Upside Down

by Aditya Gautam

The following account was stumbled upon by a hot-air balloonist near the recently created Haridwar Space Station in northern India. It sheds some light on the chain of events which led up to the replacement of an entire city by a patch of sky in the year 2020. 

However, we make no claims regarding the veracity of this document. Reader discretion is advised: 

The tree was growing upside down. There was no doubt it anymore. 

No one knew what had caused this sudden shift in the tree’s directional preferences. The closest we could come to recognizing a triggering incident was the visit of a municipality official to the tree a couple of days before it decided to do a headstand. 

The official had come with a notepad, a roll of measuring tape, and two surly workmen with axes in their hands. He had taken measurements of the tree’s girth and its distance from the road and our houses. A few of my eternally curious neighbors had learned by hovering in his general vicinity that he was working for the latest Devbhoomi Beautification Drive. 

Devbhoomi, i.e. the land of gods, i.e. Haridwar, my humble city. 

Every few years, around the time when city officials and politicians have to deposit the fee for their children studying abroad in fancy schools, or when their spouses need a new car, Haridwar undergoes a Beautification Drive. 

It is impossible to predict exactly what the next drive will involve, but there are a few things which can generally be expected.

For example, to start with, as many trees as possible are chopped down to provide wood to the builders and contractors who are friends with the right people. The traffic routes are restricted, and diverted, and transformed to look like loopy crayon drawings of a child on the wall of a newly-painted house. Perfectly good roads are torn down to be laid out again while roads with as many, and as large, craters as the surface of the moon are left well alone like precious historical artifacts to be treasured until the end of time. 

A couple of days after the new roads have been laid out, it is realized that the plumbing which needed to be repaired has not been repaired. 

The new roads are torn out again to right this wrong. But, after the plumbing has been done and the roads have been laid down again it is discovered that the new road is 5.7 inches less wider than it is supposed to be, and the budgets are re-proportioned, and the road is torn out again, along with any remaining trees. 

This kafkaesque cycle of corruption and incompetence continues until the Beautification Drive is abruptly declared a success and comes to an end until it begins again. 

But anyway, not to digress too much, the tree was growing upside down. 

It was one of the three very old, almost ancient, trees in front of my house, in the quieter part of the city. The triumvirate had stood there long before shops, apartments, temples, and schools came to settle down at a safe distance from the city’s popular tourist hotspots. 

For all anyone knew, the trees might have stood there since King Daksha, father-in-law of the Hindu god Shiva, had held court in the same neighborhood a thousand years ago. 

According to the old stories, Daksha was responsible for the suicide of his daughter, and Shiva’s wife, Sati. As a punishment Shiva beheaded him, but later forgave him and brought him back to life by attaching a goat’s head to his stump. It’s a good thing there were no Christians around to see that, or they might have mistaken Daksha for Satan, their own cosmic villain. 

Apparently, Shiva had a thing for beheading people and then attaching mismatched heads to their bodies when he felt merciful–he did it at another time with his son Ganesh and an elephant’s head. 

The point is that strange things have a history of happening in our neighborhood. Maybe they had only taken a thousand-year hiatus. 

But anyway, not to go off on mythological tangents, the tree was growing upside down. 

It was first noticed by Jagannath, the garage-owner who operates his open garage under the same tree and hangs many things on the tree’s large tree trunk. 

Deflated tires, car doors which have come off their hinges, miscellaneous tubes, pipes, and extra-large wrenches, are all hung on the large iron spikes he nailed into the tree’s trunk years ago. He could have been an executioner if he had been Roman and if crucifixions were still a popular way of executing trees as well as messiahs.

Anyway, not to switch tracks halfway down the trail, two days after the municipality man’s visit, Jagan noticed the tree had shed all its leaves overnight. 

When he started to sweep them away with Rajkumar, the sweeper who comes to collect our garbage every morning, he found that some of the leaves at the tree’s foot were standing their ground and refused to come away with the brooms. 

He realized it was so because these leaves had sprouted up overnight at the tree’s roots. On the other hand, what had been the tree’s branches were now much thinner and more sinewy than any branches in the world. The longer ones had even extended themselves into the water tank on my house’s terrace to make up for the tree’s groundwater supply. 

By afternoon the news had spread all around the neighborhood and people had gathered around the tree with mobile phones, holy red threads, earthen lamps, garlands of marigold flowers, and pots of milk. 

Some of the women established a 2-feet-high idol of Shiva at the tree in an attempt to chase out whatever spirit had possessed it and turned its mind to rebelliousness. 

