One day, when Rakesh was six, he walked from the Mussoorie bazaar eating cherries. They were a little sweet, a little sour; small, bright red cherries, which had come all the way from the Kashmir valley.Here in the Himalayan foothills where Rakesh lived, there were not many fruit trees. The soil was stony, and the dry cold winds stunted the growth of most plants. But on the more sheltered slopes there were forests of oak and deodar.
Rakesh lived with his grandfather on the outskirts of Mussoorie, just where the forest began.
Rakesh was on his way home from school when he bought the cherries. He paid fifty paisa for the bunch. It took him about half an hour to walk home, and by the time he reached the cottage there were only three cherries left.
‘Have a cherry, grandfather,’ he said, as soon as he saw grandfather in the garden.
Grand father took one cherry and Rakesh promptly ate the other two. He kept the last seed in his mouth for some time, rolling it round and round on his tongue until all the tang had gone. Then he placed the seed on the palm of his hand and studied it.
‘Are cherry seeds lucky?’ asked Rakesh.
‘Nothing is lucky if you put it away. If you want luck, you must put it to some use.’
‘What can I do with a seed?’
So Rakesh found a small spade and began to dig up a flower-bed.
Rakesh went to a corner of the garden where the earth was soft and yielding. He did not have to dig. He pressed the seed into the soil with his thumb and it went right in.
Then he had his lunch, and ran off to play cricket with his friends, and forgot all about the cherry seed.
When it was winter in the hills, a cold wind blew down from the snows and went whoo-whoo-whoo in the deodar trees, and the garden was dry and bare. In the evenings grandfather and Rakesh sat over a charcoal fire, and grandfather told Rakesh stories – stories about people who turned into animals, and ghosts who lived in trees, and beans that jumped and stones that wept – and in turn Rakesh would read to him from the news paper, Grandfather’s eyesight being rather weak. Rakesh found the news paper very dull – especially after the stories – but grand father wanted all the news…
One morning in the garden he bent to pick up what he thought was a small twig and found to his surprise that it was well rooted. He stared at it for a moment, then ran to fetch grandfather, calling, ‘Dada, come and look, the cherry tree has come up!’
‘What cherry tree?’ Asked grandfather, who had forgotten about it.
Rakesh went down on his haunches, while Grandfather bent almost double and peered down at the tiny tree. It was about four inches high.
‘Yes, it’s a cherry tree,’ said grandfather. ‘You should water it now and then.’
Rakesh ran indoors and came back with a bucket of water.
‘Don’t drown it!’ said grandfather.
Rakesh gave it a sprinkling and circled it with pebbles. ’what are the pebbles for?’ asked grandfather.
‘For privacy,’ said Rakesh.
He looked at the tree every morning but it did not seem to be growing very fast. So he stopped looking at it – except quickly, out of the corner of his eye. And, after a week or two, when he allowed himself to look at it properly, he found that it had grown – at least an inch!
It was about two feet high when a goat entered the garden and ate all the leaves. Only the main stem and two thin branches remained.
‘Never mind,’ said grandfather, seeing that Rakesh was upset. ‘It will grow again: cherry trees are tough.’
Towards the end of the rainy season new leaves appeared on the tree. Then a woman cutting the grass cut the cherry in two.
When grandfather saw what had happened, he went after the woman and scolded her; but the damage could not be repaired.
‘May be,’ said grandfather.
But the cherry tree had no intention of dying.
By the time summer came round again, it had sent several new shoots with tender green leaves. Rakesh had grown taller too. He was eight now, a sturdy boy with curly black hair and deep black eyes. ‘Blackberry,’ grandfather called them.
That monsoon Rakesh went home to his village, to help his father and mother with the planting and ploughing and sowing. He was thinner but stronger when he came back to his grandfather’s house at the end of rains, to find that cherry tree had grown another foot. It was now up to his chest.
Even when there was rain, Rakesh would sometimes water the tree. He wanted it to know that he was there.
One day he found a bright green praying mantis perched on a branch, peering at him with bulging eyes. Rakesh let it remain there. It was the cherry tree’s first visitor.
‘Come back when you are a butterfly,’ he said.
Winter came early. The cherry tree bent low with the weight of snow. Field mice sought shelter in the roof of the cottage. The road from the valley was blocked, and for several days there was no newspaper, and this made grandfather quite grumpy. His stories began to have unhappy endings.
In February it was Rakesh’s birthday. He was nine – and the tree was four, but almost as tall as Rakesh.
Rakesh and grandfather gazed at the tree as though it had performed a miracle. There was a pale pink blossom at the end of a branch.
The following year there were more blossoms. And suddenly the tree was taller than Rakesh, even though it was less than half his age. And then it was taller than grandfather, who was older than some of the oak trees.
In the cherry tree, bees came to feed on the nectar in the blossoms, and tiny birds pecked at the blossoms and broke them off. But the tree kept blossoming right through the spring, and there were always more blossoms than birds.
That summer there were small cherries on the tree. Rakesh tasted one and spat it out.
‘They‘ll be better next year,’ said grandfather.
But the birds liked them – especially the bigger birds, such as the bulbuls and scarlet minivets – and they flitted in and out of the foliage, feasting on the cherries.
On a warm sunny afternoon, when even the bees looked sleepy, Rakesh was looking for grandfather without finding him in any of his favorite places around the house. Then he looked out of the bed room window and saw grandfather reclining on a cane chair under the cherry tree.
‘There is just the right amount of shade here,’ said grandfather. ‘And I like looking at the leaves.’
‘They’re pretty leaves,’ said Rakesh. ‘And they are always ready to dance, if there’s breeze.’
‘There are so many trees in the forest,’ said Rakesh. ‘What’s so special about this tree? Why do we like it so much?’
‘We planted it ourselves,’ said grandfather. ‘That’s why it’s special.’
‘Just one small seed,’ said Rakesh, and he touched the smooth bark of the tree that had grown. He ran his hand along the trunk of the tree and put his finger to the tip of a leaf. ‘I wonder,’ he whispered. ‘Is this what it feels to be God?’