Coming on 22nd April, Earth Day 2018, the Nothing Is As It Was climate-fiction anthology is raising funds for the climate-action group, Earth Day Network. The story below has kindly been donated by the author to raise awareness of the anthology and the issues humanity faces due to climate change. We hope you enjoy it and if you do, please make a donation to the cause if you can and leave a comment letting the author know.


The Triumvirate, Sumana Khan

It was a handsome tree. Tall and rough, too broad for a full embrace. Its sturdy, gnarled branches, lush and well-hung with ripened fruits, started low and spread high and wide beckoning the sky. Every time the monsoon wind rifled through the tree, it dispensed a tangy aroma driving the koels and parakeets into frenzied singing.
The tree stood by a lake – a lake so still, it seemed as if the tree and the lake could not take their eyes off each other. The tree and the lake had been this way for many centuries.
The romance of the tree and the lake was well-hidden by a hill. A hill with a formidable, serrated silhouette. It certainly did not entice the adventurous explorer with promises of evergreen forests teeming with wondrous species. Oh no. This was a hill made of hardy boulders, home to scorpions and Russel’s vipers.
For eons, during the summer months, the hill threw up the fiery red ball of an infant sun, from behind the misshapen boulder on its right shoulder. As winter approached, the sun bobbed up gently from a cleavage towards its centre.
The march of mankind was relentless and this grand, timeless tableau of the triumvirate was never captured by an artist’s brush or a poet’s words. The clandestine meeting place of the hill, the tree and the lake remained a secret even when the white men put a tarred road a few kilometres away.
Now, the tree was no ordinary tree. It was famous in the non-human world. Birds in Siberia knew of this tree at the foot of the ugly hill; it was their second home. They’d swoop down in thousands in time for Diwali, perching on every branch and twig, outnumbering the leaves on the tree. If one had the good karma to see this spectacle, one would debate – were the birds green and the leaves grey? On spring equinox, precisely as the sun rose from the shoulder of the hill, the birds would lift in one wave, as if a fisherman’s net were thrown in air, and disappear over the clouds with promises to return made in their bird song.
The lake was no ordinary lake. She was a great river born below the earth capped by the hill. Back when the tree was young (and a bit weak), the river, a mere twinkling trickle dancing over the boulders of the hill, had fallen in love with the tree. There was a certain pride, something intimate about this tree’s outstretched branches. The adolescent river had made its way to the tree, pooling around it to form the lake, only to disappear below the earth again and emerge down south in a youthful roaring torrent, feeding an endless vista of paddy fields.
Decades after the white men returned to their island, progress was rapid. Towns crept closer and closer to the Triumvirate. The narrow road laid by the white men was now deemed arterial. Belching iron monsters hurtled on the road relentlessly and soon it was clear the road had to be widened. An engineer came to survey the site. He was no ordinary engineer. He was a gold medallist from the state university. Now, they don’t give away medals to just about anyone. The engineer was cunning and clever, and everyone said he had a knack to “think outside of the box”.
The engineer proved his mettle. Widening the road is a temporary solution, he said. Build a railway track instead, that’s a permanent solution. Look at that barren hill, he pointed. Break those boulders. Use those stones for the construction. Bravo! Everyone applauded – this was the cost-effective progress they were looking for.
They broke the hill. Oh they broke the hill mercilessly. They brought machines that stabbed and drilled and pounded. Every proud boulder that had stood watch over the horizon for centuries was now lying in a million pieces on the railway track. Yes, the boulders that had tasted only the purest of rain were now showered by urine and excrement from passing trains. Sure the hill fought back – some workers were killed by dislodged rocks; the vipers took care of some others, as did the scorpions. But all of its defences were no match for the determined humans.
As the hill crumbled, the tree and the lake no longer had shelter. An important businessman eyed the pair. He was no ordinary businessman. He was what they called a “visionary”. Well, the visionary businessman was convinced this was the best spot to set up his factory. A factory where he would manufacture Something Important For Modern Life. It was a stroke of genius, everyone applauded.
He set up his factory quickly. It let out smoke through towering chimneys. The lake was so convenient for waste disposal. There were a few who protested, those pesky anti-progress types. Soon they were silenced – the businessman was generating jobs. Besides, he promised to set up a treatment plant as soon as the business turned over profits.
A real estate man eyed the factory and the area. He was no ordinary real estate man. They called him The Shark. He built new roads around the factory and marked up sites to build swanky homes.
The birds did not return after the Year of The Factory. The lake, filled with filthy froth and foam, bubbled and hissed around the tree. Her fish, her algae, her tadpoles and all the life she held in her liquid womb were floating carcasses. The poison went into the earth, penetrated the paddy fields, reached homes, and eventually blood streams. New diseases emerged. The doctors were puzzled. Sometimes they said too much sugar in the diet. Sometimes they said too much cholesterol. Then, they said too much stress.
Pharmaceuticals from rich and prosperous countries began knocking on the door. Don’t worry, they said. We’ve got a pill for every disease. They made new pills in bright colours. The pills were cleverly designed – they made one symptom disappear and introduced two new symptoms, so one could never really stop taking one pill or the other.
The lover of the lake, the mighty tree, which had turned one thousand and ten years during the Year of The Factory, stood gauntly, still drinking the poison. Its leaves turned a diseased yellow, and one by one the branches trembled and fell away.
One fine day the Visionary Businessman shut shop. It was not viable he said. He sold the factory to The Shark. The Shark figured he could construct another apartment block if he got rid of the lake and chopped the tree. The lake was now a stinking puddle anyway, and the tree was clearly rotting away.
In two weeks, it was as if the tree and the lake had never existed. The hill had already disintegrated to a pile of rubble, and within a year, even the rubble disappeared. The place was now an affluent neighbourhood and the city had grown around it. It was a prosperous city with tall, important buildings and potted plants.
But the humans had no idea what was brewing beneath the hill they had plundered; beneath the lake they had choked; beneath the tree they had hacked. No one had noticed the fracture line on the hill that seemed to disappear beneath the earth. Every time they’d drilled, the vibrations went deep down, shifting a fault line ever so delicately.
Indeed, the fracture had reached a certain point, where the roots of the tree had snaked to the river for the very first time over a thousand years ago. The river now flowed like tears on the senseless roots.
A decade went by. It was just another busy, profit-making morning in the city when the fault line grated. The city was razed to a rubble in a matter of thirty seconds. Sinkholes swallowed multi-storeyed buildings and people could hear the whisper of a tearful river from beneath. Those who survived migrated to safer lands. It was as if the city had been bombed out of existence.
The fault lines are still rubbing. The hill is rising again. Slowly. Maybe a millimetre a year. The river, purged of her poison, is gaining strength. But she won’t come up anytime soon; not without her timeless love. The roots, yes, they are stirring under her ministrations. On the day when you and I are mere dust specks, the Triumvirate shall emerge again…just as it was meant to be.