The streets are deserted and it’s all very silent. You’d think that the silence would be loud enough to hear, don’t you? I cannot hear it unless I stop everything I am doing and go look outside. The chaos and the grief in my own head is so much. You don’t need me to tell you how bad things are in India*.
In the morning, the sunlight falls on my plants, and on many days, they’re what I see after waking up. I have been trying to not pick my phone as soon as I wake up. I need some time to re-orient myself to the world before I jump headlong into the sadness that my 5-inch device carries. The chilli seeds my mom threw into the soil have grown with abandon and the green shoots of the plant flutter in the small breeze that carries itself into its open arms. My favourite to watch these days is the pinkish Aglaonema plant that was drooping when I bought it 8 weeks ago. It is now starting to look up, literally. That I’ve managed to do this, bear witness to its healing, is a small joy to me in the mornings when the streets are still deserted and I am yet to log into the phone to find out what grief we are carrying today.
The shadow of the tree opposite my window falls on the ground. The sunlight casts a golden filigree on the black tar that I can admire for a couple of thickly spread minutes without being disturbed. No one walks on this shadow. It makes me wonder if the tree is conscious to the world around itself, the empathy of humans, their filled tear ducts that will not overflow, the mishmash of emotions we carry in our heart. Tree, do you know we are suffering? Or Tree, do you just go on being yourself, both abundant and scarce, without knowing why we don’t surround you these days?
Many moons ago, when the ways of this unmoving life had become somewhat predictable, I had ventured on to planting seeds inside small coir bags to grow plants the hardest way — from scratch. It was supposed to be an exercise in expansion, longevity, and patience, I think. I remember writing down these intentions in my then-pandemic-memoir. I remember wanting to write a memoir. I remember wanting to go on a journey. I bought a variety of seeds. When I put out some of the cherry tomato saplings in the window for the process of hardening (when a sapling’s daylight hours must be regulated so that it accustoms itself to sunlight) the crows took the coir bags as playthings and ruined all of them but one. I was able to save only one cherry tomato sapling and I moved it to a safer place. Now, it has grown into a healthy, young cherry tomato shoot that is abundant with leaves and is a little over a foot long. To me, that young cherry tomato is a survivor. I have a fondness for it that has nothing to do with the possibility of it bearing cherry tomatoes that I can add to my signature pasta. It stands there in one of my favourite pots and simply grows little by little unaware of what family has been lost. I know this is too much pressure to put on a small cherry tomato plant, to ascribe the qualities of survival and grief and alone-ness to it, but as I recently read in The Signature of All Things every living thing is constantly at battle with its surroundings in an attempt to live. Every living thing has to work very hard to keep itself alive, adapt to changes, and protect oneself. It’s just the way of nature. The book also says that Darwin’s book Origin of Species reads like a novel and I am tempted to attempt reading it. If not now, then maybe later. In the novel it is also said that when Darwin proposed the theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ he didn’t explicitly say it applied to humans. He merely left out the question if it did indeed apply to humans and everyone assumed it did. The reason for this is that the ‘survival of the fittest’ theory doesn’t explain why and how humans are also capable of so much selflessness and altrusim as we do. This theory doesn’t explain why people can run into fires to save others or jump into the water to save someone else’s kid or dog or accountant from drowning. A good look around our surroundings in India at this very moment demonstrates this because the sheer volume of people helping others at their own time and expense is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. But still when the theory came out, humans assumed it was also applicable to them. Do you think humans are so self-servingly arrogant as to make everything about them? Sometimes, I think they do. Although Darwin did follow up Origin of Species with another book on how it applies to humans. At some point maybe I will read Darwin to make sense of how survival in this world needs to be done. So far, I’ve just barely managed to exist.
In Pico Iyer’s memoir Autumn Light he talks about how he moved to Japan after he walked into a temple’s garden in Kyoto by a spell of chance. He saw small children in pink and blue caps picking up fallen Autumn leaves and he was so arrested by the wistful morning and the beauty of the garden that he just moved his whole life to Japan. I find that the seasons and some cities in those seasons are a character in the story of life themselves. This changing of seasons and the bearing witness of how a plant grows from a single seed reinforces in me that time is circular. That we’re not moving “ahead” and leaving our lives “behind” but its a slow dance around a wise element of serenity that we cannot describe and probably shouldn’t even try.
I think about what I used to do before this. Before all of this. *points to the country around me* An image of me searching the Web for hand washes and reading the fragrance labels comes to mind. I wanted to buy an aromatic hand wash. One with cherries or peppermint or vanilla. I had come to appreciate fragrances. Hoard them, even. I started wearing natural body mist made from the Parijat flower, my clothes smelled of lilies, and I got myself a Raat Ki Raani plant in the hope that the nights would be perfumed. I was just starting to make a move on incenses but then, the world ceased to be a place where I was able to enjoy my new-found, home-body interests. A huge swoop of silence came upon the lives we had made indoors. The stillness stays and is growing uncomfortable.
*For posterity: India is undergoing its second wave of Covid-19 which has collapsed its health infrastructure and exposed grave systemic and governance issues. There is a shortage of medicines, oxygen, beds, and not enough help for the medical fraternity to combat this challenge. There is a shortage of vaccines and the unavailability of medical assistance for ailing patients is causing avoidable deaths. There have been mass cremations in the capital of the country. The ruling party has been holding public election rallies in Eastern India and the largest religious gathering is being allowed to continue in another state. The central government is denying the systemic failures and has asked the state governments to handle the situation on their own.