by Raju Peddada
"It is not half so important to know as to feel."
—Rachel Carson (1907-1964), Silent Spring
(Swans - July 15, 2013) I was eight years old in Patna, but I still remember that spring of 1965. We had just moved to No. 205, in Patliputra Colony, with a big front yard -- where I and my brother played with Lucky, our two-year-old German Shepard. There was a mango tree in the northeast corner by the gate. It was covered with clusters of tiny cream-colored mango blooms, with a pungent fragrance that signaled the coming summer and the bounty. It was also a fortress we did not know, till one day I tried climbing it, and had to jump off instantly and run to the house, as if on fire, which I was. The tree was the home to a colony of red ants.
At home, Bamma, my paternal grandmother, prepared ancient recipes for lunch, after her bath and prayers, while mother occupied herself with cleaning, our homework, and dinners. Bamma was gifted at drawing, making paper flowers and animals with clay, but more than anything, she was a horticulturalist and a great one at that. She had to be -- her father was a herbalist, a landlord, and the head of their village. The best part of my day, after finishing homework, was the long walks with her in our undeveloped neighborhood, full of wild plants and flowers. She carefully looked at and rubbed every interesting leaf, smelling and telling me their benefits. She even pointed out their evolution in form, from the southern species. I was her preferred companion on these walks, perhaps because I was named after her husband, my grandfather, and my age was the exact number of years he had been gone. She also told me stories of how her father, imbibed with cataleptic energy, had used bitter leaves on small branches from the Neem tree to perform exorcisms on people possessed by evil spirits. He was completely exhausted after such rituals. Her stories came with small details, as well as sound effects that frightened me. But it was her knowledge of plants that enchanted me.
We looked at the shape and texture of everything out there. Even the tiniest flowers with petals the size of rice grains issued fragrance and displayed a spectrum that went from a magenta at the tips, to a yellow at the end, where the petals converged at the ovary, or what they called the axis. There was this yellow trumpet-like flower growing on a bush with thin, deep-green leaves and hanging pods that dripped a white poisonous sap (Cascabela thevetia). The flowers had a peculiar fragrance that drew hummingbirds. This avian miracle always held me in rapture. I usually froze whenever I had the opportunity to watch it. It was blur in the sky, and between destinations; yet when it approached the flower, it air-braked to a gentle hovering. The strobic and almost invisible wings kept this gold-blue-green iridescence suspended in the air, while its disproportionately long and slightly curved beak was poised for the flower opening. It was sensual. In direct sun, its body, no bigger than an unshelled almond, shimmered like fish scales, while the flexing tail feathers balanced the body's sideways movement. I could hear the wings vibrating "ffrrrrr.... ffrrrrr... ffrrrrr" even when I was more than twenty-five paces away. To see a hummingbird in action is a gift -- it is hope in action.
The bees buzzed in a spring frenzy over the delicate clusters of milkweed blooms. Its oval leaves are so rigid that we could break them, instead of ripping or tearing them, and when broken, they oozed a thick white sap. I remember my father applying this white sap as a medicine over his eczema. Bumble bees always landed on large flat flowers with big centers, like the zinnias, the sunflowers, and the dahlias. Tall clumps of foxtail and crowfeet grasses waved in the breeze by the shallow and clear puddles of rain water, with black tadpoles flitting about. Bamma puttered around the plants, while I loved to squat and look at the tadpoles with fascination, wondering how they ever got in the puddle that was only 5 days old. And small stagnant ponds, fringed with clover and grasses, had gyrating mosquito larvae and translucent minnows, which were hard to see when they were still. All this life was in a hurry. Bamma had great hands -- whatever she planted took root and yielded. She talked non-stop about plants, and one day she pointed out wild hemp and basil. Basil, she claimed, was used in witchcraft.
