The Poplar of Discord
he poplar is ubiquitous in Kashmir. It grows with utmost ease almost anywhere in the valley—flat lands, plateaus and foothills. It lines boulevards, roads and avenues, and keeps company with the willow along riverbanks and around water bodies. It borders fields, backyards and gardens and, unlike the expansive walnut, it takes little space, just enough to stand upon, from where it grows straight up, tall and proud, almost speaking to the stars.
I had never heard of a dispute over a poplar till it happened right across in our neighbor’s household. Unlike a walnut tree, the poplar is not something to which you grow terribly attached. A walnut tree has a big footprint and takes central place in any yard, grows slowly over decades after a lot of nurturing, and yields a coveted crop each year. It becomes a part of the family, another fond member. There is no such sentiment attached to the poplar which grows at the periphery, almost on its own, with little attention and effort. When properties are divided among heirs walnut trees are known to get in the way of division of land on which they stand. My father, an advocate, often regaled us with stories of litigation—even blood feuds—over walnut trees, and how his clients strained every nerve and spent every farthing to establish their claim on a coveted walnut tree. The dispute over a poplar was the first of its kind in his experience.
Devinder Nath Dhar, a retired widower, had moved from Srinagar downtown into our neighborhood a few years before we did. Our northeastern side was demarcated from his lot partly by an outhouse that he owned and partly by a common wall. His main house stood in the middle of the yard. He had three sons, all married with children. The older son, Pran Nath, lived with him. The second, Girdhari Lal, had settled in Bombay, and the youngest, Maharaj Krishan, had moved overseas and made England his home.
This was an inconspicuous household. Pran Nath Dhar had a wife who kept mostly to herself, and two children—a chubby boy and a pretty girl—who rarely mixed with the neighborhood kids. Our house overlooked their garden and we hardly ever saw the family lounging out or socializing. At best, the couple sat together in the evenings at the bay window that faced our house directly, rarely looking across. Their children seldom played in the garden and the only time I saw them was when they came out of the house to go to school or go shopping.
Devinder Nath, the patriarch, was a little more sociable. He would visit us sometimes, wish us from across the window when we crossed each other’s visual fields, and exchange pleasantries if we met on the street. He was worldly wise and carried out the duties expected of a middle class householder, educated his sons who had now settled down in sound careers, married them into respectable families, bought the uptown property at the right time, renovated it and rented out the outhouse. He also planted poplars all along the periphery of his house. But he never made a will. When he died, the non-resident sons, Girdhari Lal and Maharaj Krishan, flew to Srinagar to attend the funeral. It was the first time we saw the three siblings together. They presented a picture of bonhomie and respectful indulgence, and gave their father a decent funeral, observing all the religious rites in the best tradition. At the end of the customary two-week mourning period, the visitors returned home while Pran Nath and his family resumed their lives in the house and withdrew into their customary solitude, seemingly content with their lot.
Surprisingly, Girdhari Lal’s visits to Srinagar became more frequent after his father’s demise. We knew about his arrival from the voices that emanated from the otherwise melancholy house, arguments that sometimes broke into sudden squeals. We had no intention to meddle in their affairs until the day he came to seek my father’s advice as a neighbor and a lawyer. It was the usual story of a property dispute threatening to degenerate into a feud between the brothers.
Girdhari Lal put forth his case: “Sir, you quite well know, this property was purchased by our revered father and stands in his name. I have been in Bombay for years now and have hardly ever lived in this house. It is Pran Nath who has been enjoying the use of this house all along. He lives in the big house and pockets the rent that accrues from the outhouse. While father was alive, I did not concern myself with the arrangements that might have existed between him and my brother. Now that he is no more, I have come here to press the claim for my share of the property. But he evades any serious discussion on the subject. He maintains that I am free to return and settle in the house, and that he owes me nothing of the rent since he looks after the property.”
“Did you ask for a division of the property?” father asked.
“Yes, that is what I desire, a proper division or a sale. But he has been prevaricating; says it is too soon after the demise of father to discuss these things, and that he is not ready to sell the property, certainly not until both his children come of age.”
“What did you say to that?”
“It may amount to waiting a decade or more, depending upon what he means by that statement.” Girdhari Lal sighed in frustration and bared his suspicious mind, “I do not trust him. I feel he wants to cheat me of my share. Since I live far away, he might even dispose off the property without my knowledge.”
