Fallen, not forgotten

Keep in touch: Leaves and flowers make for some of the prettiest keepsakes   -  ISTOCK.COM

The dead need as much care as the living. Maybe that’s why we treasure scrapbooks that are resting places for dried flowers and leaves

Sometimes, when my mind longs to lie on its spine, to give company to the body’s spine as it were, I feel like a dried leaf. The antonym of ‘dry’ would be ‘wet’, and to feel like a dried leaf would, therefore, feel like being without water.

Water is grease — it seems to lubricate everything. The loss of water is how I understand death — when all moisture has been taken away from life. I imagine death to be dry.

In old scrapbooks that my mother has preserved from my childhood are dried flowers and leaves. They are brittle, they break with my touch. I begin to imagine ghosts as brittle creatures. The sticky tape that has caged them there for decades has worked overtime. They let go as soon as I open a page. I am careful.

It’s almost as if I’m trying to teach myself a new moral: Anything that doesn’t have water will break easily (I think of the heart, how we feel it break, and I think of love as moisture, and how its absence causes the heart to become brittle). Many of them fall — and then lie — on my lap, roses and pine leaves that were once in bouquets, from where I’d scavenged them as a child (for bouquets were ‘adult’ things, I thought then). Others haven’t been able to survive Time’s leaching away of moisture. Only the impress of the hibiscus remains — a smudge, a stain of its corpse, where it bled before shrinking and falling off, literally.

The fig leaf — I cannot remember from where I might have got it — has survived. Its flesh, only a function of the body, has fallen off. Its remainder — as dust — lines the fold of the scrapbook. What stands, or lies, on the page is perhaps the most beautiful skeleton I shall ever see: The deep network of the leaf’s veins, all held together inside its heart-shaped perimeter. It’s a work of filigree through which light passes to produce beautiful shadows, as if the leaf were a wall in a Mughal monument. What I can’t help thinking also is how the loss of water, along with the consequent loss of flesh, has allowed light to pass through.

In Tipu Khola, a forest reserve near Bengdubi, close to Siliguri, the sub-Himalayan town where I live, it is difficult to walk in March without breaking skeletons of leaves. On a family picnic, I hear a relative use the phrase “littered with leaves”. The trees, to whose home we’ve come, could make the same complaint about us — littered with humans. They might, who knows? Is it that sound — of annoyance –— we hear as we try to make our way through the forest? ‘Cacophony’ is an anthropocentric word — the kind of sound unbearable to humans.

It is spring here, but this wind, muscular and masculine, reminds me of the kalbaishakhi, the nor’wester. It looks like a cyclone of leaves; they brush against each other and against the wind. The sound of that resistance echoes in the forest.

Such is the stupidity of our ideas about hygiene and cleanliness that people, particularly children, may spend their entire childhood without thinking about what happens to leaves that die. Where do they disappear? The modern — and post-industrial — understanding of cleanliness has to do with the eradication of things that come from ‘nature’. We buy tubers from supermarket without touching the soil that produced them; we walk on levelled lawns and streets without having to encounter fallen leaves or rotting flowers.

There were two little boys in our group. They’d carried a football, and a cricket bat and ball with them. But once there, they seemed to have abandoned all the modern-day props for entertainment. All through the late morning and early afternoon they only played with the dried leaves, kicking at them, thereby making them fly in the air, picking up a bunch with their tiny hands and throwing them at each other, running through the dried leaves, creating a unique form of music, like air does when jogging through a flute. Lunch was late, as it usually is on picnics, and they, hungry, wondered whether they could eat the dried leaves like potato wafers. They replicated the biting with their hands, and the sound of the crunch, where they imagined the taste to be hidden.

I carried a dried leaf as a souvenir. Souvenir because one can no longer be sure what will remain — of both the people and the place. Sitting next to me in the car on our way home was my sister-in-law, with her six-month-old daughter. The infant’s fingers were all that was visible, for she was held as close to her mother as bodies would allow. In my hand was the dried leaf, curled too, but as if this curling away was a withdrawal from life. It had lost all water. Its midrib had bent, as had its edges. Conscious not to harass it, I held it carefully, protecting it from everything, including myself. The dead need as much care as the living.

SUMANA ROY   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree; @SumanaSiliguri

Published on March 29, 2019
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