The Neem Tree

Sometimes my house feels stuffy and hot, scary even. Like there are strangers living in these walls – strangers like the ones who side eye my mother in her hijab.

Sometimes my house doesn’t feel like home. Sometimes, my country doesn’t feel like home. It feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable, dark and grim. So I open the windows, and an overgrown neem branch caresses and pokes at my face.

On the days I feel frightfully lonely in this country of 135 crore people, I open the windows. No matter how far I am from the tree, I know its branches will reach me. This neem tree lies in the front courtyard of my Dadi’s house in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh. My Dadi’s Dada planted it when he moved from a small town to a slightly less smaller town in the year 1869. Over 150 years later, it still stands tall and proud in the same courtyard, surviving many reconstructions and renovations.

Everything is meant to fall into place. My history is not some erasable accident in time, rather I am a product of deliberate machinations of destiny. Pangea broke apart, and the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia, and the homo sapiens followed the coastlines into the plains, and they sowed seeds and baked bricks, rivers were charted and named the Ganga and Yamuna, borders and maps were drawn and kings were crowned, the Mughals came and built with marble, the British came and repainted it, my great-great-grandfather walked the 35 kilometres to a new town and planted a sapling, his children built their homes around it, and made the active, deliberate, conscious choice to stay with the tree through a Partition and riots aplenty.

Generations flew by and I return to the same place, growing closer and closer to the lowest branch every winter. I claim that tree and its roots and its earth and the country it is built upon.

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That neem tree is more proof of my nationalism than any citizenship documents will ever be. The hateful can dig as deep as they would like, break and burn down whatever they wish to, but they’ll only find thick, winding, twisting roots of my heritage. It’s woven into the fabric of this nation’s earth.

I am made of legacies.

In times where physical, tangible roots couldn’t be carried, my ancestors carried their experiences with them. When I go to college next year, I will be the fifth generation on my mother’s side to do so. My Nani’s Nana was a barrister – he stood for the laws this nation prides itself upon. My mother’s Nana was in the Air Force – he fought four wars for this nation. My Nani is a teacher – she spent 35 years fostering the future minds of this nation.

We are not an unwanted burden on this country, we are part of the foundations of it. We have been a part of India even before India formally came into existence. Those buildings may be breakable, but these foundations are unshakable.

In a country so divided along saffron and green, it becomes hard to walk the white at times. Sometimes it runs red with bloodstained footsteps, other times it goes grey with the soot of damnable fires. Then the tears of solidarity and the sweat of patience washes it white again. I hope it never loses its brightness.

The pleasant, hopeful winds, which carry flowers from the flag’s unfurling, breeze in through my open window. I have faith this country will always be my home.

Sanaa Shaikh is a 17-year-old writer from Gurgaon.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons