Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Atheist and the Banyan Tree

Ramanarayanan Krishnaswamy had three Hindu gods in his name, courtesy his extremely religious grandmother.  He was from a very religious family of Iyengar Brahmins, who swore by the Gita, were pure vegetarians, and the family never had a member who smoke or drank.

Mr. Krishnaswamy was quite the exception, perhaps the only one in the family, in all the three centuries of its documented history.  He smoked cigars. He drank scotch on a daily basis. He had eaten all kinds of meat in his life, including beef, which was quite taboo, even in liberal Hindu families in India. And, Mr. Krishnaswamy was an atheist. He had never believed in God, and he was quite jealous of the respect and devotion this universally acknowledged entity seemed to enjoy.

His family blamed his aberrant behavior on his western education. He, on the other hand, was quite proud of it. It was his western education, and many years of hard work, that had recently made him the director of one of India's prestigious technical institutes. And, he had come back to his country after many years in the west with a single motive, that could have reminded many of the ruthless devotion of the British during the colonial times to a particular cause. Mr. Krishnaswamy had come back to tame the natives. He did not want them to be savages any more.

And, within a few months of his arrival, he became quite the success. The administration had been streamlined. Old professors, who used to frequent the cafes on the campus, were offering new classes and attendance had gone up significantly. In fact, things had started getting pretty boring recently, and it seemed that there weren't enough new problems for Mr. Krishnaswamy to solve. And, on one particular Sunday morning, between his meeting with the dean of academics and a reception in honor of a visiting Nobel laureate, he had a gap in his schedule, for thirty full minutes! He decided to take a stroll around the magnificent administrative building of his institute. While he was admiring the well maintained Roman pillars and the recently repaired cornice with classic engravings, he spotted something that almost made him gasp. In one corner of the building, where two ancient beams joined to form the support structure of the roof, was a little touch of green. It seemed that a small banyan plant was growing from a crack at the joint. And, the maintenance staff had missed it!

Mr. Krishnaswamy abandoned his walk and rushed back to his office.  A quick call to his assistant set the wheels in motion.The small plant would be gone by Tuesday, when he would be back from New Delhi, where he had a very important meeting with the national security adviser.


Something was bothering Mr. Krishnaswamy as the institute's car drove him back to the campus from the airport. He felt that something was amiss, and he needed to check on it. So, he instructed his driver to take him to his office instead of the bungalow, where he wanted to take a quick break before resuming his day. As soon as the car stopped, he almost jumped out and ran towards the corner of the building. He looked up. There, in its full glory, was the little banyan plant. It was not so little any more. And, its leaves were swaying in the wind as if to welcome him back from the short trip. Mr. Krishnaswamy was furious. Heads were going to roll. Both literally and figuratively.

In ten minutes or so, the entire maintenance staff was lined up in front of him. A few people were trembling. They all knew why they were here. And they all knew that this was a director who would fire them without any hesitation. But, they couldn't mess with God! The banyan plant was holy. How could they remove it from where it decided to grow. If they did, it would bring great misfortune to them and their families. On the other hand, a lost job was something they could live with. Probably.

It didn't take Mr. Krishnaswamy long to find out what was going on. And since that god guy was involved, he was determined to make an example of it. He summoned one of the gardeners and asked him to place a tall ladder below the point where the plant was growing. Then, with the agility of a mountain climber, he climbed up the ladder to the point, from which, he could grab the plant and yank it off. But the roots of the plant wouldn't give up so easily, even after Mr. Krishnaswamy  put his entire weight on the pull. And then, something bizarre happened. He lost his foothold, and fell, almost from a height of three stories. And, the ladder fell on him. The last thing he remembered before blanking out, were a bunch of people running towards him.


The doctor told him that he had a fractured leg. And, a cracked skull. There were fifteen stitches on his face. He would need to be in the hospital for at least two weeks for his own good. Any questions?

Yes, what happened to the banyan plant? Is it still there?

Mr. Krishnaswamy knew the answer already. Now, it was war. Between him and the banyan plant. And, he couldn't wait for two weeks. By then, he would have to take on a banyan tree.

He would have made a funny sight to anyone, sneaking out of the hospital at midnight. With so many bandages on his body, and a plaster on the foot, the director looked like a mummy rescued from a museum. But, he summoned a taxi and bravely commanded the driver to lead  him to the battlefield. It was now or never.

The ladder was still there. All he had to do was to heave it up. It was quite the task with so many cracks in his skeletal system. But, Mr. Krishnaswamy was quite strong for his age. He limped his way up the ladder. And tugged on the plant with all his strength. This time, the plant gave up, but it came rushing towards Mr. Krishnaswamy, as if it wanted to hurt him one last time. He lost his balance and fell.  Like Yogi Bera used to say, this time, it was like deja-vu all over again.

The security guard heard a thud and decided to investigate. And, he found the director.


He was sleeping with a content smile on his face. This time, he had three more fractures, but his skull was all right. No further stitches as well.

The doctor was doing his rounds. He had asked for security to be placed outside the room. Director of national institute or not, he didn't want to fix this guy for a third time. "Did the patient wake up while I was gone?" asked the doctor. The nurse nodded. "Did he say anything?". She nodded again. "What?" asked the doctor. She said, "He just muttered one line before he fell asleep again."

Tell those banyan tree lovers that I got the goddamn plant. From now on, I am God.


  1. Are you an atheist Desi Babu???

  2. Hdaran, No I am not. I am spiritual, but I do not believe in organized religion or dogma. And, I loathe superstition, more if it is packaged as religion. That, probably inspired this story :-)