Execution Day

by Maitri Vasudev

I vaguely remember the time a dead coconut leaf grazed the top of my head as it fell. I was four, I think. I cried, and when I wouldn’t stop, someone (maybe Amma) went up to the tree, hit it and said, Atta. See, now the tree’s crying. After which I hiccoughed to a stop.

That tree, along with its two companions, goes down today after giving its last crop of homegrown coconuts. These three are the survivors of seven (the other four were cut eighteen years ago when the house was demolished). I had vowed to stay out for the day, to hide from the massacre, but when I wake up, they’re already here with their ropes and axes. So, instead, I go outside to say goodbye.

Before I’m awake, Amma stands before Ajji and Thatha’s photographs. She seeks their permission to remove, for the sake of the house’s foundation, our automobiles, the telephone wires and the neighbours’ heads, what they had planted nearly fifty years ago. Then she, along with the Executioner, smears vermillion-turmeric on the trunks, offers a string of kakada flowers to each. She hugs them. They’re almost as old as she is.

When I come out, I fully mean to tell them how much I’m going to miss them, but all I can manage is an awkward pat on each trunk. The Executioner straps a belt around his waist and binds his feet loosely with another. He starts climbing the first tree. I shirk away.

First the dead leaves, then the seasoned coconuts. Thud. Fresh leaves. Thud thud. Madaiyya, tell him not to drop anything on the telephone wires. Thud. A crop of fresh coconuts. Thud thud thud. More leaves. One falls right on the wires, making them flap vigourously.

They’ll be wondering why we’re doing this, says Amma. According to a study she’s read, trees know it from the very day we decide to kill them. How can that be, I ask. Because they can sense our emotions, she explains. And looking at the half-bald tree, I wonder what it’s feeling. Maybe it’s liberating, like having your hair sheared off. But hair is dead. The Executioner lets down a bunch of fresh coconuts on a rope. No, now it’ll be like having your hair ripped off, yanked right out by the roots.

It’s a perverse pleasure that holds me riveted, watching the tree in pain. Like peeping at something forbidden, the feeling I had as a child when I read a kissing scene in a P G Wodehouse novel (which Amma deliberately omitted when she read aloud to us). The time we discussed Eve’s Apology in Defence of Woman by Amelia Lanyer in college, the professor spoke about how every action, every aspect that we recognise as part of a culture, is gendered. For instance, if rape is masculinised, victimisation is feminised. If objectification is attributed to the feminine, the gaze is considered masculine. No matter who rapes and who is victimised, who gazes and who is objectified, the gender of the doer or receiver doesn’t affect the gendering of the action. So then I’m a voyeur, succumbed to the male gaze, looking upon the Fall of the Tree in the most masculine manner possible. Like watching a repulsive Kannada soap on television, simply because you’re sitting in the living room while your grandmother’s watching it, and telling her the atte-sose conflict is over-emphasised and the plot silly, though your eyes continue to stare at the screen.

Nature’s is such a marvellous feat of engineering – that’s Amma’s next comment. The leaves span all around the trunk at the top. Although they’re very heavy, they’re embedded into the trunk in thick fibre fastenings, which are loosened as the leaf dries. As the new ones grow above, the old ones die and fall below. That’s the power of a coconut tree: you can tell how old it is by measuring its height. It grows until it dies. Or till we kill it.

Now, only the top of the tree remains, with the youngest leaves spouting out of its head. Look, calls Amma. See how young the trunk is at the top. And as the Executioner strikes, the pale neck swings off on its fibrous hinge, dangling back and forth across the trunk, deprived of the chance to join the Headless Hunt forever.

I’ve had enough. Picking my way out from between fallen leaves (they’ll use these to cushion the Fall of the Trunk, Amma mumbles), I listen to the Executioner shouting instructions to Madaiyya and his assistant. But as I shut the door, all I can think about is how every dosachutney breakfast will cost twenty-five rupees more than it does now.

The whirr of an electric axe. Blade touches bark, begins its grinding.

When she isn’t reading or obsessively listening to audio books, Maitri teaches English at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She has a Masters in literature and is an unapologetic collector of Harry Potter merchandise.