Like a Herd Dying: An exclusive pandemic-era tale by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
The sense of smell, they say, is a warning sign. If you lose it you should be worried. It could mean that you are infected with Covid-19. I, who never went near a flower to know its smell, now poke my nose into every bee-laden bush. There’s been one other change in me: I’ve begun to notice, more than I ever did, the weeds in the garden. Some of the weeds have flowers tiny as pinpricks. I have to go down on my knees to confirm that what I am seeing is a flower and not a speck. I don’t know their names and when I cannot find them in Common Indian Wild Flowers, I get frustrated. The only one that I have identified so far is a shrub that looks more like a tall stalk and is called Turk’s Turban or Bowing Lady. From a distance its white flowers look like plumes.
A shrub of whose fragrant flowers I get a whiff as I walk past draws my attention. Once again, I do not know its name until a friend identifies it. It’s called Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow, thus called because its masses of flowers are violet one day, lilac the next, and white the third. It is a native of the Brazilian rain forest.
In those first weeks I find myself writing poems that have to do with the garden. Over the years I have written about the garden: a dead cat discovered on the shingles; an owlet that had got entangled in kite string; the cluster fig that is almost as tall as a high-rise and whose inhabitants are pariah kites and crows. But these new lockdown poems are different and they all come in a rush. I am seeing a mulberry bush but thinking pandemic. I begin to use words and phrases that, until the other day, I did not even know existed, or if they existed, they now took on another meaning. This is the first one I wrote:
Close to each other,
the mulberry leaves,
shall turn brown together.
It’s like a herd dying.
My sense of mortality is keener than ever. When I look at a sapling that is almost a young tree, I wonder if I’ll ever know its name. It is tall and skinny, and in five years has borne neither fruit nor flower that would have helped me identify it. It grows close to the boundary wall where the sun never reaches. I cannot recall whether I bought it in a nursery or it had come up on its own. Parts of the garden are unplanted. If you have soil to offer, birds and the wind will bring in the seeds. I still want to know what the tree is called. Until I know its name I am not really seeing it. “Without a name made in our mouths,” the British naturalist Tim Dee says, “an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.”
Under the bamboo stand I notice a heap of brown leaves. A rustling sound comes from there and there is movement. I’m not sure what is going on. It turns out that half a dozen jungle babblers are foraging in the heap, the dry bamboo leaves providing them with camouflage, not that they need it. The bamboo stand and the babblers will outlive both me and the pandemic.
As I go about identifying the plants in the garden or failing to, I find one day a woman at the gate. This is not the tall gate that has come up at the head of the lane, where there is now a new cabin for a security guard, but my own more modest one. I don’t know why the woman has come at eight in the morning, just when I am about to drive out to the supermarket down Old Survey Road here in Dehradun. News has come that it is open. I have not run out of supplies, having stocked up enough wheat, rice and lentils to last me a couple of months. Nevertheless, I am in a hurry to get to Fresh ’n Easy. The woman is about my age, her face like a walnut, wrinkled, and her head is covered with a blue print. She is standing inches from me and she is saying something. I remember the rules of social distancing. She’s not six feet away; there’s her uncovered mouth. I quickly roll up the window and drive off. It’s only after I have turned the corner that I begin to see what I have left behind. I see the woman’s eyes. I see her lips moving but I do not hear her words. I do not need to. I see the sickle in her hand. I know why she has come. She had wanted to cut grass to feed her goats and I had driven off, leaving her standing at the gate.
By August I know most of the plants: arrowhead leaf, milk thistle, wood sorrel, king’s mantle, hophead Philippine violet. The small yellow flower with a black centre which I found growing by the roadside is the oxeye. Described as an invasive weed, it has taken over a part of the garden. So much so that I have to uproot it and throw some of it away, only to see it take root at the spot where it had been thrown. Then I discover three young basils where there was only one. They seem eager to live and multiply, to reclaim from us, the most grabby and in many ways the least intelligent of god’s creatures, what is theirs. The richest hedge fund manager in Teton County, Wyoming, is worth less than a dead sparrow.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, formed after the nuclear accident in 1986, will be unfit for human habitation for 24,000 years, but boars, wolves, bison, white-tailed eagles and grey cranes have already returned to it. The sooner we uninhabit the earth, or at least large parts of it, the better will it be for everyone. Covid-19 brought a glimmer of hope.