Do plants wait too?

Sumana Roy | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

At any given moment, a human being is waiting for something. Whether this inevitability extends to the flora around us is a matter of conjecture

When I watch television shows where famous people are asked by interviewers to give titles of their unwritten autobiographies, I always imagine myself in a similar situation, even though it makes me terribly anxious. Like many of us who watch these shows, which could only have been produced in the fame-and-the-famous-obsessed culture of our times, we have settled on our answers to these inane questions by now. Though there is absolutely no chance of me ever writing an autobiography, I know the title of this it’ll-never-be-written book, if Karan Johar or Pinkvilla — or even Jimmy Fallon — were to ask me this question. My answer is ready: Waiting. I’ve come to realise that my life, its four decades, has been one of waiting. The first two were spent waiting to be an adult, the next two have been spent waiting for something beyond the reach of my breath.

Recently, I read this poem that the writer and translator Manjit Handa posted on Facebook.

My father could hear a little animal step,

or a moth in the dark against the screen,

and every far sound called the listening out

into places where the rest of us had never been.

More spoke to him from the soft wild night

than came to our porch for us on the wind;

we would watch him look up and his face go keen

till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand

inviting the quiet by turning the face,

waiting for a time when something in the night

will touch us too from that other place.

It’s a poem by William Stafford and it’s called ‘Listening’. I misread the title — I thought it was ‘Waiting’. It’s a deeply moving poem about, among other things, the loss of a time, a period that allowed listening. And, I want to add, a period of history that was comfortable with waiting. When did that stop? I ask myself. And the self that wants to be smart and still hooked to a teenager’s sense of humour wanted to respond to that question by saying, “Since ‘Waiter’ became a profession”. But to return to that poem — I asked myself why the father had a superior net of listening compared to those around him. There are two verbs that give us the answer: ‘inviting’ and ‘waiting’. The irony of the poem is that though the speaker, who is from a different Time-and-Sound age than the father, ‘invites’ and ‘waits’, the sounds do not come to them. The sounds of natural life have become subsonic or supersonic to the speaker because of the loss of something in their life; it is the loss of waiting. ‘Where the rest of us had never been’ is neither a physical nor an auditory space. It is a space that we gradually surrender to the speed of the world.

What is the unit of waiting? I ask this because I’m aware that we relate waiting to time, that we measure waiting with the number of minutes or hours or weeks or months one has waited. ‘What is this life if full of care/We have no time to stand and stare.’ And yet, time might only be a way to calibrate waiting, but we know that is not its unit alone. What is the unit of waiting in Waiting for Godot, for instance? The length of the play in two acts? We know that almost nothing changes during the course of Beckett’s play, between Act I and II, except a few leaves growing on the tree. That has often led me to wonder whether those leaves are a way of measuring waiting. This odd idea might have come to me from my very first memory of waiting — Mrs Nora Bansal, our class teacher in Std II, making us grow peas and beans inside Horlicks bottles. We waited for the seed to sprout in the damp soil, we were restless. Many years later, when I thought back to that moment — and it was a formative one in my understanding of life — I wondered whether the seeds had been restless too.

I see patterns of repetition and intersection and kinship between human and plant life in things around me every day. But one thing that marks them out as distinct in my understanding is the notion of waiting. Waiting is a mark of the human’s social and emotional life, it is also an aesthetic; it is, in the end, an inevitability. At any given moment, the human is waiting for something. That moment of waiting comes from an intuitive and conditioned understanding of life, its forces and its laws. Waiting is, therefore, related to knowledge. To wait for death is also a kind of waiting that I suspect is peculiar to humans. I don’t know if any plant has waited to die.



Sumana Roy, author of How I Became a Tree, writes from Siliguri

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

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Published on June 22, 2018
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