Renewal…

Where I live, Spring  starts out like Autumn in temperate zones. Once the stillness and chill of Winter begin to recede, most trees go into a flurry of shedding their leaves- a flurry, a frenzy, a hurry….. It is as if they cannot wait to shed their old leaves and give birth to the new life waiting inside them, rising up towards the sun.

The tall Ashoka trees are the most proliferate in this new burst of activity- my yard is never leaf free. A freshly swept yard soon looks as if the owner has never taken a broom to it!

The huge Peepul trees, holy and venerated in India, which are not planted  in homes, only near temples and public places, turn totally  bare in March. So also most trees, whether large leaved, small leaved, long leaved or tiny leaved. There is no flaming orange Autumn in my country- the transition is from dark green to pale green, with the exception of some trees whose young leaves are a delicate pink. And then- one fine morning, one notices that the bare tree of yesterday is not quite the same. It is young again- living, vibrant, ready for another year, ready for blooming. And then the flowers and fruit follow!

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(Hibiscus- but not the well known variety- these  flowers do not open fully. )

As a part of the process of renewal, we get thunderstorms in April. This year there were three nights of hailstones too. I have seen hailstones perhaps once, while growing up, and never subsequently till last year, and again now in April. In my language we do have a word  for hailstones- Aali-pazham- but it has always been a sort of abstract word- one with no real form to go with it, except as described by others.

The hailstorm was not brief and insubstantial this time. The ice pebbles rained down in a cacophony of sound on the tin roof, bounced down to the earth, glistened in the fading light and melted away silently.

Last night was another one of thunderstorms, but not of hail.

Yesterday I saw the wind and the power of the elements.

All elements can be violent- the Wind is no exception – at least one huge tree is uprooted and flung down by the winds each year.

Last year this time it was the turn of a giant Gulmohur tree. The Gulmohur is also called the Flame of the Forest, because its flowers are flame coloured- orange-red and prolific.

One day the tree was standing- covered with its flame flowers and the other day, there was a huge gaping hole in the ground where it had stood and the tree lay on the ground- mangled, on a carpet of its own flowers.

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(Another Gulmohur in the background- Can you see the flowers?)

This year it was another tree, whose name I do not know, which shaded the school compound. It was not a young tree, judging by its girth and  canopy. Perhaps it was planted in the late 1970s, when the school was constructed. The violence of its uprooting was palpable and raw. While I do recognize that the old has to give way for new life, new growth and that death is as much a certainty as life itself and that both engage in a dance which sustains creation, I touch the fallen trunk, feel the roughness of the bark and say goodbye to the spirit of the tree. I wish it well and a safe journey to wherever it may be going.

To return to last evening- Bolts of faraway lightning were already flashing across the sky by the time I reached home. The light was brown and strange. Before long the wind rose from the West- stripping branches, dried and not, whirling down the last stubborn old leaves from their hold on to the mother tree.

And the rain followed- icy cold and torrential. The wind drove rain in sheets across the landscape. The tall high mast light tower swayed dangerously to and fro on its feet. I silently hoped and prayed that the Civil Engineers who designed its foundation knew what they were doing!

The wind also flew down hidden cobwebs from their corners, raised dust and banged doors.

A child and a child-at-heart ran out to the verandah to feel the chill of the rain and the sharp points of water tipped needles on the skin. And marvelled to see the trees dancing and swaying; the earth rejoicing; Lightning flashing across the sky. Life renewing itself. And experienced a moment of unity with the Elements in all their glory.

Earth. Air. Fire. Water.

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Standing outside- Looking in.

This is a long post, so be forewarned!

My first journey to the East of India was in November 2011, to IIM-K, attending a short management course. The next one, further  East, this time not a visitor but a transplant, was to Agartala, one and a half years later. After the large, modern, busy and confusing airports of Ahmedabad and Calcutta, the Agartala airport seemed welcoming in its laid back remoteness. Compared to the sweltering heat of Ahmedabad, the fading sunshine of Agartala at four in the afternoon felt gentle. It had probably rained in the night, which explained the small puddles by the roadside.

Birdsong and sunshine outside the windows woke me up the first day, groggily wondering whatever happened to my alarm; only to be confronted by the disorienting fact that the time was four thirty a.m. but actually more like? Six?

But the very first feature that really grabbed my attention was the red laterite soil and the lush foliage- from the lovely ferns, grass and soft carpets of moss to the giant Jackfruit, Mango and Teak trees- so reminiscent of my childhood days spent in the diagonally opposite corner of the country. As I was to discover later, the resemblance did not end there! Saucer sized black spiders, kin to the Kerala ones, a nightmare I imagined I’d put behind me, lurked in dark corners. The house we were allotted was built at least forty years ago at a time when only the really rich could afford cars (therefore no car parking space; just a tiny ramp running up to the small verandah so that bicycles or perhaps a scooter can be wheeled up, out of the rain), plenty of land was available (wide courtyards planted with mango trees and parijatas) and cool cemented floors marked with the patina of age and wear by treads of countless feet (smooth and polished to an extent quite unthinkable today).  There are glass paned ventilators near the ceiling- a feature that has all but disappeared from modern houses, a verandah running along the entire perimeter of the house and quaint wooden door stoppers (my children were seeing all three for the first time in their lives).  I had indeed stepped back in time.

The second thing I noticed about Agartala was the cleanliness- a certain attention and care by the civic authorities as well as the public, which drastically reduced the degree of pollution and solid waste which are trademarks of many an Indian city.

And the third- the profusion of red CPM flags, posters and flyers with the good old hammer, sickle, star insignia!

