In truth, there have been nobler reasons to make a journey.
Someone once stumbled out of Africa and populated the world. Pilgrims trudged for miles to pay obeisance to their gods. People fled war and hunger. They sought knowledge and new worlds, carving shipping routes for their queens and countries. People have travelled to visit the sick and the dying. For love, for adventure. To fulfil their dearest, most precious dreams. To see the Pyramids or the Galápagos. They’ve saved and scrimped and quit their jobs and headed out in triumph.
While I – well, for me it’s a somewhat different matter. I’m travelling out of Delhi, this mad, magnificent city at the edge of a desert, to go back to where I came from – the wettest place on earth. About all this, the lady at the counter is blissfully unconcerned. Her shiny gold name tag says Monika, and Monika cares only about whether the passenger before her has stowed a power bank in their checked-in luggage.
“And a coconut, ma’am?” Monika’s face is inscrutable, masked by a variegated coastal shelf of makeup.
I decide I will answer her now and google this later. “No.”
Whatever next? But it looks like I’m done. My suitcase is tugged away on the conveyor belt in spasmodic bursts; I’m handed my boarding pass, a quick smile. Gate 42B.
“Have a good flight, ma’am.”
By the time I’m through security and spat out the other end, I know all about the coconut, its high oil content and how its meat is potentially combustible. Even though, so far, there hasn’t been a single incident of fire on an aircraft resulting from a flaming nut. At least not of the palm-tree kind.
In the bit of the airport that looks like a mall, I stroll past beige chinos and pots of body butter, bags as big as bears, women in jewelled saris sell- ing ayurvedic cosmetics. Above, a board is lit up with inspirational quotes, something by Rumi, What you seek is seeking you. Good. I knew it was meant to be – coffee and me.
Upstairs, the queues are long at Starbucks, but I join one nonetheless. Everyone is peering into their phones; I peer into mine, too. Two texts. A TED Talk link from my father – “Tomatoes talk, birch trees learn – do plants have dignity?” – which I save for later, and a message from “Joseph Bangalore.”
In Delhi this weekend. Catch up?
By catch up he means sex. Quick, good, a couple of rounds at night, and once in the morning before he heads off to save the world. I jest. He’s a pharmaceutical sales rep, not someone I might have met through friends or colleagues, but that’s the magic of Tinder. Match. Chat. Date. Regret. Though I see Joseph Bangalore infrequently enough for this last to not have set in – yet. Pity I must tell him I’m not in town.
When you back, babes?
I hate it when he calls me that.
Gate 42B is tucked away in a godforsaken corner; down a long corridor, past potted palms, vending machines, and a bald bronze boy perpetually working his surya namaskar. Above me, the airport rises like the inside of a high-ceilinged shell; below, a carpet the distinct shade of diarrhoea. When I get there, it’s crowded already, passengers, luggage, kids, spilling higgledy-piggledy off the seats on to the floor.
Since when is Tuesday morning a busy time to travel?
I stand some distance away, sipping my coffee. Pretty awful, but still half-decent compared with what’s available where I’m going: Hello, Nescafé.
Last time waiting to catch a flight like this, I met an old classmate from school; she seemed delighted to see me while I stood there desperately trying to fish for her name, Nandita, Namrata, Namita, and then – like a magician performing a favourite trick – she drew a child out from behind her. A child! Of three or four.
I still borrow earrings when I’m invited for a wedding, and she has a daughter.
No such intrusion now, thankfully, but it returns, my disquiet.
Not because I want children – I don’t, or at least I don’t think I do – but because of something else. Perhaps this is why I’m leaving. Not because of my schoolmate, still nameless, but something else, also unnameable. Not love. Not the weather. Not to prove myself right, or wrong. But because something – I don’t know what exactly – has been lost.
Across from me, on a silent news screen, a fire rages through the forests of, I think, South America. The president of somewhere insists it’s not. “The media is lying,” read the subtitles under his pink, belligerent face. He’s saying something about how it’s a fallacy that the Amazon is the heritage of humankind, when my phone rings.
“You’re coming home?”
“Are you sick?”
“You’ve been fired?”
“What? I need a reason?”
“Of course not. I’m only asking because you usually come around Christmas.”
This is true. I shrug. “It’s the air, Mei. Four seventy-seven AQI and counting.” About this, I’m not lying. Delhi hovers a very close second to Bishkek in the World Air Quality Index list. Bishkek – this, too, I have googled – is the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
“Had something to eat?”
