There was a strong squall the previous night. The big and old Jamun tree in the Secretariat lawn fell down.
In the morning when the gardener came to check the fallen tree, to his shock he found that there was a man trapped under the fallen tree.
The gardener ran to the peon and informed him of the trapped man.
The peon ran to the the clerk and the clerk ran to the Superintendent. The Superintendent ran to the spot to get an assessment of the situation.
Soon, a small crowd of onlookers gathered around the scene of the accident.
“Poor Jamun tree,” a clerk grieved, “it always used to bear so many jamuns.”
“How juicy and sweet its jamuns used to be,” another clerk lamented.
“In the season I would carry a sackful of jamuns which my kids used to eat with great relish,” a third clerk added with a choked up voice.
“But what about this man?” the gardener pointed at the trapped man.
“Oh yes, this man,” the Superintendent spoke, lost in deep thought.
“Is he alive or dead?” a peon asked.
“He must be dead,” another peon tried to gauge the situation. “If such a heavy tree falls on someone, how do you expect that person to survive?”
“No! I’m alive,” the man trapped under the tree declared in a painful voice.
“Alive?” a clerk asked disbelievingly.
“We should move the tree and retrieve the man,” the gardener suggested.
“Seems difficult,” a seemingly languid and rotund peon drawled. “The trunk seems very bulky”
“What’s difficult?” the gardener countered. “If the Superintendent sir gives the order we can gather 15–20 gardeners, and all the peons and clerks can join, and we can take the man out immediately.”
“The gardener is right,” many clerks agreed, and soon, people got ready to cut the tree and take the man out.
“Stop!” the Superintendent interjected. “Let me first discuss the matter with the Under Secretary.
Then the Superintendent went to the Under Secretary to discuss the matter. The Under Secretary went to the Deputy Secretary. The Deputy Secretary went to the Joint Secretary. The Joint Secretary went to the Chief Secretary. The Chief Secretary told something to the Joint Secretary. The Joint Secretary said something to the Deputy Secretary. The Deputy Secretary said something to the Under Secretary. Somewhere in between a file got created and the file kept moving from one table to another and thus, half a day passed.
By lunch time the crowd around the man trapped under the fallen Jamun tree had swelled. People were chatting and making different speculations. Many broadminded clerks wanted to take the matter in their own hands and wanted to rescue the man from under the tree.
The group of broad minded clerks were just about to launch their rescue operation when the Superintendent came running with a file and declared, “We are from the Commerce Department. We cannot remove the tree on our own. The tree comes under the Agriculture Department. I’m marking this file as ‘Urgent’ and forwarding it to the Agriculture Department. As soon as we get permission from them we will get the tree removed.”
The next day a reply came from the Agriculture Department that it was the responsibility of the Commerce Department to get this particular tree removed.
The people at the Commerce Department were infuriated. They shot back a letter that the Commerce Department had nothing to do with the tree and it was the responsibility of the Agriculture Department whether the tree was to be removed or not.
This way the file kept making rounds of the departments even the second day.
In the evening of the second day a reply came from the Agriculture Department that said, “We’re forwarding the matter to the Horticulture Department because it involves a fruit bearing tree and we’re responsible for just crops and farming related matters.”
At night the gardener secretly came to feed the trapped man some daal and rice. Although a police contingent was surrounding the area lest someone took the law in his own hand and tried to move the tree, one police constable took pity on the man and allowed the gardener to feed him.
“Your file is on the move,” the gardener quietly told the man while putting some food into his mouth. “It is hoped that tomorrow a decision will be made.”
The man didn’t say anything.
“It’s good that the tree fell on your butt,” the gardener continued the conversation while throwing a glance at the trunk of the tree. “Had it fallen on your back it would have broken your backbone.”
The trapped man still kept mum.
“If you have a relative or a family nearby let me know where they live. I will try to inform them of your predicament,” the gardener said.
“I neither have a family nor a relative in the world,” the man replied with great difficulty.
The gardener expressed his sympathy and went away.
The reply came from the Horticulture Department the next day. The reply was stern and full of reproach. It also seemed as if the Secretary of the Horticulture Department had a literary bent of mind. The reply went like this, “It’s quite incomprehensible that these days when there is a ‘plant trees’ drive going on in full swing, there are some government officers who suggest cutting off a tree, and that too, a fruit bearing tree, and on top of that, a Jamun tree, which people consume with great relish. Our department can never grant permission to cut such a tree.”
“Now what should we do?” someone looking quite learned said. “If we can’t cut the tree, maybe we can cut this man in half. It can be like this,” the man demonstrated with gestures, hovering over the trapped man, “if we can cut this man right in the middle, we can extract one part from this side and the other from that side. We can then leave the tree as it is”
“But this way I’ll die,” the trapped man protested.
“He has a point there,” a clerk concurred.
The man who was suggesting that the trapped man be cut in half injected an irrefutable piece of information into his previous recommendation, “You people are totally unaware that these days, with plastic surgery, both his body parts can be joined back.”
Now the file was forwarded to the Medical Department.
The Medical Department took prompt action and immediately upon the receipt of the file dispatched a reputed plastic surgeon to take stock of the situation at the spot.
The reputed plastic surgeon meticulously diagnosed the trapped man from all angles. He took stock of his general health, checked his blood pressure, measured his breathing, analyzed his heart and lungs, and submitted the report that although the plastic surgery operation could be successfully performed upon the man, the man himself would die.