My father, a wireless engineer, had switched from a secure civil aviation job, to a 9-month pipeline project for an engineering consortium, traveling the jungles of Assam. He was a man of precision and punctuality, in a country that valued neither. He got me into St. Michael's, the Roman Catholic school for boys in Patna, on the banks of the Ganges, where I attended the 4th grade. Our principal, Brother Dinny, never allowed us to speak Hindi on the school premises. There were two books I still remember from that year. One was "The Selfish Giant & Other Stories," by Oscar Wilde, and the other was this text book on Roman history with a red cover. For some inexplicable reason it was my favorite book. Decades later, I managed to understand why. It was melancholy over how a great empire had simply vanished -- which was a strange regret for an 8-year-old. Romantic at that age?! I also recall that my mother, in her bedroom, which overlooked the front yard, read to me with enchantment on how Horatius had defended Pons Sublicius, the bridge across the Tiber, against Lars Porsena and his Etruscan army, to save Rome from destruction. I guess the defense of home is a primal instinct with all living creatures.
In the southeast corner of our backyard, there was this rough unfinished room, about ten paces from our back veranda. The construction was abandoned for some odd reason, with a pile of bricks and stones in a big jumble. In a few square feet this place had developed its own dense ecology. Through and around this haphazard pile grew grasses, various types of amaranths and clover, wild thistles, fenugreek, and Delphinium with blue flowers, vines of wild peas and pumpkin, and yellow sage in profusion. When I close my eyes, I can still conjure up Bamma, the greenery, and the bumble bees, the blue dragon flies, butterflies, yellow wrens, hovering hummingbirds, and the shimmering skinks, in their characteristic movements. And, how could I forget the crickets that grew louder as the light escaped the day.
One Sunday, as my father and bother frolicked with the dog, I dawdled near that pile and its mini-forest looking for marbles, which were mysteriously turning up everywhere, when suddenly I heard this urgent and vicious hissing, as if some steam valve close by got unstuck. I couldn't see anything, so I backed away and ran off, and did not tell anyone. This sound reverberated in me all through that evening, night, and even at school the next day. We came back in the mid afternoon, at the peak of the daytime heat, and dropped our school bags, and while my brother ran to the front yard, I tiptoed to the veranda, stepping over a caravan of black ants that trailed from our kitchen and disappeared under the stoop. I could hear my mother behind me: "There's homework to do... don't disappear!" Upon entering that rough room I crouched forward to the wall and raised my head slowly over the unfinished window sill.
Initially, I couldn't see anything. The insects and birds crisscrossed over that dappled green canopy, and the swaying shadows made it difficult to detect anything. I didn't know what I was looking for, and I had seen cobras hiss, but this was louder. I concentrated again, for moments that seemed permanent, and just when I was about to leave, I heard a rustle to my left. I was not prepared for the discovery afoot. My heart catapulted, as if I was challenged "find me!" I pivoted slowly and beamed my eyes to the spot from where the sound came, becoming very still. Then, I saw it. It had been watching me, and as soon as we made eye contact it hissed, "Don't come uninvited -- this is my house!" I slowly ran my eyes over its partially-covered length. Godzilla! Bigger than me, I thought. It was a (Bengal) monitor lizard, perfectly camouflaged under the shade, that appeared to be protecting something precious. Its fork tongue darted in and out of its long snout. This was its den.
I just knelt there, hypnotized by it. I did not tell anyone, not even Bamma. This little forest and its animals were mine -- it was my discovery. I did not understand why I felt this way. I watched, for hours on end, the whole system of how plants and animals depended on each other. The monitor was there everyday, in different spots throughout the summer. Sometimes I brought food to it. And no matter which position it was in, it always had its eyes on me. It got to the point that I could just walk up to the window sill and sit there, while it lounged a few feet away. We got used to each other -- expecting each other's company. There was no more hissing. I dreamed about it being my pet, even gave it a name, and thought how awesome it would be to show it off to my friends at school. Bamma saw me in the back a couple of times, but could not figure out why I was unavailable for walks with her, so she was angry. And whenever someone called for me, I ran to them immediately, just to keep them away from my secret. With school off, summer melted away in my sense of wonder. Then, as the clouds gathered and thundered, just before the rains, the monitor disappeared. I never saw it again. This happened over 45 years ago, and I remember it like it was only last week.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)