There was nothing green anywhere in sight. Nature, in any form, could barely intrude.
My father, who spend his early childhood in a village and remained loyal to those memories, tried hard to create a patch of lawn at the back of our home. Alas, the grass was moribund. He tried, with less of a disaster, to grow some flowering plants. He put them in slender vases in each room. But not mine, for he knew I did not care much for the large flowers favored in India. He joked, “You don’t care for flowers? You could be an assassin!” I favored small non-flowering plants and large, rugged trees, none of which I encountered where I lived.
If a season at all made a debut in my mind, it was the monsoon. There were tons of songs about the rains, their beauty and majesty. What was most notable for me was the predictable flooding of the streets where I lived. All we needed was a couple of hours of rain, and there would be knee-deep, sometimes waist-deep, water in the street. It was filthy water, but that little bothered me or my friends. Defying all motherly concern, we simply had to have the fun of wading through swirling waters, floating paper boats and inspecting the havoc they caused to the little shops and huts.
My real encounters with nature were infrequent and unimpressively short. I remember wading through snow in Pahalgam and, more memorably, running my fingers through the still waters of Dal lake, prone in a boat. I remember too the brief and beautiful days in Darjeeling, though the town had already turned less pastoral and more a tourist spot. But more than the hills and mountains, it was the sea that left a lasting imprint on my mind. We never had the money for a cruise, but when I went with friends for a modest trip to Digha, the immensity of the water left me speechless. I swam away from my buddies and stood in the water up to my neck, and had a strong, strange feeling: I could live friendless, without the vital company of others that has always been my elixir, only if I were to live in the sands next to an ocean. It was too mammoth to let me entertain a single small thought, even a moment’s meditation on my loneliness.
Then my world changed. Crisscrossing the globe became my routine. Something must have broken open inside me. Three insignificant incidents come to mind.
I sat sipping bitters on Piazza San Marco in Venice when my friend said, “Look!” I don’t recall what she was pointing at, but I clearly remember the tilting late-afternoon sun, the floating clouds, the solitary boat paddling across glorious, rippled waters and I was suddenly in a state of ineffable peace. I scratched the idea of Italy’s other charms, lingered in Venice for ten days, and every evening went to sit, pointlessly, in the Piazza.
Strangely sleepless after a well-traveled day, I came out of my oasis haven in the Libyan desert one night and walked quietly for an hour in the sands. Not a word, not a sound. I felt I was close to heaven.
Most curious was the most prosaic experience. I had gone for dinner to the home of a Haitian friend in the hills of Pétionville and, as I got out of the car, my eyes widened: next to the house was the most unbelievably perfect lawn, like an inviting green carpet, just the kind my father would have aspired for. I waited not a second. Disregarding my well-pressed evening suit, I lay down on the grass, looked up at the stars and said a prayer of benediction. It was the finest moment of my life.
Now I live in a quiet suburb of Washington, a green paradise. I walk at dawn through woods and shrubs, hear the rustling of leaves as deer and squirrels scurry through the tall trees, and know that, Nature, that had long eluded me, has finally made a friend of me.