Thursday, March 19, 2009

Weak Finish

Like always. So much enthusiasm, so much effort, but a weak finish: true for most things I do, as some know too well.

I know there are fewer than five readers in Kathmandu who get to this site, so I am going to continue putting my essays here when I finish them, instead of waiting for Sunday. Think of this as an editorial privilege.

I am really interested in what you think of this piece. Please feel free to send me an email, or leave a comment. I know there is only a handful of you out there, but if you have the time, do send me feedback on this one.

Here's next Sunday's:


Dusk falls like dust settles; jaws chew the astringent bark of a tough, thin guava twig. The sweat of small palms shine a handlebar fork three meters above ground, closer to the clouds than to the dung and dirt of a cornfield. Naked toes pinch knobs on the sleek trunk and dial into the secret thoughts of the Guava Giant. A child's fancy uproots the tree and and transforms it into a shambling, leafy apparatus piloted by a nimble machinist crouching in its sieved heart. Home falls away, skies are torn to reveal new lights, and with the night a new, happy blindness comes to the tree and its child, now the twin scourge of land inhabited by mean dwarves and hunched witches and dogs that bark and drool and dart with bared fangs...

This is how I remember a child I knew a long time ago, safely tucked away in his private roost in a guava tree on the edge of his kitchen garden, heeding no calls, waiting for nobody, perfect in his escape. Whenever I try to recall the times when he seemed happiest, there is a tree nearby—the same dwarf guava; another guava tree near his grandparents' home, bearing red guavas and rising above the plastic sheen of banana leaves in a moist grove; a capricious kapra tree over a grunting pigsty; mango trees that tangled their crowns and exchanged kisses of white flowers; eucalyptus with their camphor trunks carpet of pink and scarlet lancets; a tall resinous pine that teetered over a creek; a condemned poplar with homes for owls, moles, squirrels, a lovesick boy. I can't remember him too far away from a particular tree, befriended for such times in a boy's life as need a sturdy, silent, resilient friend.

But, I hadn't been thinking of trees when Rabi Thapa, reading Trees of Dreams, his essay on the arboreal foundations of our existence,asked a simple question: Do trees color your memories, and thereby form something of what you are?A selfish listener, I was impatient for something directed at me by writers who seemed to only address themselves, and this question came like a punch, throwing me down a funnel of memory that picked on specific moments, of painlessly bleeding from cuts from razors hidden in pant pockets as I scrambled after the biggest guava, or of shutting my eyes and fumbling for toeholds to climb down a crumbling trunk after reaching ecstatic heights with a bunch of debaucher friends, peeking into a bird's nest, worrying about leaving behind the smell of sweaty limbs, passing a bottle over slender, crowning branches as the sun glowed copper and gave a final flare before dipping altogether.

What shape within me is the work of trees? Fear and escape: the stuff of fantasies and nightmares; the universe separated from our waking, walking hours, the map of a lost kingdom. The fields and roads of Khaireni were spotted with trees, each standing long enough to acquire its footnote of patriarchal history, a chorus of ghosts of abused wives of accident-prone sons, bits of red threads or ribbons, a long echo of generational conflicts. Their roots rode out of the ground gnarled and knotted to expose tired thoughts, shaking wizened beards that hid life and its myriad ends. Each tree had a family's name, its honor, attached to it: the wedded trees of a chautara transforming into the only living relatives from a hundred years ago, still to be treated as a daughter, and a son-in-law still addressed with the honorific. An especially old mango tree would bend with its lode of gold-ripe fruits and entice young men up its difficult trunk, regularly to bash one on its roots and add a new name to an already long oral history. With these mechanisms of familiarity and foreignness, of fear and longing, a villager mapped the land around him into corners that helped him escape to a different psychic landscape, or trapped him in a snare of terror or witches, ghosts, enemies, unspeakable curses.

And, trees were also the escape hatch to a separate existence, where the thrill of certitude—that this is the chosen branch that shall not give, and that is the chosen trunk that shall transport to farther worlds seen from a height—was more precious than the percussive peril of a limb's crackle and snap, or its threat to crumble and let loose its population of ants and termites. When a head finally reached above the canopy, counting spores and seeds and bird shit splattered on new leaves, the world appeared as it is meant to be seen: from a shaky vantage, temporary in its flourish but massive, solidly unchangeable. This is hard to picture in a city, a chimera of lights and fixtures, mutating into endlessly new combinations, screaming from signposts and hoardings. But, in a village where the mountains and streams never move, where the hedges around fields survive longer than most people, it is the fixed threes that change, sometimes daily, their shape, the shade they throw down as their milk of generosity, the silhouette as guests and ghouls they cut against the evening sky. In these changes is recorded the village's day: who worked where, how long it took to cut down the housewife who hanged herself, for how long the lovers hid between the giant roots of a peepul tree. Trees are the most dynamic beings in a village, capable of cyclical renewal that leaves any wretch envious, able to fool with the breath and shine with which nature teases it, echoing the sounds of living animals and absorbing the dead. No wonder it opens for a village boy the door to his other existence, where the rules are constantly renewed, where love lasts an eternal moment, and the hounds of horror tear off larger chunks of meat.

I don't think trees need humans to rescue them, to save them. Humanity could be wiped off the face of this planet, and trees would still be swinging, whistling with the wind, scattering their thorny seeds or erotic scent, covering their small wounds with thick sap. I don't think trees can mean anything to our collective, except perhaps as resource, as wealth. But, to the individual, they are the first abacus on which the memory of a space is strung and shuttled to map a journey undertaken or projected through a lifetime. They are, at least for me, the most reliable, cunning, punitive, forgiving friend with arms to cradle and leaves to shade the wearied tramp.

Trees: Artifacts of Nature is showing at Gallery 32 @ Dent Inn, Heritage Plaza until March 30. A booklet available at the gallery has essays about trees, written by A. Angelo D'Silva, Sushma Joshi, Pranab Man Singh and Rabi Thapa.

1 comment:

  1. admittedly i am lethargic when it comes to reading long articles in the net. and i havnt read this one. but i admire your writing style, which is quite poetic, the prose is vivid and very reflectively real. its artistic. i read this article in Post, and like it. again the childhood scene is vivid. and so on. keep up the good work.


Yeah. Do that. I'm lurking, waiting for your comments. Yeah. Do it just like that. You know I like it. You know you want to. Yeah.