I’m thirty-two and my mother still asks me this.
“Yes,” I lie.
There’s a pause before she asks, “What about the award ceremony, Shai?”
“It’s not my award.”
“Yes, but you should be there, after everything Nah Nah Pat’s done for you. She’s – ”
“Family,” I complete. “Yes, I know.” Nah Nah Pat is my mother’s cousin, and she heads a Christian evangelical development agency that I once worked for in the invigoratingly titled role of “assistant social transformer.”
Mei stays silent.
I sigh. “I’ll call and apologise...”
“Yes. And go see her as soon as you’re back.”
It’s time for a swift change of subject.
“Mei, do you think plants have dignity?”
She says she doesn’t know; she hasn’t watched the damn video yet. “Also,” she adds, “your father’s gone off again...”
She snorts, lightly. “Yes. On another one of his crusades.”
I ask, because I must, “Where to, this time?”
“Not far. But he’s becoming impossible.”
Before she launches into the million reasons why, I cut her off, not so gently – “Mei, we’re boarding, I’ll see you soon.” We’re not. The stewards stand desultorily by the still-unopened gate. A daughter nobler than I would have said it’s a good thing, then, that I’ll be home, but for the moment, I want to selfishly, quietly, sip my foul brew in peace.
Why are you coming back, Shai? I wish I could have told Mei that sometimes you must make the journey to find out.
We land in a place that falls off the map.
So far east in this vast country that it feels not of this country anymore. I emerge from Guwahati airport into ferocious heat and dust, and a wake of clamouring cabdrivers. I’m looking for Mohun, a guy from home who’s meant to pick me up. We always hire him, though I’m not entirely sure why. He’s busy on the phone for most of the three-hour drive up winding mountain roads, and he chews alarming amounts of betel nut, intermittently opening his door, while we’re moving, to eject a stream of red liquid onto the tarmac. All along, we leave a trail of little crime scenes.
Thankfully, now, he finds me. Ale, he says in Khasi, even though he is Nepali, and whisks my suitcase out of my hand. I follow him dutifully across the parking lot, to a shiny white Santro. The good thing about Mohun is he doesn’t feel the need for conversation, apart from near-monosyllabic questions – AC? Tea? Toilet? – and so I watch as Assam passes by outside the window. After a traffic-clogged section at Beltola, we drive through long quiet stretches, fields edged by graceful palms, ponds choked prettily with hyacinth, and then we hit the truck-heavy highway – also the border between the plains and the hills.
Booze shops line the Meghalaya side on the right, where alcohol taxes are lower; on the Assam side, busy markets spill with colourful produce backdropped by cement factories belching white smoke. All this is familiar. All this, I have known all my life. Etched into all the journeys I have made to and fro, from elsewhere to home and back to elsewhere again, an oddly reversed ordering, I know, but home, for me, has always been a place not to live in but to leave.
After we cross Jorabat, a grimy, sprung-out-of-nowhere town, we begin to climb, and I roll down the window because this is when the air turns fresher and the dust lightens. Soon we’re in the mountains, and the way down turns long and steep, the road curling like a ribbon. I find it peculiar, how vast, majestic landscapes like these feel unwaveringly timeless. As though they’ve always been this way, permanent and perennial. But fifty million years ago, all this was underwater; a shallow sea extended from these hills across to Rajasthan. Everything, in its own time, changes.
Though now, too, we could be submerged – I’ve arrived after the end of the monsoon, and the forested slopes shimmer in shades of green I find difficult to describe to people back in the city. Light and luminescent as the first leaves on our planet. Dark and deep, the colour of ancient emerald pools. Perhaps because they are drummed from the earth by what we call ‘lap bah’ – rain so heavy and long-lasting that it’s the mightiest rain of all.
Soon we stop at a makeshift restaurant, with baskets of early oranges, pickle-bottle armies, and swaying banners of silvery Lay’s. I want nothing more than water, and wait while Mohun eats a quick lunch.
When we resume our journey, it’s late afternoon and the air has turned cool. It will cut to the bone when night falls, but I will be home before then, before the shadows grow long and the sun begins to slide behind the hills.