Rajkumar, the sweeper, asked people not to gather together, keeping in mind the government’s advice to maintain social-distancing during the Coronavirus pandemic. He was shushed away and sent off by people who declared that a man from the chamar caste had no place near this site of a miracle. 

A large white cow with a distinguishing splash of black on its forehead represented the animals at this gathering by chomping on the tree’s leaves. Those who suspected that the upside-down tree could be the manifestation of a god promptly chased away the cow before it could make a decision about this new taste.

I have thought many times since then that if only we had been less enthusiastic yesterday much of what came to happen may not have happened. 

Maybe, in our curiosity we went to the see the tree, to touch it, to worship it, to put up its pictures on Instagram, and when we returned back to our shops and homes we carried back with us the pollen of its upside-downness, and this pollen then was fertilized in us just like the Coronavirus in those poor Chinese pangolins and bats. 

Curiosity did kill the cat, I suppose, but cats have nine lives and we humans only have the one. 

Incidentally, the Egyptian goddess Bast is believed to have the head of a cat on her otherwise human body. One can’t help but wonder if she ran across Shiva sometime during her eternal life.

But anyway, not to hitchhike a ride on some mythological rocket and fly off into the sunset, the crowd which had gathered around the upturned tree also included my next-door neighbor, Pandit Mishra, a jobless man who sometimes moonlighted as an astrologer in the local newspaper. 

As always, Mishra did the most idiotic thing possible. He informed his friends at the newspaper about the natural wonder blooming in his own front yard. 

The journalists, however, were busy covering the way the rest of the world at large had turned upside down when faced with a pandemic. 

For the first time in history, India had trumped the USA in a scientific endeavour by spraying people with disinfectants much before the American President advised the Americans to drink bleach for ridding themselves of the virus. 

In Bengal, a man had held a party with cocktails based in cow-piss instead of alcohol.

In temples of capitalism such as California and London, homeless people suddenly found themselves being carted off to nice, comfortable hotels instead of jails and asylums. 

All around the world, conservative families which had prided themselves on their ability to keep women in kitchens and bedrooms began sending out the same women to buy groceries while keeping the men safely tucked in bed under two layers of disinfectant, five surgical outfits, and an astronaut’s suit. 

The banks, instead of sending goons in formal clothes to people’s houses for sucking them out for whatever they were worth, had started talking about giving their clients rebates on loans and more time to pay off their EMIs. 

Even the governments, in a complete role reversal, seemed to have given up on mooching off their citizens and were beginning to consider an unthinkable thing: doing the work they had been elected to do.

Maybe our humble tree had decided to aim for hell instead of heaven not as a gesture of rebellion against its impending murder but simply as a matter of falling in line with rest of the world?

Anyway, not to get so lost in the bigger picture that we lose sight of our own little corner in it, a journalist and his cameraman were finally able to leave the serious business of hate-mongering and fake-news-peddling to their more talented colleagues for visiting our humble neighborhood the next day.

The first person they met was a middle-aged stranger in a safari suit who had settled on a folding stool near the tree sometime during the night. 

The journalist asked him what he thought was happening here. 

The cow who had munched on the tree’s leaves yesterday sauntered towards them and the stranger petted it on its head thoughtfully. 

He told the journalist that this was a super-secret mission of the Modi government to dig tunnels at zero cost for installing Super-Fast Bullet Trains that will ferry pilgrims to and fro from Haridwar. 

The journalist loved this explanation, of course. 

He opened his mouth to pose another question to the obviously intelligent man, but at that very moment the cow decided to clamp down its teeth on the stranger’s hand. It had lost the taste of our trash-in-bright-polythene-bags, it seemed, in favor of fleshier alternatives. 

The journalist’s white kurta was sprayed with blood. 

He watched horrified, along with the rest of us in our balconies and shops, as the cow relished the stranger’s hand with the thoughtful munching that is characteristic to cows, instead of the snap-and-swallow generally expected from carnivore beasts.  

Ibrahim, a young mechanic who worked at Jagan’s garage, rushed to save the situation while the journalist filmed the incident with much hand-wringing and outrage. When the usual shooing away did not work to chase off the cow, Ibrahim took off a wrench from the tree’s trunk and drove it through the cow’s eye. 

The bovine gave the world a last red-toothed grin before falling down to the ground, and then, of course, died. 

An ambulance was called to cart away the profusely bleeding stranger who had gotten his 15 minutes of fame. A police van came to take away Ibrahim for killing the holy animal. 

By now the whole neighborhood was finding it more and more difficult to comprehend what was happening around us. 

