Josna Rege

16. Tree Elf

In 1960s, Childhood, India, Stories on March 10, 2010 at 11:59 pm
Hijli campus, Kharagpur (photo: Robin Mitra)

Hijli campus, Kharagpur (photo: Robin Mitra)

As a ten year-old child I used to pretend that although I had somehow come to live with my family, they were completely unaware that they were not in fact my biological parents. In my imagination, I was not a human being but a tree elf, a different species altogether. As such, although I played along with the human rules, sleeping in a bed, sitting at the dinner table, even going to school, trees were my natural habitat, and it was only in and among them that I was truly happy.

Being a tree elf had its own rules, of course. One had to spend as many as possible of one’s waking hours in a tree, and one had to strive to improve one’s tree-climbing skills. Among tree elves, maturation and adulthood were measured by these skills, of being able to climb progressively harder trees, until eventually one would reach the pinnacle of achievement, successfully scaling a tall, upright trunk with absolutely no side branches.

Beside me and my best friend Puttu, I don’t remember whether there were other members of our secret fraternity. I think Sally may have been a junior tree elf, with Puttu and me being in the next grade up. In any case, we spent much of our free time in the mango trees that grew along the northern wall of our house, just outside the courtyard and overlooking the vegetable garden. Like most Indian roofs, ours was a flat, low-walled terrace with an ledge running all round it, from which we could easily clamber back and forth between the trees, the roof, and the courtyard wall.

One particular move gave me a special rush of accomplishment. I would climb over the terrace wall onto the outer ledge and down onto a horizontal branch of the mango tree. Balancing there, I  looked up to another horizontal branch a foot or so in front of me and across to a lower one about three feet away. Springing up and out, I would grab onto the branch above me, and swing  over to the one below in one smooth movement. For a split second I was free-flying, 100% tree elf.

This era came to an end abruptly. One day I positioned myself on my branch, ready to take the leap as usual. But on this day the thought suddenly occurred to me, What if I missed the branch above me and fell? And suddenly I found that I simply could not make myself perform a feat that I had carried out successfully and without a second thought hundreds of times before.  I did not do it that day, and I never did it again.

I continued to play in the trees after that, but could no longer kid myself that I was a bona fide tree elf. Without that daring leap, everything else I did was rather tame. In any case, Puttu was not coming to play as often, and I was headed for boarding school, where my tree-elf identity would have to go into a long hibernation.

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  1. aww… 🙂 I guess they taught you the meaning of Fear in school the day before this happened.. 🙂

    • Whatever happened, Mayuri, I just started thinking too much! School was a relatively unimportant part of my life at that age, or at least, I remember very little about anything I learned at school during that time–playing and reading were everything to me. (Thankfully it did get more interesting later on.) Hope school continues to be fun for you–and that you’re still dancing your way into Spring. xx J

  2. In our sophomore year in college, some friends and I endeavored to make a list of the specific moments in which we realized we had left our childhoods. My offering was far less poetic than yours. It was the moment in which I realized that I had absently consumed a little box of animal crackers without having studied or noted even one of the animal shapes.

    • That is so touching, Mary. We can make the present so transcendent as children, taking pleasure in every little detail and making the most of it in our imaginations. There are so many ordinary, precious, moments when we are exalted.

  3. Well-put, Josna.
    And I forgot to say that I can totally picture your tree-elf child-self!

  4. What a perfect way to describe you, Josna, elfin! A sort of creative sprite spinning fantasies and conjuring dreams – half Titania, half Puckish. The sylvan environment becomes you well. I wonder if you too, wanted to put a girdle around the world as I did, and ensnare parents in that circle, when you’d been told it was too dark to play outside in your personal sherwood forest?
    I remember my huge banyan tree mastar moshai or August Teacher, in the front lawn of the Jorhat Bungalow in Assam when I was exactly five. I remember acorn tea cups and crackling delicate saal leaf saucers, and ordering my incredibly patient and willing grandfather to crouch below the cathedral arch of the branches on the leaf littered classroom floor, as the teacher wouldn’t teach till he did so. My standards for tree flying were less exacting than yours….I allowed him to use my rope ladder that the maali had strung together for a light-weight five year old. I wish you’d been resident elf in that tree! 🙂

    • Sounds like your own personal Shantiniketan, Urmi, as you learned and played in the open air under the shelter of mastar moshai’s “cathedral arch,” with your loving grandfather as your playmate. Thank you for sharing this beautiful memory.

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