“If he is not inclined to sell the property, he should have no objection to a division. Since he asks you to come and live here, let him give you your share. Then you will be at liberty to do with it what you like – live there or sell it off. What about your brother Maharaj Krishan? Have you sounded him out on this? Just because he has migrated to a foreign land does not strip him off his property rights,” father reminded him.
“I am sorry, I have not. He has not written or phoned after his return to London. I will write to him right away,” he replied apologetically.
“You should have discussed this with him while he was here during the funeral. You can not effect a division or sale of the property without his knowledge and consent.”
“I agree. In fact, I am not worried about Maharaj Krishan; I am sure he will have no objection. It is Pran Nath who has to give up his intransigence.”
Father probed him further. “Did you tell Pran Nath that you were coming to see me?”
“Yes sir, I suggested that we seek your counsel, but he does not approve of taking, what he thinks is a family problem, outside the family. Therefore I came here on my own after having failed to convince him. I do not believe we can sort this out without help, and I cannot think of a better person than you,” he said with conviction.
“You do not live here, your brother does. He is my neighbor and it behooves me not to take sides or offer advice unless all of you want my arbitration,” father closed the argument.
On the face of it, this was a typical property dispute. But like the common cold that affects its victims differently, this property dispute had its own distinctiveness. Pran Nath was not interested in changing the status quo, and certainly not in selling off the property, so it seemed. Girdhari Lal was desperate to acquire his share. Mahraj Krsihan had not been sounded out about the proposal to divide or dispose off the property. Assuming that they agreed in principle to a division rather than a sale, it would not be easy to divide the property into three equal shares the way it was laid out. The main house stood in the middle of the land and was designed for a single family. It would have to be shared by two brothers while the third would take the outhouse. Even then, it would not be easy to settle which one of the brothers was to get which share. In any case, father did not want to intervene unless all the brothers agreed to make him the arbiter.
Girdhari Lal returned to Bombay a few days later. Before he left, he informed father that Pran Nath had agreed to offer the rent collected on the outhouse to him. They would both write to their younger brother and wait for his response before taking the next step. It appeared that good sense had prevailed and the first step towards the resolution of the property dispute had been taken.
Life resumed its course in the Dhar house, calm form outside but an unseen ferment growing within. Pran Nath never sought my father’s advice, never even referred to the dispute with his brother. We often saw him sitting alone at his window, lost in deep contemplation for hours on end.
Several weeks later, Girdhari Lal returned. We knew of it from the sudden rumblings of disquiet and discontent that rent the calm of the neighborhood, the two brothers arguing, shouting and swearing. The neighbors kept assiduously out of it, amusedly watching the developments from the sidelines, as the brothers fought it out behind the brick walls of the house.
Girdhari Lal came to see father again and whined about his brother’s uncompromising attitude.
“I am sorry to bother you again, but I want to apprise you of the latest developments. There is good news; Maharaj Krishan has written that he is not interested in his share of the property. But, rather than making things easy, it has complicated the issue. Pran Nath is offering me the outhouse and the contiguous chunk of land, keeping the main house and a larger share of land to himself.”
“That sounds unfair,” father said sympathetically.
“He is no doubt offering suitable cash compensation for the shortfall in the land and the house,” he explained.
“In that case it is not a bad deal. I see no problem,” father responded.
“But I am in a hurry for the final settlement. I am not interested in holding on to any property in Kashmir since I have moved out permanently. I feel the only reasonable way out is for my brother to pay me for the half share at the prevailing market price or to sell the whole property and share the proceeds.” He seemed adamant.
“Let us be reasonable. This place is centrally located. You cannot force your brother to sell the house in which his family is well settled and comfortable. Obviously, he wants to avoid any disruption that would result if he sold now when his children are attending school that is at a walking distance from here. He has made you a good offer. If I were you, I would accept the outhouse and the land with it, and the cash compensation. You can sell it soon after if you want to,” father gave his candid opinion.
“But Pran Nath says he does not have enough money to compensate me right away.”
Father was a great believer in out-of-court settlements. “Why can’t you agree to take part of the payment now and the balance in installments?” he suggested.
“I would, but I know how insincere my brother is. I am certain he has all the money he needs to settle this. He is an engineer of long standing and everyone knows of the fortunes engineers make in Kashmir. I have no patience with him; I want to sort this whole thing out now so I don’t have to come here again.” It seemed he had made up his mind.
