really feel the need to follow their men. The three of us started walking along the seashore. From the way the entire place was decorated, it appeared as if some festival of the white people was on.

Bhaji was talking about the benefis of seawater, which he said, was enriched with all kinds of minerals that could easily be soaked up by the human body through the pores of its skin.

” Then you must be coming here every two months or so?” I asked.

” No way Yaar. Ever since we’ve come to England, it must be our second or third time, really. There is hardly any time for such things. Besides, it’s also a manner of choice.” Subhash has replied.

” Just as we haven’t been able to assimiliate with the white people despite living among them, in the same way we have been so near the sea and yet so far,” Bhaji said, running his eyes into the far distance as though he was measuring the length of other shore.

The tidal waves were rushing in towards the shore and people sitting upon the sand were slowly stepping back. A few White women who were braless, were lying face downwards. When the water came rushing in, covering their breasts with the towels, they moved further inland and then lay sprawling upon the sand all over again. But it seemed as if the water was chasing them around teasingly.

One Indian women was bathing with her sari on. Her wet sari clung so tightly to her body that, despite her clothes, she appeared to have been stripped naked.

” Yaara, let’s go in for a swim.” It appeared as though a desire for playing with the waves had surged up inside Kulbir Bhaji’s heart also.

” Let it be. We haven’t ever done that. It’s quite embrassing.” Subhash has voiced his dileman.

In the meanwhile, a statuesque hite woman went swirling towards the waves, breezing past us. The sunshine had given her wax-like, oiled skin the same glow as copper.

“Yaar, how these women love to sculpt their bodies!” Bhaji said, staring at her body.

” Just look at our women. Their stomachs are like lumpy dough. And their thighs sagging.” Subhash suggested, by way of comparison.

” In comparison, our men too figure nowhere. We are no exceptions. Not without reason do we feel embarrassed while removing our clothes.” Bhaji stopped in the middle of a sentence and then, looking at a Gujrati sitting upon the sand, he added,

” Now just look at that man’s pitcher-shaped stomach. it’s as if he’s sitting with a huge watermelon between his thighs. Doesn’t he look somewhat like Mahatma Buddha?”

” We don’t look that obnoxus! Come on, let’s remove our shirts.”

” All right. You aren’t going to say it everyday!”

Both of them jumped into the water. I was quite keen myself but as I was wearing long knickers underneath, I became a little self conscious. They invited me repeatedly but, on the pretext of feeling cold, I kept standing upon the shore.

After half an hour, feeling a little cold, they too emerged out of the water.

” Yaar, it was really wonderful! We just keep feeling self conscious without any reason.”

“Such a deep-seated inferiority complex is also bad. After all, what’s so special about the White’s except their skin?”

It was already four in the evening. Feeling thirsty, Subhash expressed the desire to have some beer. But Bhaji suggested that we return home and Go to the It was as if he had become a soul-mate to his own children.

Later, the three of us went to the pub in the park. Filling up our glasses, we had barely settled down when a group of White micief-makers came and parked themselves next to us. It was apparentthat they were in a mood to create trouble.

After sometime, one of them turned his face towards us and asked,”Got a light?”

” Sorry, we don’t smoke.” Subhash was quite iconic in his response.

” But you do drink.” All of them burst out laughing.

In the meanwhile, one of them, who was wearing red T-shirt and appeared to be a body-builder, asked Subhash, “What is your nationality?”

“British.” Subhash was as brief as possible. On hearing this, all of them started laughing.

The same white man repeated the question, a crooked smile on his lips.

“let’s go home and drink. As it is, we’re tired today.” With these words, Bhaji got up to leave and so did we.

Going past the counter, We wound our way out. The barmaid with black-hair smiled at us and said ‘bye’ as well. She was the same woman whose charming smile had bowled me over on the first day. But today, I couldn’t even get myself to respond to her ‘bye’ and her smile, too, appeared somewhat lukewarm to me. I felt as though her smiles had no special meaning and that it was more of a habit, really.

As soon as we got home, Bhaji poured out large pegs of whisky for us. And then he started narating to bharajai the incident at the pub.

” I always say that you should drink at home, if you must. What’s so special about these pubs and clubs?” said Bharjai, on hearing him out.

” But daddy, there were three of you, and fairly young at that. Why couldn’t you give them a few slaps?” Pappu piped in.

” Bastard, isn’t enough that we came home on our own. And you didn’t have to carry us from there!”

” We thought, we have to show Kew Gardens to your chacha, tomorrow. So we should be in one piece until tomorrow, at least.” Subhash told Pappu in half-jest.

“Though I had to learn about a good many things in England by now, there was always something that threw up a new surprise every time. Now what was this thing called ‘ Kew Gardens?’ I was rather curious to know more about it.

Finally I decided to ask Bhaji as what to these ‘Kew Gardens’ were.

” In these Gardens you find those species of flowers, plants and vegetation which are not native to the England soil.”

” Then how have they managed to nurture them here?” I was completely bewildered.

” They have spent a lot of money and a built a huge glass-house there. The plants get plenty of sunshine and warmth. The steam in the pipes running through the glass-house makes it humid inside, somelike monsoon in India. In this kind of controlled climate, they have managed to grow all kinds of crops, including ugar cane, cotton, maize, banana and thousands of other varieties. Efforts are made to create the climate most suited for the plants and trees. Trees such as mango and jamun are also given the right kind of climate to grow.”

I saw that Bhaji was now dead drunk, but emptying his glass, he started again.

” Balli, Subhash and I. You’ll find many more like us. We are all trees of Kew Gardens. Our roots don’t run deep. We tried our best to strike our roots in this climate but it just didn’t happen or perhaps we didn’t really know how to do so. In Kew Gardens, you do find mango trees, but they don’t ever flower. And that’s what our situation is. Like the trees in Kew Gardens.”
Gurnam Gill

Born in 1943 at village Dhoori near Jallandhar, he had his early educationfrom a local school. Later he did his masters in physical education and has completed his PhD in the same subject as well. It is another matter that he’s always been somewhat reluctant to use the customary Dr. before his own name. On migrating to england in mid 1970s, he started writting both poetry and short stories with equal felicity and flourish. He has already authored nearly five collection of short stories, two of poetry and a book on health , too.