Shyamal was looking affectionately at Nimai from his bed. He had been in bed with typhoid for a month and Nimai had been his best companion all the time. He could hardly think of a more enchanting scene than handsome and elegant Nimai standing erect, holding his head high against the background of the shining blue sky. He could almost hear his grandfather's voice in the murmur of the small green leaves and the long, spreading branches of Nimai, telling how Hindus believe that a few drops of heavenly nectar fell on the neem tree, and that is why it makes people free from diseases.
Yes, Nimai was the name of a free. Possibly their house was the only one in the world where a tree had a name of its own and what name could a neem tree have in a Bengali house but Nimai?
Shyamal's grandfather planted the tree on the day of their 'griha pravesh' when the family first entered the new-built house. Although Shyamal was not born at that time, he felt he could see the afternoon most vividly. He could see the then younger grandpa entering the house with a triumphant smile, the neem plant in his hand, which he had collected from the old gardener of his office. He had to take a lot of trouble to find out the old man's house, but he didn't mind it at all. Shyamal could see his grandpa planting it near the gate, his hands full of mud, and grandma standing near him blowing the conch-shell to extend auspicious welcome to the new life.
Since then Nimai had been an indispensable part of their family life. Shyamal had seen his grandpa sitting under his favourite tree from early morning till almost midday in every season. It was the place for his morning 'upasana' (prayer). The neighbourhood remembered his gentle, rhythmic voice in 'surya pranam' (salutation to sun). He used to take his morning tea and breakfast there. In summer, that was his place as the afternoon breeze started. How he loved to see neem flowers appearing from March-April, the air carrying its light fragrance, and greenish yellow fruits ripening during June to August. For hours, he sat there reading, writing, thinking or just gazing at the numerous thin young leaves playing in the gentle air; birds coming and leaving; squirrels going up and down.
After retiring as the Director of a multinational company, he found the greatest pleasure of life in reading books on India's culture, literature, and mostly India's vast wealth of trees and plants, and nobody could stop him when the subject was neem tree. He could talk endlessly on the applications of each and every part of the tree in Indian Medicine. The seed oil and soap made there from can be used very effectively in various skin diseases like indolent ulcers, ringworms, and in rheumatism. The bark is used as tincture. People say it is beneficial in malaria as well. Grandpa always used the fresh tender twigs to clean his teeth, and the children of the house learnt to do so. Grandma and mother always kept dried neem leaves in books, paper and clothes to protect them. 'Neem-begun', or leaves of neem fried with small pieces of brinjal, was a favourite dish of the whole family which was eaten as a prevention for pox.
In his childhood, once grandpa had smallpox and his mother used to comfort the burning with neem leaves. He often told Shyamal, his most obedient listener, that the neem leaves still reminded him of his mother's affectionate touch.
The tree shade was the place where the old man enjoyed happiness and bore sorrows. When the grandsons and daughters were born, their naming ('namakarana') ceremonies and all birthday parties were celebrated here. His love for nature was reflected in the names of grandchildren Banani, Banashree, and Shyamal.
When uncles were married, the new brides were welcomed under the tree.
On Diwali, the first lamp had always been lit there.
Shyamal remembered the day forever when the news came that his grandma had died for heart attack at his uncle's place, Mysore. The old man didn't utter a word, but resorted to his Nimai. He sat there the whole day like a statue, perhaps trying to get the strength to beat the heart-breaking loss from his age-old companion, while the other had departed forever.
And his end also came so suddenly and silently. He was sitting outside even after it was dark and Shyamal's mother sent him to call grandpa. At first Shyamal thought that grandpa was dozing and he tried to wake him up. "Grandpa, your time of chatting with Nimai is up." His head bent down on the chest by Shyamal's touch, and suddenly the child realized that the time has been over indeed, while one or two leaves were still falling in the old man's lap.
So far, Shyamal was completely lost in his thoughts, looking at the slim and shiny leaves, which had been always his favourite pastime. He was a sentimental and thoughtful boy, very much after his grandfather, but his materialistic engineer father never liked this.
Shyamal's mother came in with the news of the day. "Well, son, I have a surprise for you. Do you know our new Maruti car is coming today?"
This was great news indeed, and naturally the boy was highly excited. He jumped down from his bed, and announced, "I am not going to lie down any more. Today evening itself, I am going to have a long drive with Papa."
When the first excitement was over, his mother tried to break the next news to Shyamal cautiously, "Your Papa says that we have to cut down Nimai as we have to make a garage for the new car."
Shyamal could not believe his ears. He had turned almost blue by the severity of the shock. When he was able to speak, his voice was broken, "Mummy, how could you ever think of that? Can you ever think of killing me or Banani just because of lack of space? Don't you remember grandpa at all?" The fourteen-year-old boy's voice was lost in uncontrollable sobs.
Mother considered the situation beyond her control and so she called father. There was a long argument between father and son, but the son could not be moved an inch. "How on earth could you ever think of that? I can still feel grandpa's breath when I am under that tree."
"But, this is just a fascination. Your grandfather was my father, I too loved him. We can remember him in hundred other ways. Moreover where do we keep the car?"
Shyamal was simply uncontrollable and unconvincible. Father went out in his worst mood saying that he did not know how a boy of these days prefers to have a neem tree to a new car. Anyway, the tree-cutters would come next morning.
Only God knew how the boy spent the day. But one of the most strange events of his life happened that evening. The house was busy and nobody seemed to notice the morose boy. Towards evening, the sky was dark with heavy, black clouds. It was just the time for his father to return when it was thundering outside, and big raindrops started to fall. The fragrance of wet soil reminded Shyamal of his grandfather, how he used to fill his chest with long breathes of this fragrance.
Shyamal was just thinking that this was the last rain of Nimai's life, when an enormous sound almost deafened him. All the lights went of instantly, and a very bright and large flash enlightened the outside for a second. Shyamal could only see that Nimai was burning, and his father was heard screaming from somewhere near the gate. All these were too much for the boy's already weak body and mind and he lost consciousness.
He found everybody including his father by his side when he recovered and to his great surprise his father was in tears. Slowly he came to know that a big lightning had struck the tree. Had it not been there, it was sure to have hit father as he was just getting down from the car at that time. Even while dying, Nimai did not cease to extend his best service to his master's family.
Next morning, Shyamal was not in his room. Only a slip on his table said that he was going out with their old servant, Prasad.
As hours passed, the parents were more and more anxious and impatient. Shyamal's father, uncles and friends went out to search at hospitals, police stations, his friends' places, but nobody could get any news. A fourteen-year-old boy and an old servant seemed to have vanished from the city.
It was almost 10:30 at night. Every room of the house was lighted, it was full of people, but nobody talked. Mother could not cry any more. She was staring vacantly at the burnt remains of Nimai.
Suddenly, somebody shouted, "He is coming." Everybody rushed out. Shyamal could not seen at a distance followed by Prasad. The boy had walked a long way as shown by his sweating forehead and dust-covered knees. But all these were overtaken by his big triumphant smile. He was holding a small neem plant with two hands like a precious jewels.
Everybody tried to question at once, but he answered only his mother, "Mummy, at last I found grandpa's old gardener's house, with the help of Prasad uncle. I got this plant another in its place." His face was illuminated by the luster which his grandpa had passed on to him.