Under a leafless tree
By Sumana Roy
If you decide to go to a place whose name you don’t know how to pronounce correctly, chances are you will end up speaking very little. When my husband and I decided to spend a few months in Wrocław in Poland, it was language that resisted our first homemaking. For even adventure needs a language. We had, for the first thirty years of our lives, lived in familiar homes – Bangla, Hindi, Nepali, and English. Living in Darjeeling with a slow Internet connection in the early years of this new millennium, we had not been able to acquaint ourselves with the wisdom that is given to travellers. Neither of us had ever travelled outside India. From the protected middle class sanctuaries of our individual lives, we decided to go to a place where we did not know anyone and where no one knew us. We joked with each other, about how this was a desire that only camera-bugged celebrities could harbour and consequently indulge, but looking back, I suppose what we were actually looking for was an exit route out of the mollycoddled zone of the familial and the familiar.
The antonym for those two words – ‘familial’ and ‘familiar’ – must be close to ‘hostility,’ which, we learnt as soon as landed, was primal: the body was its first target. And so the cold wind that drilled its way into out ear holes as we got down from the plane in early October. Darjeeling, with its affectionate autumns and stringent winters had clearly been poor preparation for this version of cold weather. Soon we would find ourselves submerged in snow and statistics: it was apparently the coldest winter in a hundred and thirty-seven years. These are times when history is completely useless – it didn’t make us any braver, nor did it help pay the bills for extra heating.
We had bought – though I am certain that is not the word I want to use – ourselves this solitary life, its halo of romanticism had been the lodestone that had got us into what now seemed like a strange land. A ‘strange’ land is a cruel description, but we justified it by telling ourselves that what we meant by that was that it was inhabited by strangers. And hence that ascription. Strange names (any foreign language must seem strange to an outsider?) for vegetables and meat, fish and streets were not the only things. Nor was the cold congealing into the ferociousness of ice from snow, on which I would take many falls. It was an education – that long years of being an autodidact must extend to this lived geography now. That, of all things in the world, how one takes a fall, whether on ice or on a slippery floor, cannot be learned. Emails from friends would arrive from time to time. They would be full of gossip and stories. And queries about the weather and the food we were eating.
One morning, a friend wrote to say that there was a rumour that my husband and I had ‘escaped’ from India because of some ‘threat.’
”You are in a country where there are no terrorists,” she wrote.
I was relieved. Well, almost.
My students and colleagues tried their best, but I was caught between two stools, the necessity to become social and the urge to stick to my solitariness, the latter almost a manifesto behind this stay. It wasn’t possible to discover solitariness in a crowded and unsafe place like India, I’d decided, linking solitariness to geography. Perhaps I was still naive – why else would I have not looked for it in the perforated darkness inside me?
As the days shrunk and daylight became lonelier than two Indians in this city in western Poland, the little that I had found familiar disappeared. I mean the elements – the air, the water, the earth, everything had transmogrified. I, who had taken the grass under my feet for granted all my life, the water riding on land as necessary to the life of the eye, began to realise the fine line that exists between solitariness and loneliness.
I had so long lived a life taut with the energy that comes from the sudden discovery of aloneness in our small apartment. From a window on the third floor, I watched out for birds of the same feather – overlooking our series of apartments were small farms owned and nurtured by aged retired people. Pensioners, they did not have the luxury of choice – they had not wanted to be lonely. From my privileged perspective, I watched them behave like ants, collecting leaves, twigs, branches; anything that would bring some heat to their cold bodies. Eventually, they too stopped visiting. The trees, which had been the reason for their daily visits, no longer had anything to give them. All the trees outside my window had made themselves perfectly eligible to audition for the role of the tree in O. Henry’s short story ‘The Last Leaf’.
Our apartment, this new sealed airtight-container life, where my hair and skin became as crisp as potato wafers inside a packet, eventually pushed me out into the cold. I cannot exactly say whether I found it or it found me. I was, by this time, homesick, but also full of the reserve of – how does one say it without sentimentality – a tree that knows it will survive winter.
Let me say it then. I found a tree in a park.
It is easy to read this as epiphany or with a head bang on the door, but the truth is, one mid-January evening, I was chased so terribly by loneliness that I felt I would collapse if I found no one to rest my back against. Yes, the opposite of a hug. My husband was at home, perhaps waiting for me, and because I had chosen solitariness as a vocation, I did not carry a cell phone. Even if I did, it would not have helped. So, this park, where I had watched weeping willows and children feeding bread crumbs to ducks made me read Tennyson’s pathetic fallacy in a new light in autumn, I sat down and stopped breathing. Or so I thought.
When I regained consciousness, in the sense that one begins feeling human again, I realised that I was resting against a tree. But this was no ordinary tree. It had been uprooted once, but it hadn’t given up. So it now seemed that it grew parallel to the earth, the latter’s gravity having suddenly turned kind. When I reached home, I told my husband, “I’ve made a friend today.”
“Polish?” the man asked in all simplicity.
That question I could not answer.
In the workplace, I heard stories about how Wrocław had once been a German town, and on my way back, while walking by the Japanese botanical garden one day, I suddenly thought – no imagined – an old German woman missing this tree like the way my paternal grandmother missed the tamarind tree of her ancestral house in what is now Bangladesh’s Natore. I was reminded about my grandmother’s laments about it in the Indian summers, and her words about how it was impossible to see a history of the Partition without the role of jungles of trees and bamboos. But that is another story.
A few days later I got a haircut. Short and severe. I decided, almost having been educated by the tree that that was how winter was to be fought – without leaves, without hair. Yes, aloneness does indulge uncertain empathies, and so it became easy – and perhaps all too simplistic – for me to imagine myself as a lonely, leafless tree. There was something universal about leafless trees – strange fruits and flowers might come from them to the kitchen and the table, but their denuded state, their long wait for leaves, their green kitchen now on hibernation like Kumbhakarna of our epic, turned them into my relatives in my long waiting. My malady was homesickness; I, in my desperation for some string of identification, had, in my mind, ordered the trees’ state of leaflessness to be a version of homelessness. How could a tree be happy and at home without leaves?
Soon, I began arriving upon other deductions and wayward conclusions. Happinesses, I discovered another lonely morning, might be varied, but sadnesses were alike – one couldn’t wait for them to get over. Hence this kinship in waiting. Winters are similar, everywhere–the same colours, grey and charcoal, the colour of shadows and footprints, of darkness at noon. Summers were different – their colour was dependent on the place one found them at.
Much later, I would read about the coded telegrams that green leaves and flowers send each other. When the time came for me to leave Wrocław, I, who had constructed memories of my childhood out of pressing flowers and leaves of places between the pages of notebooks, would find myself unable to find a single leaf. Summer would arrive late, very late.
I would then also discover other stranger things. That a few of my colleagues had given me a nickname. I no longer remember the Polish word for it – perhaps it is “wiadro” – but they told me that local lore called the tree a ‘bucket,’ all for its ability to collect people in the summer. The best amateur singers in town always sang sitting on its wayward trunk.
I returned from Wrocław with a new nickname: ‘Winter Bucket.’
And with an education: I had learnt how to sit under a leafless tree.
Perhaps the Buddha hadn’t been all that lonely after all.
Photo: Bhaswati Ghosh
Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. She is at www.sumanaroy.com
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.