Vidya Vasudevan | When the trees nodded their assent

Golden shower treeThe judge put down the newspaper with a sigh. The news was depressing. From neighbors battling over water, family property, parking slots, domestic violence, road rage and caste clashes, it was clear the warring mindset was firmly entrenched.

The sound of the doorbell brought him out of reverie. The judge stared at the visitor on his doorstep. Dressed in simple attire with a sling bag, the judge did not immediately recognize the young man.

The visitor introduced himself and spoke of a case the judge had dealt with ten years ago. The judge remembered the case vividly and invited the young man inside, where the visitor presented the judge with an invitation to the inauguration of his new printing press. Would the judge open the new premises? The judge was impressed and assured him that he would attend.

After the visitor left, the judge sat down and viewed the invitation. He smiled as his thoughts flew back ten years to the case in question.

Twelve students were in police custody. The judge eyed them sternly. They did not appear repentant of their acts of violence. Their crimes were serious, however, and the judge knew he needed to do something—perhaps drastic—to get through to them. Reminded of his own college-going grandchildren, the judge withdrew to his chambers.

Outside, anxious parents and relatives of the students waited with bated breath. Would the judge send the boys to prison? Their studies and in fact, their future itself, were at stake. Mothers talked of their sons being influenced by bad company, while fathers spoke of the money they had spent to get them admitted to college. The atmosphere was tense. The cops were angry. They were itching to drag the accused to prison and show them the consequences of criminality.

The case had grabbed headlines all over the country—an inter-college rivalry spanning decades. A gang of boys from a city college had dragged boys belonging to another college out of a public bus and attacked them with sickles, machetes, iron rods, and knives. Frightened out of their wits, the bus driver and other passengers had fled the scene. Some of the students had been hospitalized with severe injuries.

After this incident, the other gang went all-out for revenge and in the ensuing violence, which involved stone-throwing and petrol bombs, shops, buses and private vehicles were damaged and even burnt. A total of twelve students were arrested for indulging in pitched street battles.

Inside his chamber, the judge walked up and down in deep concentration. The two warring factions were notorious for their repeated acts of violence. Pausing in his walk, his mind made up, he sent word that judgment would be postponed by a day.

Meanwhile, he called a meeting with the committee members of the two colleges. Afterwards, he returned to his chambers to write. With a satisfied look, he read through the judgment.

The next day the courtroom was crowded. Would the boys be sent to prison? The judge cleared his throat and began to speak. The crowd listened in amazement.

The judge held up a photograph of an unkempt piece of government land in the heart of the city. Overgrown with wild bushes, the land had become a hiding place for thieves and drunkards. The judge wanted the twelve culprits to clear the land and cultivate a drought-resistant species of trees, flowers, fruits, or vegetables on it. He called upon the boys to come up with something innovative. He named a group of volunteers to ensure that his orders were carried out, presenting him with weekly reports over a period of two years. Based on the reports he received, the judge would then decide on the future of the twelve defendants. The six main points outlined in the judgment were as follows:

  1. The twelve would not be sent to jail, or to their homes.
  2. They would stay in a hostel under police custody and do the work assigned.
  3. They would not meet or communicate with their families, nor have contact with anybody outside.
  4. A vehicle with police escort would take them to their place of work and bring them back each day.
  5. Any attempt to escape would land them in jail.
  6. Their education would be stopped for a period of two years or further, dependent upon their behavior and performance.

When told of the judgment, the boys screamed in anger. The land encompassed a large area and clearing it in the hot weather would be backbreaking work. On the other hand, it would perhaps be better than going to jail.

The next day the boys were taken to the hostel. The volunteers discussed their task amongst themselves. Their job was easier said than done. The first step was to end the enmity between the boys, but until then they were separated into two groups of four and eight and put up in separate wings of the hostel under strict supervision.

Over the course of daily counseling sessions, the boys revealed the troubling home situations that had found expression in their violent behavior. The counselors introduced yoga and meditation as part of their rehabilitation strategy, but these did not bring the two groups closer together. Even combined responsibilities in the canteen, garden, and team sports did not help. At times, the boys almost came to blows. After two months, the volunteers were at their wits’ end.

Then an emergency effected what the counselors’ concerted efforts could not. An electrical fire broke out in a nearby building, putting the residents—and the entire neighborhood—at risk. Forgetting their differences, the boys sprang into action, organized themselves into teams, evacuating residents, shifting the injured to the hospital, and liaising with the police and firemen. The volunteers were astonished.

