I was born in a big city in central India, Nagpur, and grew up in a huge metropolis in eastern India, Kolkata. Bricks, mortar and concrete were my daily reality. I saw clean, grimy buildings, cobbled, muddy streets, vast, smelly markets, and an endless parade of handcarts and rickshaws, old cars and rickety buses. My daily landscape consisted of a sunrise slowly emerging from behind the smoky plumes of a sprawling slum and a swift, brilliant sunset beyond the rusty gray-brown domes of old warehouses.
There was nothing green in sight. Nature, in any form, could hardly impose itself.
My father, who spent his early childhood in a village and lived by those memories, endeavored to create a patch of lawn at the back of our house. Alas, the grass was moribund. He tried, with less disaster, to grow flowering plants. He put them in slender vases in every room. But not mine, because he knew that I didn’t much like the big flowers popular in India. He joked, “You don’t like flowers? You could be a killer! I preferred small, non-flowering plants and large, sturdy trees, of which I encountered few where I lived.
I read about nature in my books. There was a slight change in temperature during the winter, and my mother insisted that I wear a cardigan when I left for school, but fall and spring came and went fairly unnoticed. These have been swept up in poems I’ve read, with references to flora I could never recognize. All the literary excitement of the changing of the seasons seemed to me very exaggerated. I have seen few signs of their manifestation in my world.
If a season made its debut in my mind, it was the monsoon. There were many songs about the rains, their beauty and their majesty. What was most remarkable to me was the predictable flooding of the streets where I lived. All we needed was a few hours of rain, and there was water up to our knees, sometimes waist deep, in the street. It was dirty water, but it bothered me or my friends a bit. Defying any maternal anxiety, we were simply to have fun wading through the swirling waters, floating paper boats and inspecting the havoc they wreaked on small shops and shacks.
My actual encounters with nature were infrequent and unimpressive. I remember wading through the snow at Pahalgam in Kashmir and, more memorably, running my fingers through the calm waters of Dal Lake while lying in a boat. I also remember the brief and beautiful days in Darjeeling, when the city had already become less bucolic and more touristy. 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 a meditation on my loneliness.
Then my world changed. Traveling the globe has become my routine. Something must have opened in me. Three insignificant incidents come to mind.
I was sitting sipping bitters in Piazza San Marco in Venice when my friend said, “Look! “. I don’t remember what she was pointing at, but I clearly remember the late afternoon sun, the billowing clouds, the lone boat paddling the glorious, rippling waters and I was suddenly in a state of ineffable peace. I scratched the surface of the idea of the other charms of Italy, lingered ten days in Venice, and went every evening to sit uselessly in the Piazza.
In Egypt, strangely insomniac after a day well traveled, I emerged one night from my oasis in the Libyan desert and walked quietly for an hour in the sand. Not a word, not a sound. I felt close to heaven.
The most curious was the most prosaic experience. I had gone to dinner with 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 incredibly perfect lawn, like an inviting green carpet, just the kind to which my father would have aspired. I didn’t wait a second. Disregarding my neatly pressed evening suit, I lay down on the grass, looked up at the stars, and said a prayer of blessing. It was the most beautiful moment of my life.
Now I live in a quiet suburb of Washington, a green paradise. I walk at dawn through woods and shrubbery, hear the rustle of leaves as deer and squirrels scurry through tall trees, and know that nature, which had long eluded me, finally made a friend of me.