We live a little out of Shillong, at the top of a hill, up a steep slope. Mohun puts the car into first gear; in second, we would stall and roll all the way back. I’m bracing myself. Always this strange feeling upon arrival – of not being sure why I’m here, or whether I should be here at all. Pine trees tower over us, their shadows falling slenderly across the windshield. Soon, Mohun rounds the last corner, and there, to the right, flanked by bamboo thickets, stands the green gate through which we must enter, and we come to a halt on a porch with a garage housing an ancient Fiat that’s driven only when I’m around.
When Oiñ, my nanny, still lived with us, she’d be standing outside to greet me. Today, my mum steps out alone, and it takes me a moment to realise that this pepper-haired lady is her. It’s been less than a year since I’ve seen her – in which secret hours did she age?
When I hug her, though, she smells familiar, of wool and naphthalene and hand cream, and at this moment...cinnamon. “You,” she says, cupping my face like she would a candle flame. I look at her, smiling. Mohun is duly paid, my suitcase extracted from the car, and we stream inside.
We live in a big house, far bigger than required for two people who don’t speak to each other much. And emptier, now that Oiñ has moved back to her village and my mum’s parents have died. This does mean sections of the house feel unused – because they are – and my room stays un- disturbed. Visit to visit, outgrown yet intimate, palimpsest of every room it has been over the years. Papered with posters of boy bands, Greenpeace, and tennis stars; an old collection of postcards, “Cities Around the World” – Rome, London, Stockholm, Paris, New York – which I thought bestowed on my walls a certain sophistication.
For now, we head to the kitchen. Mei has baked a cake, and the warmth of it lingers in the air. “Your favourite,” she says, placing a slice before me. I also accept her offer of tea. I watch as she busies herself with the electric kettle, the teapot, the cups, not attempting to help her because I know she will refuse and brush me aside. You’ve had a long journey. My mother looks thinner, as though her bones have lightened, but her cheeks are flushed with warmth. It’s strange how she can seem robust and frail all at once.
“How long are you staying?” she inquires. Pleased as she is to see me, Mei is never too keen for me to be here long. Here, where once there was always trouble – or the possibility of it. After Independence, when the people of these hills found themselves swallowed up by Assam, with nothing much in common with the plainspeople apart from newly drawn national borders, they fought for their own state. Meghalaya. A Sanskrit name given to a place that spoke no Sanskrit. The Home of the Clouds.
After that, a drive to chase out dkhars, outsiders – the Nepalis, the Assamese, the Bangladeshis, the Bengalis – every decade bringing with it fresh waves of unrest. My mother wished none of this for me – the curfews and violent disturbances, the clashes between our local “militants” and the army and Central Reserve Police Force, of which there always seemed to be an endless reserve to bring here, she said.
So, when I was old enough to be sent away, I was. To boarding school, to university, for employment. Always elsewhere. Mei considers our hometown a dead-end place, where nothing ever happens except militancy, and no one makes much of themselves. Except, well, I’m not sure I’m making much of myself elsewhere either.
“So?” she asks again. “How long?”
I give her a reply I haven’t before: “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” She sits across from me. “And work?”
“I’ll have to find something else.”
“I’ve been there three years, Mei! And besides” – I take a deep breath – “they’re shutting down.” Little hope remains these days for a publishing house specialising in travel guides – we’ve been replaced by apps and Google Maps, our boss told us. And while the rest of my colleagues scrambled around looking for new jobs, I didn’t. I bought a plane ticket. I’m here. This, though, is not something I share with Mei.
“Well,” she says finally, “that’s a pity.”
I sip my tea, but I sip it too quick. It’s hot, and I scald my tongue. “Careful,” she says, frowning.
“Grace sends her love.” I hope this will placate her. My flatmate is a bona fide parent charmer; Mei has only ever spoken to her on the phone, but even this is sufficient for Grace to work her magic.
“Oh, how is she?”
Grace is doing well, I tell her, working as a counsellor at the reputed Bluebells School. My friend is the daughter my mum could be proud of; me, I think, not so much.
The cake, soft and warm and studded with walnuts, goes down heavy.
I sip the tea gingerly and ask about Papa. She cradles her cup in her hands, steam rising gently in front of her face. “Why don’t you go see for yourself ?”
“Okay, then,” I say, “I will.”
“You can take him his tea.”
When I walk out later, flask in hand, the hills have begun to darken. No more than an hour of daylight remains. Delhi feels far away. Always this, when I arrive home. This sudden downsizing of the world. In some ways, I feel resized myself, smaller somehow, more compact.