Patience was running low, and so when the journalist, unfazed by the carnivorous cow and its murder, tried to interview us about how we felt about the recent incidents, he was uncermenously reminded of his utter uselessness in the face of crisis and booed away with the choicest abuses. 

Before slinking away, standing beyond the range of our shoes and slippers, he told us we would face dire consequences for heckling him. But we took no notice of him; there were bigger things to worry about. 

As the branches of our upside down tree bore deeper and farther into the ground, the ripples of its upside-downness began expanding like ripples in a pond. No one knew how to cope with them and get back to our regular lives of comfortable indifference and apathy. It drove us nuts. 

Some people worried that the idol of Shiva that had been placed yesterday at the tree’s foot must be hungry by now and milk was fetched from cows who still were herbivores.

It turned out, however, that even the gods were in on the cruel trick being played on us. 

When a woman reverentially raised a glass of milk to  the idol’s mouth, it opened its mouth and puked out a stream of rancid milk and bile. The shocked woman backed away from the abomination and raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth. 

For hours the idol kept vomiting out everything it had silently swallowed over the years. Every few minutes it would pour out from its heart also streams of blood that had been spilt in its name. 

The stench was so bad that some people began praying to Shiva to behead them and then fix them up with Lord Voldemort’s noseless head when he felt more merciful.

As the night grew darker, people began returning to their homes, silent and worried. 

We went to sleep hungry–because the fire in our gas stoves no longer had any heat–and thirsty–because when we turned on the taps, all they did was make a strange sucking sound.

The next morning, as soon as I put my feet on the ground, I knew something was off with my body. I went out to the balcony and the very act of walking felt like I was doing it for the first time. 

Anyway, not to nosedive straight into an existential crisis, I made myself a practical cup of coffee and came out to the balcony. 

By the roadside a few feet from my house, Mr. Sharma, a sweetshop owner, was talking earnestly to Rajkumar, the sweeper. It looked like society had decided to mimic nature in turning on its head: Sharma-ji, a Brahmin, was asking Rajkumar, a Chamar, to perform a pooja for appeasing whichever deities our neighborhood had offended. 

Rajkumar agreed to that sweetly enough but when Sharma-ji tried to seal the deal by shaking his hand, he got offended by this violation of social-distancing and walked away in a huff. 

A fortunate outcome of this incident was that by some strange mental association between honest workers, Rajkumar reminded me of the gardener in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. 

So, following the reasoning of Rushdie’s levitating Geronimo Manezes, I picked up a page from the newspaper and performed his experiment. As I had suspected, the paper passed underneath the soles of my feet like a hot knife through butter, or like a sheet of paper through thin air. 

The implication, as difficult as it was to process, was simple enough to understand: my feet were not touching the ground, I was floating a few millimeters above it. 

Now, it has been a few hours since my discovery and I am not alone in experiencing a reversal of gravity. The whole neighborhood has followed in my wake. 

Our tree is trying to reach hell, and we are going to heaven. Unless, those two theological concepts have also decided to switch places and we are on our way to cauldrons full of hot oil and mountain treks that never end? 

We are floating away from earth in slow upward spirals like so many oversized balloons, and we are as afraid as Harry’s Aunt Marge was when she found herself in a similar situation. 

It was a pity that the journalist we heckled was not famous enough, or we too could have been banned from taking flights, thus avoiding this unfortunate situation. Or maybe he was even more influential than Mr. Goswami and he had got us banned from earth itself?

We watch from above as the upside-downness extends itself further and the Ganga river begins to flow back home towards the Gangotri glacier. As the water level drops, many skeletons become visible on the river bed.

And now, what is that—what in the name of Shiva is happening to the other two trees, the two as-yet-blameless brothers of our green and brown black sheep? 

But, ah, forget it. Forget it. Après moi le déluge, no? Let these worldly matters not distract us anymore from what is staring us in the face: our impending death. 

The air is thin up here and when it goes into the lungs it feels as sharp as a razor blade on the cheek. It is so cold.  I would like nothing more than to keep writing and make sure that people know how the world is turned upside, but I’m afraid I am feeling extremely lightheaded and must now bring this account to conclusion before the pen slips away from my han

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2 Responses to “Upside Down”

  1. Writing Short Stories — A few thoughts - Literature Says:

    […] while his pregnant wife sleeps peacefully in the bedroom, a secret library under the river Ganga, or a tree that starts growing upside down one fine day. In the case of a story that is yet to be published, it was an image of a person’s pubic hair […]

  2. Says:

    Upside Down |

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