O, Christmas tree!

“Aren’t you going to get the tree?” hollered mother as she juggled several chores a couple of days before Christmas.  Her umpteenth reminder to us forced us to reluctantly abandon a game of French cricket we were playing in our compound with friends from the neighbourhood. Taking with us my mother’s newest possession from the kitchen, a deadly looking sickle, my brother and I set out on my bicycle, with him seated on the carrier that served as a rear seat, hiding the weapon, lest onlookers wonder if we were up to some heinous act. In a sense, we were, because it meant chopping a branch off a casuarina tree from someone's property, on the outskirts of the city.

After pedalling for nearly an hour on that chill winter evening of the '70s, we reached the secluded casuarina grove, a thickly wooded area with just a pathway for cyclists and pedestrians. It was our favourite haunt for finding the ideal branch to serve as our Christmas tree. It didn’t take long to spot a conical shaped branch with thick and green foliage. Looking around vigilantly to ensure no one was spying on us, we deftly hacked the said branch with the precision of a woodcutter. Balancing it horizontally on top of the bicycle, we began trudging the distance home.

It was our annual ritual and it wasn't always that one found a perfect branch to set up the perfect Christmas tree. Alas, our joy was short-lived, for all of a sudden an angry looking man materialised out of nowhere and advanced towards us threateningly. 

Ordering us to stop, he demanded to know who gave us permission to chop a branch. We were guilty as trespassers; we had no answer, so we meekly told him that we needed it for Christmas and that everyone we knew came here for the same purpose. “You cannot touch a tree here. How did you'll chop that branch?” he growled in Kannada. Before we knew it, he had grabbed the sickle from my brother’s hand and made away. 

Now this was one of mother’s newest possessions with multifarious uses in the kitchen and the garden. How could we go home without it? We dreaded her severe scolding. Determined to get it back, we followed the man, begging him to return the sickle. He ignored our pleas and quickened his pace.  Feeling helpless and with no one in sight, we walked faster trying to keep up and pleading a little louder.  He stopped in his tracks and turned back, glaring at us and gesturing like he would attack us. Frightened, we fled, with the casuarina branch atop the cycle. 

We decided that the best thing to do would be to make everyone happy by setting up and decorating the tree first and then narrating the displeasing incident. “Go and get it back!” mother thundered, after we had recounted our misadventure. We scampered out with the bicycle and after roaming about aimlessly for an hour, returned empty-handed, fully prepared to land a couple of stinging slaps. To our immense relief, what we got was an earful that ended with "now no point in feeling miserable, get on with your work." 

In the season of peace, joy and hope, I find myself unspooling an incident from a time when we had not foreseen that the humble casuarina branch would be replaced by reusable, synthetic 'Made in China' trees that look more perfect than the real ones, and add to the artificial flavour of present-day Christmas celebrations.

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