The following is the translation in English of the Tamil short story Sankalpamum Sambavamum written in 1913 by Ammani Ammal.
THERE was once a casuarina tree in a forest. It was thriving comfortably, lush and green, with enough rain and sunshine. Children sang and played joyously under its shade; birds nested in its branches and cooed melodiously. Squirrels jumped so playfully on its branches that merely watching them evoked a feeling of briskness. Even though every creature that benefited from the tree was lively and contented, the tree itself was never satisfied. It always felt that it could be something else. It wanted to be put to use for something famous in the world. Knowing this, a tree beside it said, “Good, one day you will become the mast for a ship. What could be more special than that?” But the tree didn’t like it: “Pooh! What, did you say the mast for a ship! I would like to be more special than that, thank you very much!”
Every year, the men who measured trees would mark out the tall ones in the forest; the woodcutters would then arrive, fell the trees, chop up the branches and deliver them to the shipbuilders. The tree thought all this was too demeaning.
One day the tree was marked to be cut. “Aha, the time has come for you too, is it?” remarked a nearby tree. But the tree laughed it off. “I’m much smarter than them.” It got the mark rubbed off with a squirrel’s tail.
The weaver birds who came back the following year exclaimed, “O! You’re still here!” The tree replied haughtily, “O, yes, they tried to chop me off. But you think I’ll give in to them?”
“But don’t you want to be tied to a mast of a pretty ship, travel the seas in style and see new-new ports and people?” asked a weaver bird.
“No, I’m not at all interested,” said the tree. “The sea looks the same everywhere. I want to be of use to the world, that’s my aim.”
“You are talking senselessly. We have no time to chat with you now,” said the birds and went about their work.
The time came for the tree’s wish to be fulfilled. One day, a few other woodcutters came to the forest. Instead of picking the tallest and the most upright trees, they earmarked trees at random and started cutting them down. The weaver birds remarked to their old friend, “Be careful. Whether you like it or not, these people are sure to chop you today.”
“I quite like the idea,” replied the tree. “I wish to be of use to the world.”
On hearing this, a woodcutter said, “Good, as you wish.” With a chop of his axe, he pulled it down. “I don’t think you will work as a ship’s mast. Don’t worry, you aren’t suitable enough to be put for such use. They will use you to make paper.”
“What is paper?” asked the tree to the weaver birds who were flying here and there on its branches. “We don’t know. We’ll ask the sparrows.”
The sparrows said what they knew: “Paper is the white thing on which people write and read. Earlier they were making it with rags. Nowadays because trees are so easily available, they are making it with trees.”
“O, people will read me, is it?” enquired the tree eagerly. “Yes,” they replied. The tree lay spellbound, its happiness knowing no bounds. Aware that there was little reason to be so joyful, the sparrows cautioned: “Ayyo, wait for a minute. They are going to turn you into newsprint, not paper for a book.”
“Whatever it is, they will write only interesting, good things on me, isn’t it?” said the tree. “Perhaps,” said the sparrows. “But, generally, they don’t always write good things.” A few men then came to drag away the tree. Poor thing, the tree went through such ordeals. First they chopped it into bits, then pushed it into the grinding machine along with the others, pounded and squeezed all the juice out of its body to make it into mush, torturing it in ever so many ways, before finally turning it into paper. What was the point in having such thoughts while undergoing such torment? And what use thinking of days of pleasant sunshine in the sloping hills of the forest, when birds cooed in the branches and children scampered about in the shade and when you proudly watched them all? “I never imagined the world would be like this,” mused the tree aloud. The other trees, also turned into paper, concurred in one voice: “Whatever has been said of the world is all highly exaggerated.”
Then they wound the tree into a roll, five miles long, and loaded it into a ship. There, poor thing, it suffered from ailments such as seasickness for a week. A fierce wind blew over its head. When they heard the noise, all the trees that were turned into paper sighed about the days spent so pleasantly in the forest, when they had so fearlessly braved the winds. Our casuarina tree (turned into paper) had the misfortune to be piled at the bottom of the mast of the ship.
Not only that, the mast also happened to be its old friend. The mast told the tree with satisfaction and pride: “There is no greater life than being a mast. Under the sunshine during the day and under the stars and the moon at night, we take people and goods to new-new countries, see so many ports—I can’t tell you how much use we are to the world.”
The tree started to cry. “Are you telling me that a mast is as important as a newspaper?”
The mast shook with laughter. “Well, this is what I like. Why, the life of a newspaper is just one single day; it’s of no use at all even the very next day. A mast, on the other hand, is of use for several years. O, I forgot another thing. Sometimes the captain of the ship leans against it. Just imagine how proud it feels.”
The tree was engulfed in immeasurable sorrow. On reaching the port, the rolls of paper were unloaded on the shore. In the end, it reached the godown of the city’s newspaper. It would have been so breezy in the forest; it was so different being shut inside the airless godown. Every roll of paper that lay in the room lamented with great sorrow. One night, our tree (the paper) was taken to the printing place, where under the press, unable to breathe, it lost consciousness. When it came to in the morning, it found letters imprinted on its body. What the sparrows had said had come true. What was printed on it were advertisements with crude illustrations—‘Fragrant snuff’, ‘Sparrow virility potion’, ‘Hypnotic aromatic tobacco’, ‘Sixteen expensive things for a rupee’, ‘Novel hair remover’, and things such as ‘Broad-daylight Murder in Chinglepet’, ‘Man Dies Climbing Tree’, ‘Trains Collide’, ‘Yogi Living on Air’, ‘Flying Baby’, etcetera. There was not a single thought-provoking word to be seen.
Oh! Even the all-knowing Lord of the Serpents, Adhiseshan himself, wouldn’t be able to express how sad the tree was when it came to know what was printed on it; it bemoaned the fact that it hadn’t become a mast. It took a vow that if only it could somehow escape from this predicament, it would never let its mind wander. But ayyo, it was all over. Then the tree and others like it were cut up, folded, and bundled off in the early-morning cold to be sold in the railway station. A man bought it for half an anna, read the entire contents, announced that there was nothing worthwhile in it, and flung it under his seat. Another man picked it up, read it, and on the way back home when he bought some fish, he wrapped them in it. Stinking of fish, it spent the entire night thinking about life in the forest. The next day, when the stove didn’t light up, the maid flung the fish wrapping into the fire. In a minute it was burnt— “busss…”
Forgetting that it was a story that they read, the students pondered on both the joys that the tree could have experienced and the turmoil it was subjected to in reality.
The teacher who was considered a great enemy and nicknamed ‘Teacher Never-to-Die’ asked: “What is the moral of the story?” “Man proposes, god disposes”, or “You can’t beat fate” or some such grandiloquent philosophical statements were what he expected from the children. But one boy, whose mind was still on the story, uttered: “The moral is, these wretched newspapers should be banned!”
Taken aback by the unusual response, the teacher didn’t know what to say. Just because he was a young boy, we shouldn’t presume that he answered in jest. Moreover, we elders are tortured daily by many such newspapers which give us error-ridden information, poorly printed on shabby, dirty paper, yielding nothing in return for the effort we put in. Shouldn’t we then endorse this view?
This story is taken from The Tamil Short Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides (Ed. Dilip Kumar; translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy), an antholoy, in translation, of 88 short stories written between 1913 and 2000.