Wknd exclusive: A pandemic-era tale of worlds within worlds by Janice Pariat – art and culture

By most accounts, “blocking” suggests constriction, diminution, restriction. Reduce the size of life and the world. The inability to travel, socialize, or go out. Everything fell into place drastically. Or at least this is what I thought at first.

My own blockade started before March 24th, when it was declared nationwide in India. I had traveled back on March 14 from a book research trip to Rome, in fear and panic, masked with devotion and sanitizing my hands in fury, and I threw myself into immediate self-quarantine.

At first, it was quite a shock, seeing the world come to a standstill. Also a fluctuation between anger and despair at the news: the dismantling of the anti-CAA protest in Shaheen Bagh, the plight of migrant workers, the racist attacks on the “Chinese-looking” Northeast in the capital and other places.

And despite the immense privilege of having a roof over my head, and so much more, I admit that I spent many sleepless nights worrying about elderly parents, loved ones trapped elsewhere. I wish I could say that it was at this point that I took up useful hobbies, baking or restoring old furniture, and that saved me. But if hope and enlightenment came, they did it slowly. From two spaces, at each end of our apartment: my studio at the back and, in front, a small garden.

For a few years now I have 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 problems: deforestation, invasion of animal habitats, biodiversity. lost.

I was writing about a character, a young woman, who was traveling to her home in the Northeast and found herself there, indigenous communities whose ways of being have been largely lost. I realized that behind the story there was a question: what is our relationship with the world? And I often took it with me outside, when I walked into our little green patch, for a break, with a cup of tea.

I have hardly been a consistent gardener, if only because I traveled too often and for long periods of time. The responsibility was delegated to Sureshji, our grizzly gardener, a cheerful IIT lab technician with love and skill in growing green things. However, during the months of confinement, he was absent and I had to intervene, with few options.

In the rising heat of the Delhi summer, every night my time in the garden gave me a respite, a coolness. I stood there, hose in hand, beginning to enjoy this surprisingly meditative activity. Day by day, I began to figure out which plants needed to be pruned and replanted. Such was the tranquility of life that an unfolded monstera leaf became an everyday miracle.

It grew as if by magic, opening up to the sky, to the air. From tender green it became richer, darker. In another corner, a pot of crocuses decided it was spring and burst into unbridled bloom. Pink and white flowers raising their faces to the sun.

Later, when the caterpillars chewed on this very plant until it was almost non-existent, I felt like I had lost a friend, and only a “medicine” that Sureshji prescribed brought him back to life. Now it comes out of its pot healthily as if the July attack had never happened, although it has yet to bloom again.

With some others I was not so lucky: I overwatered a hydrangea, a spider plant. Yes, too much love can kill.

As the seasons changed, the plants seemed to speak to me. We’re too hot here, the peace lilies complained, their white edges blazing. Too much sun. We too, added the syngonium, its variegated leaves bleached by the scorching heat. I learned to move them, to place them in the right amount of shade. When the monsoons came, I huddled them in the middle of the grass, so that they were drenched from the rain. In late summer, I moved them again to catch the autumn light.

Knowing my garden became for me an expansion of my world. How synchronized the plants were with the seasons and, through them, me. There was enormous magnification in this, even when I couldn’t move past my door. Nothing was static, I realized. Plants exist in a constant state of growth and regrowth. Even in its stillness, there is transformation. My garden was not its own universe, it was a deep and thick part of the world, flourishing through connection. I took this thought into my study, forging an umbilical connection between the garden and my writing, each spilling over the other, all boundaries erased.

And perhaps this was a possible answer to the question in my novel: our relationship with the world must be messy, intimate, flourishing only through the interconnection of things.

Now, although Sureshji is back, I diligently water the plants, first the roots and then, with great joy, the leaves: the spider plants dance, the roses shine, the champa branches nod, and the tall areca palms gently bow, and I lean back, and the garden and I are renewed.

(Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land, Seahorse, and The Nine Chadered Heart)


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