The Termite Conspiracy Theory

I awake with a violent start, to loud electrical crackling. Above my window, sparks are flying, flecks of yellow fire seem to be rocketing in all directions. The wires shake and sway, then there is a bang, and the whirring of the fan slowly subsides. The power has gone, and I realize I am breathing heavily, my heart racing, from the sudden shock.

I have been deprived of my internet connection for a few days, but from the morning of the first day, my contact’s reluctance to actually take action has shown me I am not one of his priorities. The electric fireworks seem to have come from just outside my window – if mine is the only house concerned, I begin to fear I may have to resign myself to a long stint without juice either.

I glance at my watch, it is just a few minutes past midnight. Yesterday was Shivaratri – had I angered the God by not fasting, and merely going about my usual daily business? I roll over, and after some time, find fitfull sleep, in the still air of my small room. When the alarm rings, I emerge bleary-eyed. Navigating by the light of my phone, I brew tea in the dark kitchen. I make my way down to the gate, clutching my yoga mat, but as I head out to Mysore-style morning practice, I see the stark silhouette of a large tree lying in the road. And then I see it has also brought the power lines down. I feel selfishly relieved – if it’s not just me, there’s a chance it will be fixed quicker. The wires leading to my window are slack, and hang loosely near the ground, wrenched from their anchor points.

Shortly before eight, I return, refreshed and hungry, and find that folk have not been idle. Two men, one with an axe and one with a hatchet, are hacking away at the outer branches of the tree, the sound of each firm stroke ringing out in the heavy morning air. The grey, smoggy fog, that now accompanies daybreak, still lingers.

A neighbour hails me. “How did the tree fall?” I ask, “there was no wind in the night, nor rain.”

“Termites,” he replies. “Termites had been eating away at the roots.”

Before long an elderly lady appears, her greying hair streaked with silver. She carries an enormous, tattered jute bag, though her neat, golden-hemmed indigo dress is impeccable. Barefoot, with silver-ringed toes, she sets about gathering huge, empty, tamarind seed pods, and twigs, perhaps for a cooking fire.

After a breakfast of papaya, oatmeal porridge and banana, I head out for chai, and see a white van, marked CESC, pull over. Its logo depicts power lines atop tall poles, so I assume they are electrical engineers. A rickety bamboo ladder and a curved bladed tool, tied to a long bamboo handle, rest on the roofrack. Two men emerge from the van, each with a chainsaw, one of which agrees to start. I watch for a while. The saw wielder makes up in enthusiasm for what he visibly lacks in lumberjacking skills, but alarmed by this spectacle of carefree recklessness, I escape down the hill.

By mid-morning, all the timber has vanished. I notice my neighbour gazing wistfully at the tree stump. Catching my eye, he says, “It’s a shame. It was a nice tree, big, and old.” This is true, but although the loss of the tree is regrettable, I feel strangely uplifted by his words. For him the tree was not just an insignificant part of the landscape.

I unlock the front door, and discover, to my surprise, that the fridge is humming once again, though standing in a sizeable puddle. I grab a cloth and wipe away the last signs of the night’s events.

Later, speaking to my New Delhi friend Rahul, I show him photos of the fallen tree. “Termites” I offer by way of explanation. Rahul looks at back at me, his eyes gleaming as he twirls the ends of his impeccable moustache.

“You know,” he begins, “it’s illegal to fell trees in town for timber. But if they topple of their own accord, you can use the wood.” He grins, before adding, “If I was cynical, I’d probably tell you these termites are doing a very good job. And its funny how the trees always seem to come crashing down when nobody is around to get hurt…”

The next day, I pause to watch a young girl picking delicate white flowers from a bush. She chooses the freshest, newest ones, that can’t have flowered more than a day or two ago. For some reason I think of jasmine, and ask, “What are you going to do with those flowers? Put them in tea?” She frowns slightly. “No,” she says firmly, “they are for puja.”

Ah, I think, new blossoms for puja. An old tree is gone, now new petals will decorate somebody’s altar. Decay and growth, destruction and renewal – the dance of Shiva. I go home and light an incense stick.

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