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Like a Herd Dying: An exclusive pandemic-era tale by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra – art and culture

The sense of smell, they say, is a warning sign. If you lose it you should be concerned. It could mean that you are infected with Covid-19. I, who never approached a flower to know its scent, now put my nose in every bush full of bees. There has been another change in me: I have begun to notice, more than ever, the weeds in the garden. Some of the weeds have tiny, pin-like flowers. I have to get 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 can’t find them at Common Indian Wild Flowers it frustrates me. The only one I have identified so far is a shrub that looks more like a tall stem and is called Turk’s Turban or Bowing Lady. From a distance, its white flowers look like feathers.

I am struck by a bush whose fragrant flowers I perceive as I pass by it. Again, I don’t know his name until a friend identifies him. It is called Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow, so called because its masses of flowers are purple one day, lilac the next, and white the third. It is a native of the Brazilian rainforest.

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 in the tiles; an owl that had become entangled in a kite string; the cluster fig that is almost as tall as a skyscraper and whose inhabitants are pariah kites and crows. But these new poems of confinement are different and they all come in a hurry. I see a mulberry tree but I think of a pandemic. I start to use words and phrases that, until the other day, I didn’t even know existed, or if they existed, now they take on another meaning. This is the first one I wrote:

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Close to each other,

socially without distance,

mulberry leaves,

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evenly green,

they will turn brown together.

It’s like a herd dying.

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My sense of mortality is sharper than ever. When I look at a sapling that is almost a sapling, I wonder if I will ever know its name. He is tall and thin, and in five years he has not borne fruit or flowers that would have helped me identify him. It grows near the boundary wall where the sun never arrives. I can’t remember if I bought it from a nursery or if it had just arisen. Parts of the garden are unplanted. If you have land to offer, the birds and the wind will bring the seeds. I still want to know what the tree is called. Until I know his name, I won’t really see him. “Without a name made in our mouths,” says British naturalist Tim Dee, “an animal or a place struggles to find something in our mind or in our heart.”

Beneath the bamboo stand I notice a lot of brown leaves. From there comes a creak and there is movement. I’m not sure what’s going on. It turns out that half a dozen jungle charlatans feed on the heap, the dried bamboo leaves provide camouflage, not that they need it. The bamboo stand and the charlatans will survive both me and the pandemic.

While I identify the plants in the garden or not, I find a woman at the door one day. This is not the high door that has emerged at the beginning of the lane, where there is now a new booth for a security guard, but my more modest one. I don’t know why the woman came at eight in the morning, just as I’m about to go to the supermarket on Old Survey Road here in Dehradun. The news has come that it is open. I have not run out of supplies as I have enough wheat, rice and lentils for a couple of months. However, I’m in a rush to get to Fresh ‘n Easy. The woman is about my age, her face is like a walnut, wrinkled and her head is covered with a blue print. She is standing inches from me and is saying something. I remember the rules of social distancing. She is not six feet away; there is his uncovered mouth. I quickly roll up the window and leave. Only after turning the corner do I begin to see what I have left behind. I see the woman’s eyes. I see her lips move but I don’t hear her words. I do not need it. I see the sickle in his hand. I know why you have come. She had wanted to cut the grass to feed her goats and I left, leaving her standing at the door.

In August I know most of the plants: arrowhead leaf, milk thistle, sorrel, king’s mantle, Philippine hop-headed violet. The little yellow flower with a black center that I found growing along the path is the porthole. 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 away part of it, just to see it take root where it was dumped. Then I discover three young basils where there was only one. They seem eager to live and multiply, to reclaim what is theirs, the most attractive and, in many ways, the least intelligent of God’s creatures. The richest hedge fund manager in Teton County, Wyoming, is worth less than a dead sparrow.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, formed after the 1986 nuclear accident, will be unfit for human habitation for 24,000 years, but wild boars, wolves, bison, white-tailed eagles and sandhill cranes have already returned. The sooner we stop inhabiting the earth, or at least a large part of it, the better it will be for everyone. Covid-19 brought a ray of hope.

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