“Why are you in such desperate hurry? After all, he is your own flesh and blood.” Father was getting impatient with his obduracy.
“Because, I have little time and I do not want this issue hanging on for long. I am not in the best of health and there are many other personal and domestic issues to be sorted out. It will not be easy for me to come from Bombay every so often to find a buyer for my part of the property or to collect the installments from my brother. My kids are even younger than his and I hate to leave them with a legacy of disputes, litigation and family feuds. No, sir, I have come for the final resolution.” He looked quite distraught and desperate and could neither hide the contempt for his brother nor the self-pity.
Father felt sad about the wretchedness writ large on his face. “Did you not explain your problems to your brother?” he asked.
“I did, but does he care? He might as well wish me dead before he parts with my share of the property.” Girdhari Lal seemed fixated against his brother.
“Are you not judging him rather harshly? Relationships are much more important than properties.”
“I have nothing against my brother; I am seeking a reasonable, amicable settlement,” he insisted.
“There is another way out. You could give power of attorney to a trusted person who can look after your interests here,” father suggested.
“If I can’t trust my own brother, how can I find a reliable person to whom I would give the power of attorney?” He was impervious to any suggestion.
Father gently dismissed him since he did not know what his role was as long as the brothers did not see eye to eye with each other nor sought his mediation. “Your noble father must be turning in heaven to see you brothers locked in this rivalry. I feel sorry for both of you and hope good sense prevails.”
A couple of morning later, we were witness to a bizarre occurrence. There was a fracas at the Dhar house. We heard loud noises, profanities and curses. Pran Nath was shouting aloud, calling for help. I rushed, fearing someone was hurt or seriously ill. The clamor was coming from their back yard. It was a macabre sight. Pran Nath was being pinned down to one of the poplar trees by two sturdy men who held him fast with his back to the tree while a third was tying him to the poplar with a rope. They were tough-looking woodcutters, with muscular arms and thickset calloused hands. The victim was struggling to free himself, kicking his legs about and hurling abuse at them while they went about their business of strapping him to the poplar as if he were an inanimate object. There were two other men cutting down another poplar, one holding a thick rope fastened to the tree near its top and the second bringing down his axe on the trunk. Pran Nath’s wife watched the humiliation of her husband from the door of her house, wringing her hands helplessly, not knowing what to do and whether to call anyone for help. Girdhari Lal was standing nearby, his back resting against another poplar, his arms folded across his chest, watching the proceedings, unruffled.
“Stop! Why are you tying him to the tree?” I shouted at the woodcutters.
“Because he is getting in the way and preventing us from cutting down the poplars for which his brother here has taken an advance from me. We have no choice but to tie him up so we can go about our business unhindered. Look, I do not feel good about this but I have hired and paid for the labor already. I cannot go on waiting; we have five poplars to cut and that is going to take some doing,” one of them, who was in command, explained.
“Aren’t you ashamed of what you are doing? How dare you humiliate him like this? It is cruel and criminal.” I reprimanded him and shouted at his mates to stop felling the poplar.
Pointing towards Girdhari Lal, he replied, “We are acting on instructions from this gentleman who claims to own the place. We have paid him an advance for the trees. It is he who needs to explain; we are only doing our job. It is he who should be ashamed.” He was brusque.
“He did not ask you to tie his brother to the tree,” I quipped.
“Yes, he did, when this gentleman got in the way.”
“But this is common property between the two. You cannot touch a blade of grass here without the permission of both of them. The one whom you paid for the trees does not even live here. If you do not stop I will call the police?” I threatened them.
They stopped and threw their arms up in frustration. Pran Nath, wild with anger and burning with shame, extricated himself. He had a squint, inherited from his father. His one eye seemed to look at me in gratitude, the other at his brother in hatred. But he did not utter a word as he shuffled towards the house, his shirt torn near the collar, hair ruffled, feet bare, chappals lying in disarray near the tree. Girdhari Lal, looking the villain and shying his gaze away from me, slinked away like a cat and disappeared inside the house. Mrs. Pran Nath, a picture of grief, sighed aloud in relief and rushed towards her husband, holding him by his arm. The poplar tree that was being hewed down was left with a big gash, oozing sap like blood from a wound. The woodcutters assembled their paraphernalia of ropes, axes and wooden pegs. They left in anger, shouting after Girdhari Lal that they would come later to get their money back along with damages. Pran Nath limped inside the house like a wounded animal to his lair. He was too shocked and traumatized to speak.
