Wknd exclusive: A pandemic-era tale of worlds within worlds by Janice Pariat
By most accounts, “lockdown” suggests constriction, diminishment, restriction. A down-sizing of life and the world. The inability to travel, or socialise, or step out. Everything drastically hemmed in. Or at least this is what I thought at the beginning.
My own lockdown began earlier than March 24, when it was declared nation-wide in India. I’d travelled back on March 14 from a book research trip to Rome, amidst fear and panic, devotedly masked and furiously hand-sanitising, and I hurled myself into immediate self-quarantine.
At first, it was all a shock, watching the world come to a standstill. Also a fluctuating between anger and despair at the news — the dismantling of the anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh, the plight of migrant workers, the racist attacks on “Chinese-looking” north-easterners in the Capital and elsewhere.
And despite the immense privilege of having a roof over my head, and so much more, I admit there were many sleepless nights spent worrying about elderly parents, about loved ones stuck elsewhere. I wish I could say it was at this point I took up useful hobbies, baking or restoring old furniture — and that that saved me. But if hope and illumination did come, it did so slowly. From two spaces, at either end of our apartment: my study at the back and, up front, a small garden.
For a few years now I’ve been working on a novel whose themes suddenly seemed more resonant than ever, given that, among other things, the Covid-19 pandemic could be symptomatic of deeper ecological issues — deforestation, encroachment on animal habitats, biodiversity loss.
I was writing about a character, a young woman, journeying home to the north-east, and encountering there, indigenous communities whose ways of being are largely lost. Simmering beneath the story, I realised, was a question: what is our relationship with the world? And I often carried it with me outside, when I stepped into our tiny patch of green, for a break, with a mug of tea.
I’ve hardly been a constant gardener, if only because I travelled too often, and for extended periods of time. Responsibility was delegated to Sureshji, our grizzly gardener, a cheerful IIT lab technician with a love and skill for growing green things. For the lockdown months though, he was absent, and I had to, with little choice, step in.
In the growing heat of Delhi’s summer, every evening, my time in the garden brought respite, freshness. I stood there, hose in hand, beginning to enjoy this surprisingly meditative activity. Day by day, I began to work out which plants needed trimming, re-potting. Such was the quietness of life that an unfurling monstera leaf became an everyday miracle.
It grew as if by magic, opening up to the sky, the air. From tender green it turned richer, darker. In another corner, a pot of crocuses decided it was spring, and burst into riotous bloom. Pink and white flowers holding up their faces to the sun.
Later, when this same plant was chewed into almost-non-existence by caterpillars, I felt I’d lost a friend — and only some “medicine” that Sureshji prescribed brought it back to life. Now it plumes healthily out of its pot as though the attack in July never happened, though it’s yet to once again bloom.
With some others I wasn’t so lucky — I over-watered a hydrangea, a spider plant. Yes, too much love can kill.
As the seasons changed, the plants seemed to speak to me. Here we are too hot, the peace lilies complained, their white edges burning. Too much in the sun. Us too, added the syngonium, their variegated leaves blanched white by the blazing heat. I learnt to move them around — to place them in just the right amount of shade. When the monsoons came, I clustered them in the middle of the lawn, so they would be drenched in the rain. By the end of summer I moved them around again to catch long autumnal light.
Getting to know my garden became for me an expansion of my world. How in sync the plants were with the seasons — and through them, I. In this lay a tremendous enlargement, even when I couldn’t move beyond my gate. Nothing was static, I realised. Plants exist in a constant state of growing, re-growing. Even in their stillness, there is transformation. My garden wasn’t its own universe, it was deeply, thickly a part of the world, flourishing through connection. I carried this thought back with me to my study — forging an umbilical connection between the garden and my writing, each spilling into the other, all boundaries erased.
And perhaps this was one possible answer to the question in my novel: our relationship with the world must be untidy, intimate, flourishing only through the interconnectedness of things.
Now, even though Sureshji is back, I diligently water the plants, first the roots and then, with great joy, the leaves — the spider plants dance, the roses glisten, the champa branches nod, and the tall areca palms bow gently, and I bow back, and the garden and I are replenished.
(Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land, Seahorse, and The Nine Chambered Heart)