When the crisis was over, they congratulated the boys for their presence of mind in responding, given the gravity of the situation. The boys felt good about their teamwork and the good they had done for others. They realized the importance of putting aside their animosity so that future generations of students at their two colleges would not become caught in a vicious cycle of violence.

The next day, the two groups moved into a single wing in the hostel and shook hands. There was plenty of fist-thumping and jokes, as if they were long-lost friends reunited, rather than hated rivals. Together, they enthusiastically discussed various options for cultivating the city land and drew up a timeline. Work commenced the next day and periodic reports were sent to the judge, who kept his fingers crossed that his strategy would work.

Weeks flew past. The boys became such a closely knit group that no one would guess they had once been sworn enemies. When the two-year period was over, they invited the judge to visit the spot. Upon arriving, the judge beamed with delight. The land had been cleared of the unwanted vegetation and now presented a profusion of yellow color consisting of rows and rows of small Golden Shower trees, which required very little water. Their flowering season in full swing, the view was breathtaking. Between the trees, boys had put up small benches, the handiwork of one who had acquired the skills from his dad. The judge congratulated the boys and presented each with a document.

What did it contain?

A request from the judge asking the police to acquit them of all charges for good behavior and asking the colleges to re-admit them. The boys thanked the judge and hugged each other. They informed the judge that they intended to transform the place into a park with play equipment for the nearby slum children once they’d finished their education. Promising to look after the land and maintain friendly contact with each other, the boys left to celebrate.

Outside the area a team of journalists waited to question the boys. Ted, who was the leader of the group, said, “I used to hide knives and machetes in my room to attack these guys, whom I considered my rivals. I thought I would be in jail for at least three years. The judge has given us a new chance at life. I too wondered if we would ever get together and finish the job assigned to us. It was difficult. At first, I wanted to fight my enemies, but now they are my friends. I have realized that life is what you make of it, and that we can accomplish far more when we work together, rather than waste time in conflict.”

The rows of Golden Shower trees nearby swayed gently in the breeze signaling their assent.

Back in his home, the judge gazed speechless at the invitation he had received from his visitor. From law-breaker to achiever was a good outcome, he thought.

At the top right corner of the invitation was an image of a Golden Shower tree. The judge decided to keep the card as a reminder of the end of a violent street war and the creation of a beautiful park.

A whining sound caught his attention. He looked down at the two dogs seated near him. Oh dear! This was indeed tricky. He had passed judgment on more difficult cases and this was just a little tiff between the pet dogs belonging to his grandchildren. The two dogs, seated on either side of him, wagged their tails vigorously expecting a reward. They eagerly grabbed the cookies he offered and sat up expectantly waiting for more.

He stood up deciding to take them out for a brisk walk. They had been cooped up for too long and hence were constantly at each others’ throats. With little yelps of delight, the two followed him outside, eager for a glimpse of the outside world. Looking at the two friendly canines prancing along beside him, their tongues hanging out, he smiled. If only, there were more such easily solvable cases…

Vidya Vasudevan (née Vidya) pursues creative writing as a hobby and as relief from the stresses of daily living. She draws inspiration from the mundane things in life and the happenings in her immediate surroundings. She has written for Perspectives magazine, The Amsterdam Quarterly, and The Hindu. She lives in Chennai, in southern India and can be reached at vidyav123@gmail.com.

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3 Responses to Vidya Vasudevan | When the trees nodded their assent

  1. Mitchell Toews June 6, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

    Keeping the peace is hard work. Thanks for your optimistic, thoughtful story, VV.

    • Vidya Vasudevan June 6, 2017 at 7:50 pm #

      I agree: bringing about peace and calm and more importantly maintaining it is getting to be more and more difficult. In today’s world despite the dark clouds hovering around, only optimism can keep us going. Thank you for taking the time to read the story.

  2. kausie Ganesan June 7, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

    Quite an innovative amazing idea! Wouldn’t it be amazing if only we can do that with our Juvenile delinquents who are mixed up in gang violence, crime, drug and other misdemeanors and turn it into a positive experience for them while benefiting us and them with clean and crime free environment, positive attitude and better future. We all can use at least a little of that in this stressful world today.

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