Overwhelmed by the experience, I returned home and sat thinking. Poor old Devinder Nath must never have imagined this terrible eventuality when he planted the poplars? The saplings had grown over the years into large trees boasting beautiful white barks with dark speckles and stripes and shiny serrated heart-shaped foliage that seemed to make a statement. The trunks had been strung together with a barbed wire and made a formidable fence along the boundary. How much would Girdhari Lal profit from the sale of a few poplars? It certainly could not have been for the money they would fetch because that would not be substantial. Cutting the trees down would not only ruin the look of the yard but also cause a breach in the fence. Was he testing his brother’s nerve? Was it an assertion that he, being an equal owner, was at liberty to do what he liked with the property? In that case, it was a weird scheme. Getting his brother tied to the tree was brazen and brutal.
Nobody knows what transpired behind the doors of that cheerless house that took the two warring brothers in its lap that morning after the tragic incident. There were no immediate aftershocks, not a word, not a murmur from there. It resumed its outward sepulchral calm even as there must have been raging storms in the minds of the occupants.
We never saw Girdhari Lal again. No one knows when he returned to Bombay. Was it sometime in the afternoon or during the dead of the night? Nor did Pran Nath Dhar ever discuss the shocking episode with any one. He was too proud and too shy, too private and too reticent to share his anguish or seek counsel. But he grew morose after the incident and more withdrawn than before. His stoop became pronounced, his tread slowed down, and he seemed lost in thought when we crossed each other, sometimes returning my greetings in a low mumble, sometimes ignoring them altogether. He was not known for dressing in style but now he was even more careless. His thick graying hair looked more unruly than before. Often, when he returned from work, his short stocky figure would lumber slowly towards the gate of his house where he would hesitate a little, as if uncertain whether to go in or not, as if it were a stranger’s house. We always knew him as an introvert who rarely conversed with his neighbors or shared a joke or spoke on topics serious or trivial. Even a comment on the weather was as remote from him as a smile. But the drastic change in his demeanor was there for all to see. His wife too was all to herself, too aloof to strike even an across-the-fence bonhomie with the ladies in the neighborhood.
We never again saw the couple seated together near the window of their first floor room overlooking their lawn which used to be their only pastime, and we saw little of their son and daughter except when they walked out of the gate on their way to school and back. It was their family trait to remain detached and insulated from others around them.
Several weeks passed and we forgot about the fracas in their backyard till one morning Pran Nath’s son came running. This was probably the first time he had entered our premises. He looked terror-stricken, his hands trembling, pupils wide, mouth frothing, cheeks flush and fuller from the panting.
“Please, doctor uncle, can you come to our place?” His tone was desperate.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Father hanged himself;” he said in a tremulous voice, “please, we need help?”
This was the first time any one from the family had asked us for anything. It was quite early and I was still in my night clothes. I rushed to their house and was led to a small room upstairs. Pran Nath’s body was lying on the floor on a white bed sheet. Around his neck was a deep mark of the rope with which he had hanged himself. The rope seemed no different from the one with which the woodcutters had tried to tie him to the poplar. His eyes were open, the one with the squint slanted, as if accusingly, at his sobbing wife, the other looking straight at the beam to which the rope had been tied.
I was dumfounded, at a loss for words for quite some time.
“How did this happen?”
“He had an argument with mother last night.” It was the daughter who spoke. She was around sixteen and quite in control of her emotions.
“What was it about?” I asked.
“You know, uncle died last month,” she said as if it were a natural thing to happen, and looked at her father’s corpse rather severely.
“Do you mean Girdhari Lal is dead?” I asked in surprise and horror.
This came as a stunning shock - the death of two brothers within a month of each other. “Oh, I am so sorry. What did he die of?”
“He had a brain tumor. He died a week after surgery.”
“Did your father know about the tumor?”
“Yes, we all knew,” she replied, again looking uneasily at the corpse of her father, “but father never believed him. He thought it was fiction, just a ruse that uncle employed for emotional blackmail. I wish we had believed him. All this could have been averted.”
I suddenly realized why Girdhari Lal had been in a blinding hurry to settle the property dispute with his brother.
