Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Banyan Tree Tag

The banyan is a big, strong tree which, as it ages, has the ability to send down branches to form new roots. As these branches grow thick, the tree seems to have more and more trunks and gains the stability to grow wider and wider. The largest living banyan tree covers a whole acre. For this reason, among many others, it is now the national tree of India, a token of hope that something so large and diverse can somehow remain connected and stable. When my mother's father was a little boy, however, there was no independent India for the banyan tree to be a symbol of. He and the other children in the village used a nearby banyan tree to play a kind of tag called danda dook.

The game went like this: one child was selected to be "it" and one of the remaining children was selected to throw a stick (danda) as far as he or she could. The child who was "it" would then run to fetch the danda while the other children scrambled up the banyan tree. When the "it" returned, he or she would have to leave the danda at the base of the tree and chase the other children vertically, climbing up after them and trying to catch someone (dook), often by trapping one at the end of an isolated branch. The catch? Anyone getting to the bottom of the banyan tree and touching the danda without getting caught was free for the round. A child who got caught, though, would then be new "it": the old "it" would throw the danda, and the game would begin again.

My grandfather came to the United States in 1954, joined a new church in 1956, married in 1958, and raised his family in Utah, so my mother and her three sisters and three brothers grew up without any banyan trees to play danda dook in. I myself have never spent time up a banyan tree, but I still find myself thinking about this game sometimes.

Lately I have this feeling that my grandfather, over the past sixteen years, has gone back to it.

One example: when I was a small child, my mother's whole family lived in Utah. I remember meeting once a month on a Sunday afternoon with all the available aunts and uncles, enjoying games and a huge patchwork feast. In 1993, though, our church asked my grandparents to go back to India for several years as missionaries, unknowingly throwing the danda to start a new game and, though it must have happened gradually, it seems that as soon as they were gone zoop! we all scrambled off to different places: Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, West Virginia, not stopping even when they came back, scrambling through states (and later countries) like monkeys until my grandparents had children on three continents. True to the game, of course, by grandparents left Utah and started chasing, moving all about the country (until of course, our parents sent the oldest of us grandchildren to the base of the old tree at BYU to look for the danda, trying to get free for the round, at which point my grandparents came back, the puppy-guarders!)

Another: when my grandfather left, back in 1954, he could scarcely have imagined how much like a branch of the banyan tree he would be, that he would set down roots here while still a part of his native family body, that he would make room for so much of the family to set down roots across North America, that the Banyan of the Dhudike Gills would stretch across oceans and plains. Oh, but then someone must have thrown a danda, because in 2003 my grandfather felt an overwhelming impulse to go to India, to find and record the history of his ancestors. He found old land records, serving as mouse-fodder in poorly maintained basements, but containing hundreds of thousands of names from the 1850 census the British took in Punjab, a census in which they required every landholder to identify himself by listing four generations of his ancestors. Up and up the tree my grandfather chased his forbears: searching for the histories of clans like Gill, Toor, Brar, Bhatti. Finding the history of the Jats leading back to the Sakas who came down from Central Asia nearly two millenia ago, and before that? Who knows...

And now I imagine the great banyan tree of eternity in which we are all tangled branches, one giant interconnected human family and oh! how I long to crawl up and down that tree, to remember its shady and forgotten places and to feel, in its arms, how much we all belong.

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