I walk up the winding colony road; ours is one of the last few neighbourhoods with old houses still standing intact, low-roofed, limewashed, fronted by neatly trimmed hedges, with names like Hacienda and Little Cloud. Much of Shillong has been given over to manic construction, an inglorious clutter of unplanned cement structures – mostly illegal, of course, in an earthquake zone such as this. Every so often, the town is rattled by tremors, or a series of small rumbles. Warnings of what’s to come, my mother likes to say, sounding as though she might even be wishing it upon us.
My father has no such views. In fact, it’s difficult to discern whether he has views on anything at all apart from things that grow in the garden. And trees. Especially when they might be felled. And “plant bias” – our human tendency to underappreciate or ignore the flora around us – according to him, our species’s greatest, gravest crime.
He has always been this way, for as long as I can remember. Growing plants and saving them, from frost and aphids and too much rain. He’s not as tall as my mum, and built smaller, stouter, less lean, with the air of always being elsewhere. Though now he is very much present – and immobile.
“Oh, hello.” He smiles benignly, as though I’ve never been away a day, and that my visiting him under these present circumstances is perfectly normal.
I’ve reached the edge of the colony, from where a pine forest extends over the hills. It’s protected, which means it’s meant to stay unthreatened by housing or commercial developments, but something has driven my father out here to strap himself to a tree. I have visions of gated colonies like the ones in Gurgaon, Western Heights, or Maple Crescent. Or worse, a swanky mall or humongous cathedral.
Instead, he tells me, someone has decided to build a wall.
“What exactly it would be keeping out or in, I’m not sure,” he adds, “but it means cutting down trees to make way for it.”
“At least a dozen.”
The way my father says it, one would think the Amazon’s burning. “All they need to do is build the wall about a foot thinner,” he continues, gesturing, “and it will miss them completely.”
“Yes, it will,” I say placing the flask beside him. He’s sitting up against the widest of the potentially doomed pines. “How long have you been here, Papa?”
“Three days. We’re taking shifts,” he adds quickly, seeing the look on my face. According to Mei, he slinks in and out of the house like a thief, to eat, to change, to sleep.
“Who’s we?” I look around. There’s no one else here.
Kong Nuramon, apparently, the woman who lives opposite and runs her own nursery. Every day of the year, something or other blooms wildly in her makeshift greenhouse, in the rows and rows of pots along the wall, on her veranda, all along the steps up to her front door. She’s the colony flower lady.
Bah Kyn comes over sometimes. My father’s closest friend, who lives across town; given the distance, though, I don’t see how he could be a reliable earth warrior.
“So, what’s happening now?”
“Well, we’re not sure yet,” he admits unhappily. “Kong Nuramon says the wood has already been sold, a lakh, a lakh and a half for each tree. Which is why officials are reluctant to do anything. But Bah Kyn’s been trying to get in touch with someone he knows in the Forest Department who might be able to help.”
“That’s good.” I pause before asking, “Must you be here all the time, then?”
“Just in case.”
He’s sipping his tea now. Mum also sent him some cake. I sit down with him. It looks like we’re having a picnic. The scent of pine rising around us, damp, mulchy, sour. My father looks older, too, grey at the hairline where all was once coal black. Why are you doing this, Papa, I want to ask, but I’m afraid he’ll give me an answer I won’t comprehend. I sit with him quietly. He’s never been one to ask many questions, so usually, I make the effort. “I watched the video you sent this morning,” I tell him.
His face brightens. “Fascinating, isn’t it?” I nod. This prompts him to chatter – about plant communication, their immense aromatic vocabulary, their capacity for memory.
“Birch trees can remember a past event for up to four years,” he says in delight.
Yes, I joke, it’s possible they have a better memory than I do.
He beams. “The lady in the video says that, too.”
It’s growing dark now, quite suddenly as it does in the hills, and here in the forest all light has seeped away.
“Papa,” I begin, “why don’t I request Kong Nuramon to keep watch for any...activity here during the night, and you can come home for now?” I expect him to put up a fight, or just flat-out refuse, but to my surprise, he agrees.
Later, as we walk home together, a thought swoops into my head like a bat: All the trees in the world remember.
Excerpted with permission from Everything The Light Touches, Janice Pariat, Harper-Collins India.