“The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.”
I was young when I first read those lines by Pablo Neruda, from a poem that I still hold as one of the best I have ever read in my life, and probably ever will, I had a different perception of human emotions. I was of course a boy of ten, less scarred by the claws of nostalgia, and found the assertion valid enough. How can two humans be the same at two different nights, even if they remained pals or lovers?
Growing older, I would find places have no meaning without people, in that they always remind me of being or not being with someone, in the years past and present. But, as Neruda points out, someone of one time may not be the someone of other moments. People keep finding people in husbands, wives, families, children, friends and neighbours, in ways that rearrange the maps of their lives irreversibly. In that sense, someone I may be looking for in someone may have vanished for ever, leaving behind a familiar topology of an alien landscape. The same night whitening the same trees…
Then people keep going away physically on and on, across longitudes, latitudes and oceans, across lines of Equator and Greenwich. And when they come back they are like Lazarus, they are truly not there. People cross that last line too, of that indelible darkness, and die. At times in the noon of their lives, felled by cancer or meningitis, or axes and guns of the Jihadists, or minced into pulp on the tarmac by an eight-ton truck. Then there is a someone-shaped black hole in the universe.
I also hate when places change faces, as they will all inevitably do. Couple this with the disappearance of people, physical or metaphysical, and what you have is a place sans soul. I trust the feeling is called saudade in Portuguese.
Early in my childhood, my father took the family to our village. Among many things, I became fond of a circular hut in a clearing east of the village, nestling under a peepal tree. The hut belonged to a family that had branched off from an ancestor we had shared generations ago. While there was no explicit rancour among us, there was a palpable undercurrent of loathing between the offshoots of the bloodline. An old woman clad in a white saree, because she was a widow, I was told, was forever crouched in a cot, and was more or less a fixture along with the hut and the tree. Her grandniece would visit her with food and water from time to time, and it was definitely to the latter I was drawn to when I found out the hut. We sat on the cot facing the old woman; my dangling legs began waving like pendulums.
“Stop that!” Those words were more hissed than rasped by the toothless mouth. I noticed her grandniece had pulled her legs up and was sitting cross-legged like a demure child would, covering her knees in the mauve coloured frock. She had big, black eyes in her round face and short, bob hair covering the forehead. The peepal leaves were susurrating a ceaseless music, even though the corn ears stood still in the fields; the sun shone brightly over the top. A scarecrow with a head made of soot black pitcher stood leaning to a side, an old broom drooped from his bamboo-stick arm.
The old woman broke into a story, unsolicited by her paltry audience. Perhaps she wanted to impress the new visitor; perhaps it was a daily chore. The story was about a prince and a fairy who was cursed to be a poor girl. They became friends and grew up together whereupon the prince was whisked away by the generals of the king.
The matter of my visit to the hut was discussed among the elders of the home and it was generally agreed to be a harmless adventure. I visited the hut and the ladies young and old twice more before we returned to the city. The next summer we went there the hut was still there and so were the pair of the white-clad old woman and her grandniece, who had grown a bit shy and had lost a tooth but had somehow grown more charming.
The old lady though seemed frozen in time, and so were the stories most of which were spun upon the common theme. I had carried several rolls of candies called ‘Poppins’ and gave her one each day. I also learned to time my visits in the day so as to make sure I met the grandniece. Once, I believe she was sick and a grumpy greying man appeared with the food instead. He cast a sarcastic look at me and left soon without so much as an introduction after dropping a tote bag in the old woman’s lap. The peepal tree was swaying noisily in the strong summer wind that day. The little girl was not at rest, nor was the tree.
The hut was gone without a trace the next summer we visited the village. The ‘white widow’ had died the previous winter, unattended in her thatch, and with her passing the hut was pulled down too. And although her grandniece was still there, tucked somewhere under the clay tiles of her huge family home, there was nowhere I could have met her. Since ours was a pucca house, I would slip onto the terrace and look wistfully at the brown earthen spires adorning her housetop. It was perhaps then I had felt the first pangs of longing.
Our family wouldn’t visit the village for the next few years because of my father’s transfer to a farther location. I had grown bigger and wiser when the opportunity presented itself again. But the little girl’s family had sold off all their land and belongings to move to Delhi permanently. I didn’t have the heart to visit the peepal tree where once stood the round hut meaning so much to me. But on a particularly listless night, I slipped out of the house and found my way to the tree. It was a half-moon night and the peepal stood high, all its leaves quivering and whispering. But it didn’t say anything to me.