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Aishwariya Laxmi

This essay was first published by Dustin Pickering

Trees have always held me under their spell. I’m sure they talk to each other, whispering secrets. The tales of Vikram and Betal are fresh in my mind. I heard them narrated to me in my childhood and read them, too. The tree scene fascinated me in the Lord of the Rings movie. The trees in the forest move, talk, and are legitimate characters.

As a child, I lived in an independent house in Anna Nagar, Chennai, with my parents. We had a tall drumstick tree in our backyard and a neem tree at the front. There were numerous creepers and bushes along the length of the garden. At night, watching the leaves sway outside was always eerie, creating spooky shadows that would dart about. The wind would also howl and make eerie sounds into the night as the breeze caught in the long branches of the trees. I would lie in my bed, somewhat still under the covers, feeling shivers down my spine, too scared to move. It didn’t help that at school, my classmates spoke about ghosts and other spirits inhabiting the neighborhood. They spoke about haunted houses and put the fear of it in my eight-year-old mind.

Now, looking back, I seem like such a chicken! But the vivid imagination of an eight-year-old is not to be scoffed at. When fear grips you, it fills your entire being, and you want to be still so that whatever else is out there goes away.

When I was in my teens, we moved to a house on Barnaby Road. Had I lived here in my childhood, I would have died of fright. It was a vast colonial-style bungalow with a ‘jungle’ of sorts for a backyard. A cannonball tree from Madagascar was at the base of the two-story house, near the compound wall, and it actually had a snake pit at its roots! The landlady who lived downstairs would leave a bowl of milk for the snake(s) that lived downstairs!

We used to get huge, hairy spiders in that house, which would blow into the house in the wind. How I managed to live there without creating a ruckus for two whole years, when I have always had arachnophobia, is a miracle. It just shows how lost I was in my teenage world. With my head in the clouds, I would practice my ‘shot-put’ downstairs, oblivious that one wrong throw could dislodge any number of reptiles from their hiding places. We hadn’t even snake-proofed the house. Snakes could have crawled in through the holes in the wall downstairs, which were part of a “design”.

We live in a suburban villa, where we have encountered snakes. My mom stumbled upon a Russel’s Viper in the backyard. Another day, a tree snake was inside our drawing room, coiling itself around the grills of our French window. I was telling my dad how scary I found all this, and I recalled that as a teen, I was blissfully unaware of all the dangers that lurked outside the house on Barnaby Road. These days, I stay put indoors, rarely venturing outside, partly to avoid encounters of the serpentine kind!

Last night, it rained cats and dogs. In the torrential downpour, nature also conducted a sound and light show. Yes, lightning and thunder created quite an atmosphere here, and the lights went out! Dark shadows outside that looked like a shadow puppet show. Recently, we trimmed the branches of our tree in our backyard since it extended into the plot of land behind, and the owner of the land did not want it to be so. The ‘spook quotient’ reduction was unintentional as fewer branches swayed in the night, extending their arms toward us…

What if ghosts lived in trees and came alive at night—just to strangle the people nearby? What if their ghoulish spirits entered our bodies while we slept and haunted us for life? What if the spirits of the dead lived in trees and looked for new bodies to inhabit and make their own?

The mind works in mysterious ways, and so does nature. Not everything has a rational explanation. We sometimes give rational explanations to calm our erratic hearts, feel a sense of control, and make sense of the world around us. As children, our parents tell us to hold talismans, take God’s name, or chant a mantra to rid ourselves of fear.

When we grow up, we need to exercise control over our minds so that it does not go haywire. We learn how to be scientific and not superstitious and find new ways to calm ourselves down. In the recent pandemic, it was as though dementors (from the Harry Potter books) were unleashed on us. They made us relive our worst moments, and our deepest fears ran through our minds, torturing us every minute of every day.

The fear of losing people we love replaces our fear of trees at night and shadows. And unlike ghostly shadows, this is a fear we will all have to face at some point. Sadly, there is no way to prevent life from taking loved ones from us. Even if we take great care of our health and of the health of those we love, they will have to leave us one day. And it is an irreversible loss. The pandemic, with its death toll of thousands and more, played out these fears in our minds, and some people lost their loved ones. My heart goes out to them.

As an adult, I value trees and wish everyone would understand how important it is to postpone climate-change-related disasters and protect the biome. In India, we have always revered trees, and we have several tree-lined avenues to provide shade to weary travellers. Trees revive people, and their leaves offer nourishment to us all. These tales of trees harboring spirits that wreak vengeance on people and strike them dead seem like tall tales. But try telling that to a terrified eight-year-old convinced that spirits are lurking in the garden.

India’s rich tradition of ghostly tales and spooky stories shared around a campfire is a testament to the fear and awe commanded by trees, snakes, and other reptiles in our lore. Many people in our country worship snakes, and it is considered inauspicious to kill a serpent. I’m yet to read about spiders being protected, but then there are the Jains, who believe that no living thing should be killed. They take care to avoid killing ants, too.

In North India, trees get bare in the cold and stand eerily in the twilight, their branches twisting forward in ghostly shapes. Sometimes, bats weave in and out, completing the horror movie effect. In snowy areas, the branches are covered with snow and look like long, lean, dried-up hands. Owls, too, inhabit these deserted trees, making them home and hooting into the distance.  The fact that owls can turn their heads almost 180 degrees also triggers the imagination. Children of all ages can also misinterpret their stare as scary. It’s all enough to convince you there is more to this than meets the eye. And you don’t want to mess with nature for fear of incurring Mother Nature’s fury. If we are alert and look around, many things can appear as something else to a frightened mind. In reining in these thoughts, we exercise control over our surroundings and stay sane. One must take a deep breath and calm down to rid the mind of fear and terror. Feeding the fear only makes it grow. Here’s to us knowing where to draw the line and learning to ‘mind’ our minds.


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Aishwariya Laxmi

I’m Aishwariya. I’m passionate about writing, reading, marketing communications, books, blogging, poetry and editing. I’ve donned several hats, such as freelance journalist, copywriter, blogger and editor.


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