Fall into place

Janice Pariat | Updated on September 21, 2018 Published on September 21, 2018

In full colour: Japan is the place to be in September, since they have a word for autumn air (shuuki), autumn colours (shuushoku), and autumn’s voice (aki no koe).   -  ISTOCK.COM

Across the world, autumn is a season that holds all the senses captive

On my list of books I’d like to write some day is one called ‘Following Fall’.

It’ll be non-fiction, I’m certain — a collection of essays, part-travelogue, part-memoir, that follows autumn in different parts of the world. Well, that’s the plan. I’m still figuring out who will commission me to embark on all this travel as “research”. Perhaps it’ll remain a project always undone. But I have a few ideas already. For instance, what does autumn look like in Kashmir, in Pahalgam and Gulmarg? What about places such as Delhi that see no tangible autumn? How does the absence of a season shape a place and its people?

In my stints in London as a student, semester would begin in early September, and this, without a doubt, was my favourite month in the city. Summer there can be glorious, yes, the sun sharp and shiny, the Thames all a-glitter, and the weather so perfect you could weep. But autumn is golden. The air changes, as does the light.

I remember walking back from class late in the afternoon, Bloomsbury aflame, the leaves scarlet, crunching beneath my boots on the pavement, or lying there wet in the rain. The parks were quieter, the daylight fading faster as the island prepared for a long winter. When I headed out of the city, I saw the countryside too was different, drenched in the colours of harvest. It’s obvious, of course, why Keats wrote an ode to the season. Not for him, and me, the “songs of spring”. Give us soft, dying days, ripened fruit, gathering swallows.

Long after I left the UK, I returned to similar views last September, in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh. When we arrived at the Ziro music festival venue, it started to pour as soon as we stepped out of our hired cab; the monsoon isn’t over in that part of the world until early October. Why do you hold the festival now, we asked our friend, the organiser, as we slung on gumboots and pulled out our rain ponchos.

“Because,” he replied, “of the paddy fields.”

We weren’t quite persuaded — the world around us turning to slush certainly didn’t help — and we remained unconvinced until the next day. When the rain stopped, and we sat outside at the “day stage” listening to the acoustic performers, sipping sweet-smokey barley apong, the sun warm and gentle, and yes, before us and all around, there were endless yellow fields hemmed in the distance by mountains. In a fortnight, this would all be gone, harvested for the winter.

In Shillong, where I grew up, autumn is the time for horse chestnuts, smooth and round and silky in my hand. Now is when the days dry out, grow chilly, and wood-fire smoke hangs in the air. Mustard leaves appear in the vegetable stalls, waiting to be added to stews. Sometimes, the cherry trees bloom.

Then there are the autumns I have only imagined. In Paris. In Hampi. In New York. Cities I have visited but in other seasons, spring and summer.

In 2015, a friend happened to be in New York in October. “What shall I bring for you?” he asked.

“If it’s not too much trouble, some leaves please,” I responded.

And they hang now on my wall, framed between sheets of glass, the colour of amber and syrup, dark red wine, pale mustard speckled with rust.

Once, I’m hoping, for an October in Kolkata. Where I may pandal-hop — from the traditional to the strange (apparently made from buttons, bidis and old tyres, among other decidedly odd material) — and partake of mishti and madness. In Vietnam, eat moon cakes at the Moon Festival. Burn frankincense in Iran at Mehregan. Launch a small boat filled with candles for Loi Krathong, sky lanterns for Yi Peng in Thailand. Binge on oysters at the Irish port of Galway. Go truffle hunting in Alba, Italy. One day I would like to drive to Spiti, and pass through Kinnaur in autumn, where, so I’ve been told, the colours are jewel-bright and blinding. My parents have told me about Bavaria — how Germany may have the world’s best fall colours, coupled with ridiculously quaint fairytale castles, bridges, churches. And what about the parks in America? Pictures of which, I’m convinced, are used as desktop wallpapers the world over.

What else does autumn offer us?

In parts of the world where there is autumn, are people better prepared for winter? How does it change their stories, their poetry? And in places where they don’t, do they still have a word for autumn? Can you write about a season you haven’t experienced? Perhaps Japan is the place to be in September, because they have a word for autumn air (shuuki), autumn colours (shuushoku), autumn’s voice or the sounds of the season (aki no koe) — the wind in dry leaves, rain, crickets. And does the French name for the season, le rentrée, mean more than a return of students to school, politicians to parliament, workers to reopened businesses? What are we returning to as the year ends? Sweaters, woolly blankets, pumpkin soup. And something tells me also — ourselves.


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine Chambered Heart; Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on September 21, 2018
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