“How appalling!” I could not hide my sorrow.
“My dad was terribly angry with his brother after the tree episode. He would froth and fume at the mention of his name. But when the news of uncle’s death came, he became remorseful and sunk rapidly into depression. He wanted to attend the funeral but did not gather the courage to face the family in Bombay. He blamed himself for his brother’s illness, as if it was he who had planted the tumor in his brain. Day after day, after he was home from work, he would harp on the same subjects - the property dispute, the tree episode, the brain tumor and the death of his brother. He remained mired in guilt and shame and never let go of a chance to accuse mother for all that had happened, tormenting and taunting her as if she were a witch who had worked a spell on him and his brother.” She stopped when her mother cast a disapproving look at her.
“You did not seek help from anyone?” I asked. “I sensed he was low whenever we crossed each other on the road, but never imagined it would come to this. I wish you had told me. We might have been able to prevent this tragedy.”
“It happened so fast. Father moved into this room ten days back. He ate little and slept alone, not letting mother come near. Last night he had another tiff with her. He refused to eat his dinner and said he was not feeling well and wanted to be left alone. Knowing him to be an early riser, when we found the door still bolted from inside this morning, we knew something was wrong. We knocked, and knocked again. There was no response. We broke in. To our utmost horror, we found him hanging from the ceiling. We did not know what to do. I cut the rope with a knife while my mother and brother held the body and laid it down here. I hope we did not do anything illegal.”
“I think not,” I tried to reassure her.
Mrs. Pran Nath, sobbing uncontrollably, her face contorted with grief, spoke for the first time, “He never listened to us. He was always reserved, always kept his thoughts and feelings to himself, and never sought favors from any one, not even from his family. We did not realize he was planning to kill himself.”
“I would never imagine he was capable of suicide,” I said.
“He was a very sensitive person and loved his brother,” the daughter replied.
I did not know what to say.
“What now?” I asked.
“We do not want a post-mortem or a protracted police investigation. The whole world will know, tongues will waggle, and the police will make our life impossible. Our future is in peril and the family name too,” pleaded the daughter poignantly.
Yes, the family name for all it was worth! It sounded bizarre after what had transpired during the last few months. What was there in the family to be proud of, to defend? The Dhars were genteel, unobtrusive and quiet but that did not prevent the coarseness of human character from surfacing at the slightest provocation, did not stop short of a brother getting bound to a tree by another, nor of a fraternal war culminating in tragic suicide. The pettiness that lies deep within us defies lineage and upbringing. It defies reason.
“Let us see what we can do,” I said and returned home to confer with my father.
Being a man of law, he advised that the police must be informed even as we agreed that nothing ever came out of police investigations in such cases except harassment and humiliation of the bereaved by the officials. He put in a word with the police officer to not delay the cremation and prolong the pain and the agony of the family. The officer obliged and there was no inquest.
The funeral ceremony took place in utmost hurry the same evening. There was a small gathering, some neighbors and a few close relatives. The ceremonial bath, before the journey to the cremation ground, was arranged on the back verandah. It was still an hour and a half to sunset, and the poplars in the backyard that the senior Dhar had planted twenty years earlier, cast an eerie pattern of shadows on the dead body and the assembly, as if in a final statement.
I chanced to look at the poplar that had received a big gash from the axe on that tragic morning several months earlier. The wound had healed. All one could see was a ragged scar on which fine moss was building up, as if to hide the shame of the family.
(From: Faith and Frenzy – short stories from Kashmir)
|*Dr. K L Chowdhury Dr. K L Chowdhury retired as a Professor of Medicine, Medical College, Srinagar. Presently he is the Director of a charitable institution, Shriya Bhatt Mission Hospital and Research Center, Durga Nagar, Jammu.
He is a physician and neurologist, a medical researcher, poet, social activist. He writes on diverse subjects – medical, literary, social and political and has numerous research papers to his credit, his pioneering work being “The Health Trauma in a Displaced Population” which was presented at national and international conferences.
He has published three anthologies namely:
1- “Of Gods, Men and Militants”. Minerva Press (Pvt.) India -2000
2- “A Thousand-Petalled Garland and other Poems”. Writers Workshop Kolkata – 2003
3- “Enchanting world of Infants” Peacock Books, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors-2007
He was declared Shehjar's 'Kashmiri Person of the year' for 2007.
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