Suffices it to say that the ambitious plan had to dropped.
In the evening the gardener told the trapped man while feeding him khhichdi, “The case has reached the higher authorities. A meeting of all the secretaries of the Secretariat has been scheduled for tomorrow to discuss your case and arrive at an acceptable solution.”
The trapped man groaned in pain and uttered a line of poetry, “I know you will not remain unconcerned, I will turn to ashes before you come to know of my plight.”
The gardener bit his finger in amazement. “Are you a poet?”
The man under the fallen Jamun tree nodded his head.
The next day the gardener revealed the fact to the peon and the peon told the clerk and the clerk told the head -clerk and soon the news of the trapped man being a poet spread throughout the Secretariat.
The crowd began to gather to catch the glimpse of the poet in no time. The news spread all over the city. By evening poets of all dimensions started gathering at the spot from all over the city. The lawn of the Secretariat turned into a confluence of poets. Many clerks and under -secretaries who had interest in poetry and culture also began to linger. Some poets sat beside the trapped man and started reciting their poems to him. Many clerks who dabbled in the exotic art of poetry shared their compositions with him and sought his learned opinion.
Upon finding that the trapped man is actually a poet, the sub-committee at the Secretariat concluded that the cases neither belonged to the Agriculture Department nor to the Horticulture Department. It fell under the jurisdiction of the Culture Department.
So, a request was made to the Culture Department that a decision be made as early as possible so that the unfortunate poet could be retrieved from under the tree.
The file bounced from one desk to another within the Culture Department and finally reached the desk of the Secretary of the Literary Academy.
The Secretary of the Literary Academy immediately jumped into his car and reached the place where the man was trapped under the tree.
“So, are you a poet?” the Secretary started interviewing the man.
“Yes sir, I am,” the trapped man replied.
“By what nom de plume do you generally go about with?” the Secretary asked.
“Avas!” the Secretary screamed.
“Hasn’t your compilation of poems just been published?”
The trapped man nodded his head in agreement.
“Are you a member of our Academy?” the Secretary asked in great agitation.
“No,” came the reply.
“Unbelievable,” the Secretary exclaimed. “A published poet of such repute, and not a member of our Academy. What an atrocious mistake. How could we commit such a mistake? Such a big poet trapped under the dark shadow of oblivion.”
“Not trapped under the dark shadow of oblivion as much as under this tree…for God’s sake please get me out of here,” the trapped man pleaded.
“I’ll get everything arranged right now,” the Secretary declared with absolute determination. “I’ll immediately submit my report to the department.
The next day the Secretary of the Literary Academy came running and said, “Congratulation! You must give me a treat. You have been selected as an esteemed member of our Academy. Here’s, see the copy of the order.”
“But first get me out of here,” the man said feebly. He breathed with great difficulty and there was lots of pain in his eyes.
“This is something I can’t do,” the Secretary declared. “Whatever I could do, I have done. Additionally, I can even arrange pension for your wife is you die. If you put in a request I’ll see to it.”
“But I’m alive,” the man said, haltingly. “Don’t let me die.”
“Unfortunately, our department deals with only cultural issues,” the Secretary said, apologetically rubbing his hands. “But don’t worry, on your behalf we have written to the Forest Department, and we have requested them to look into the matter urgently.”
In the evening when the gardener came to the man he sounded happy. He reassured the man that someone would definitely come in the morning from the Forest Department and cut the tree.
Although the gardener was happy, the man’s life was slipping away. But till the next morning, he wanted to hold on…maybe, just maybe.
The next day when someone from the Forest Department arrived at the scene with an ax and a saw he was stopped as soon as he began to cut the tree and the trapped man glimpsed a ray of hope.
There was an order directly from the External Affairs Ministry that the tree must not be cut at any cost. The tree was planted 10 years ago by the prime minister of Pitonia in the lawns of the Secretariat. There was a full possibility that if the tree was cut, it would permanently damage the relationship between the two countries.
“But this is a question of a man’s life,” screamed a clerk in anger.
“But on the other hand you have the question of diplomatic relations between two countries,” another clerk tried to reason with the angry clerk. “The country of Pitonia gives ourcountry lots of aid. Can’t we sacrifice a man’s life for it?”
“So the poet must die?”
The Under Secretary intimated the Superintendent, “The PM has come back from his foreign visit. At 4 o’clock today the Ministry of External Affairs will put the file in front of him. Whatever decision he takes, we will act accordingly.”
After 4 o’clock in the evening the Superintendent himself came at the spot, waving the file in his hand.
He spoke to the poet, “Are you listening? The PM has given the go-ahead. The PM is ready to take the full responsibility of the fallout and has ordered the tree to be cut. Tomorrow morning the tree will be cut and you will be set free.
“Listen,” the Superintendent shook the poet’s arm, “your file has been cleared.”
But the poet’s hand was completely cold. Their was no life in his eyes and a long file of ants was marching into his mouth. The file of his life had been cleared.
— Written by Krishna Chandar (1914–1977) in Hindi.
Translated here by me.
Many months ago I came across this story as a WhatsApp forward and I had saved it to rewrite it in English. This is the first time I have written a Hindi story in English. This is a typical Kafkaesque story.