For a state, which has democratically elected a CPM government to power for the fourth consecutive term, the only state ruled by the CPM in India as on date, Tripura (variously styled  Twipra, Tippera, Tipperah at different times) is a study in contrasts. Almost all Bengali households worship at the three junctures of the day- morning, noon and evening. Durga Puja Pandals are veritable works of art and life literally stands still during the Puja days. In the winter months, the night air resonates with the music from temples, ashrams and even households  – I fall asleep and wake to it. The dips and rises in the landscapes ensure that given the right circumstance, sound travels far, bringing with it a dreamy quality that comes only with distance. How do you explain this disconnect between believing in an ideology which accepts no God and at the same time sharing such a personal and intimate relationship with God?

My house has an old rose bush just outside the front door. For almost all of the seven months that I have been here, it has never failed to delight me with its delicate pale pink roses. Sometimes there is a wild profusion; sometimes just a few; but always at least one bloom, even in the gray winter days of December and January, when the white mist comes creeping up from the west. I am filled with gratitude; I am also grateful for my son’s school friends in his new school, who welcomed him into their midst- he has friends who are Tripuris as well as Bengalis. Middle school is a tough time for any kid, but to undergo a change of this magnitude must have been hard on him, a small and thin eleven-year old. I feared for him but find my fears are baseless- he actually enjoys school, wonder of wonders!

My son is also the one who introduced me to the joys of bird watching; Our Ahmedabad house was fringed by Ashoka trees in an L shape, in which every year Bulbuls and sparrows used to nest. He used to bring the featherless Bulbul chicks who fell out of their nests to me for safekeeping and putting back into the nest, which I had to do balancing precariously on our rickety ladder. Here in Agartala too his interest in birds continues; we  live in the outskirts of the city- the township, which was built at a time when land was plentiful and cheap, has lots of open spaces and trees. The trees in our present backyard too are home to many birds; mynahs, sparrows and bulbuls, two spotted pigeons who move around together , cooing softly.  Oriental magpie robins, the male cutting quite a dashing figure in comparison to the washed out looking female. Drongos, the policemen of birdland, who sit on the fence, scolding each other soundly. And occasionally, if I am lucky, Woodpeckers and a sole Treepie bird. (Treepies used to be plentiful in Kerala while I was growing up, but now rarely seen).

Guess it is too much to expect to spot the resplendent Kingfishers!

Busy squirrels keep me company in the backyard. These squirrel families seem to have missed out participating in Sree Rama’s ocean causeway construction project from Rameshwaram to Sri Lanka (too long a way to go?) and consequently lack the three white lines, lovingly marked by His fingers, on their back.

I was told that  Agartala was a small city- capital of the third smallest state of the country, difficult to travel to, with  a disturbing history of violence which had claimed many lives, evident even today in the gun-toting young men in patrol vehicles who accompany site visits to troubled areas where drilling and pipe-line laying are ongoing . But what no-one had pointed out was the former glory and culture of this princely state- the beautiful palaces adorning the city which are at par with other palaces conveniently located at more accessible  parts of India. I gaze at the pictures of the long gone rulers of this state, looking out sternly from fading portraits, their Oriental features a mixture of Burma and Mongolia, and marvel at their sense of symmetry, beauty and foresight.

The Manikya kings of this small hill kingdom were second only to the Mikado dynasty of Japan in their unbroken lineage, making the Tudors, Stuarts, Hanovers and Windsors look like Johnny-come-latelys. Despite not being filthy rich (remember the Nizam of Hyderabad?) these kings have left a legacy, which is both graceful and enduring.

It is a well-documented fact that Tripura was not a wealthy kingdom; the revenue came mostly from land holdings in Bengal and probably also from strategic marriage alliances to the Princesses of Manipur and Nepal. But they utilized their wealth, not in maintaining harems, not in hiding it away in sealed chambers and certainly not in squandering away on wine, women, race horses and vintage cars, but to create infrastructure in education and civic reforms and also in building monuments which survive over centuries.

The roads to Palatana, Rokhia, Monarchak and Sonamura wind through hills and dales and tea and rubber plantations. All interspersed with rice fields. The natural beauty of the state is astounding! If only the post partition history of this small state was not so violent, if only it were not so landlocked by Bangladesh, if only it were more accessible by road and rail… The wish list can go on and on.

I have yet to see -or perhaps recognize- the Aguru trees (Aquilaria Khasiana) which grew abundantly in and around Agartala, and which have given the city its name. But what I do see is the abundant natural beauty and the simple people- women invariably fair skinned and with large, lustrous dark eyes, men generally thin and wiry; a villager at heart myself, both the land and people have become close to me. Love of literature, music  (hauntingly sweet ) and an endearing guilelessness seem to be inseparable from these people, regardless of their ethnicity.

I still miss my old home, water which did not taste of iron (salty instead), the daily supply of  fresh pouches of Amul milk (not long life UHT in tetra packs), the non violent Gujarati lifestyle (I am unable to look at the glassy fish eyes of the dead fish in the fish market nor at the skinned dead animals hanging in the meat shop) and so many other small insignificant things. But adapting -slowly.

The deep divide still existing in Tripura between the indigenous Tribals (outnumbered hopelessly) and the Bengalis (who have contributed so much to their adopted homeland) saddens me- another outsider. I stand on the periphery, listening to the intonations and lengthened vowels of the musical Bengali language. Communicating via my limited vocabulary Hindi and broken English and when all else fails, with the single complete Bengali sentence in my repertoire and an apologetic smile – Ami Bangla jaani na.