BUT THIS IS WHAT I HAVE NOW
2 April 2020
Everything was too bright.
The pop purple of the jacaranda.
The bright pink of the Tabebuia rosea.
The leaves, shiny and glossy green.
A shikra flew across the sky, silent, yet too noisy for me.
It was all too bright. Too loud. Too alive.
I had stepped out of our house, after many weeks, to our neighbourhood park. Mine, now. Mine alone. Just mine. Because I had cremated the person who made up the ‘our’ in my life a month ago. He was gone, leaving all pronouns to degenerate from ours, us; home to mine; I, house.
For the past few months, I had been walking this park, crunching the daily ten thousand steps that the Internet told me was good for my health. The crepe myrtles, the gulmohar, the magnolia had all become familiar. I had picked up a jewel beetle from this corner of the track and moved it to the side. I had watched a caterpillar spin a cocoon from that far away turn. I had called him every day on my way, reminding him to go on a walk as well. Huffing and puffing. Arguing. Laughing. Venting. Catching up.
The phone was now just something to play music on, and to track my pace in time to my desolate steps.
Since his death, friends and family had become constant shadows. But like night shadows, they were unrecognizable. All I could actually know was my grief, which was wrapped tightly around me. An impermeable mist that wouldn’t let anyone else get close. Perhaps it showed. I alienated a few. Confounded the rest. I think. I am not sure. I can’t remember, that time is a blur, a blot. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a fact.
But it was in this park, on that too-bright a spring day, that I felt a microscopic loosening. For it struck me – the endlessness of nature. The Earth continuing to rotate and revolve, even as my world spun out of control. And there was something deeply comforting in that, that we’re all part of nature. Infinite, circular, constant. Of everything alive, everything dead, everything very real. Everything suspended in the here and now. A feeling of being just another seed pod whirling down cataclysmically onto a cemented path, never to be a tree. But forever holding the promise of being one.
I don’t think I can bear more loss. But it continues. Not just personal. But a collective one. The losses, they all come crashing together. Like the waves against Galle Fort. Rising. Swirling into thoughts. Channeling fear and anxiety. Or perhaps, like a game of Jenga, tottering and teetering on the brink, another extinction leaving the planet unstable, yet somehow standing.
It’s all changing. Too fast. The loss, visceral. In the changing climate. The accelerated loss of species. The frightening, ever-changing, restless weather. The foaming lakes and seas. The rising anger. The displacement. The headlines. The lack of headlines. The tweets. The Facebook posts. The Instagram stories. A constant reminder of this changed Earth and the fickle climate, and how it’s changing us as a people. For the worst.
There’s a word for that feeling: solastalgia. Environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht came up with the word – ‘The pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive solace from, the present state of one’s home environment.’ This term, among others that he has coined (endemophilia, topophilia), said Albrecht, ‘addresses our ‘‘psychoterric’’ states — or how the state of the Earth relates to our states of mind.’ It’s only now that they hold meaning for me, like a fallen butterfly’s wing, ephemeral yet visceral.
These psychoterric states are all muddled into a strange contrast for me. This grief has made me selfish. Unable to talk to near ones, who are thankfully untainted by sorrow of the same proportion. But they don’t understand. Or worst, they think they do. I am constantly pushing deadlines and concerned messages aside to hide under my duvet and endlessly watch shows online. Or devouring books on grief or on the environment, looking for universality, for a thread that connects my unravelled thoughts somehow. I am frightened of meeting acquaintances who will ask me awkward questions, or worse, who don’t know about this earth-shattering event. Everything and everyone leaves me short of breath.
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t far from the warning that climate researchers signaled. That climate change would make us a less tolerant species. It’s definitely made some of us more anxious. Climate anxiety’s a thing now. Leaving many of us short of breath collectively. Or it may just be the carbon in the atmosphere? Hard to tell with the current Air Quality Index that we are breathing in, in India.
Were the elephants the indicator, or was it the tiger? The brutal photos and videos of them hacked up as road- and rail-kills, as tracts of their home forests were set in concrete. Or maybe it was the snow leopard, surrounded by its melting home. Or perhaps the Himalayan mouse hare, or the rhododendrons that blossom earlier and earlier with temperature rises? Or the forest fires hungrily swallowing trees and animals, fueled by our morbid thirst that led to the age of the Anthropocene? Maybe it was the infestation of brown plant-hoppers in rice crops to the despair of farmers, and deaf ears elsewhere? Or the darkness from the decline of shimmering, dancing fireflies.
So many signs. And yet, the irony is that the Earth continues to rotate, the signature spider keeps spinning her web, the tiger cools down in a little pond in summers that are harsher and longer, the arribada of the turtles occurs in spite of the warming waters. Oblivious to the changes. The looming catastrophes. Yet cognizant of the absolute, inevitable end; just like him. Stardust is what, ultimately, he aspired to.
At one level, the only solace I get is from my house, our home. Where everything is familiar. There’s my room, his room, our room, each one of them crammed with stuff that defined our life together. The cupboard full of his clothes, his shirts still rolled at the cuffs; the books – read, well-thumbed and unread; the white board full of scribbled ideas. The kitchen full of feasts we cooked – kadhi, alu baingan, kachumber, steaming hot puris and fluffy rice for an everyday meal; the fridge and the washing machine bought after weeks of scrimping and saving, the dining table still set for two. A forever unfinished set of Tintin comics, each edition bought once a month, after every incoming salary text message.
My home, frozen in time, unaffected by the world outside. Like endemophilia – ‘the sense of being truly at home within one’s place and culture—or homewellness.’ Even though one of the hardest things for me is coming back home, knowing he won’t be there, but hoping he will. Even then, it’s still home. But that homewellness stays inside my walls, curled up safely, cozily, surrounded by happy-sad memories, books and pictures.
Because outside the world’s unrecognizable with polarizing policies, intolerant governments and people, and the changed climate. While I sit frozen in time.
Solastalgia. I stood with him, many years ago, at a once-quarried site in Goa. The deep red of the earth turned over, a gaping wound which had filled up with crystal-clear rain water to become a sort of beautiful yet morbid moment. An Instagram moment. We had just pored over petroglyphs, very aware of our history and of our storytelling ancestors, the sensation strong like the river that flowed next to the site. The rock carvings defining the way we told stories today, the way we shared narratives, carving our idea of history and our present. We emerged from there, lost in the past, jolted rudely back into the present. Back at the once-quarried site, another slice of history inevitably changing our future.
I flew over the Bay of Bengal in a helicopter last year. The excitement, built up over the last few days, crumbled as I stared into the deep blue-green waters, thinking how much he would have loved it. Being up in the air, so close to something he always wanted to do – learn to fly. The sun dappled the water, the currents adding shadows which made me imagine phantom dolphins and rays. How, I wondered, did anyone see this and think, let’s build on this water, let’s reclaim it, turn it into land, pollute it, excavate it, fill it with noise? How, I wanted to know, did they not want to keep it intact, a pristine blue-green, home to corals, clown fish-studded anemones and octopuses? How, I couldn’t understand, did they not want to keep the blue-green of our Blue Marble? Solastalgia.
An ink-black sky on an island, the stars alive. Un-erased by city lights and smog and pollution and brown clouds. Shining, like the nursery rhyme promised. A friend sat by me as I wept, safe in the knowledge that no one else could see me because it was that dark. A rare darkness. As long as I didn’t sob out loud in the silence, or time it to the crashing waves, I was safe to look up at the stars. Silly things I worried about, when all the grief books tell me it’s OK to cry in public. The friend started to tell me a story, and I stopped looking for answers up there, and instead listened to him. The shivering in my bones calmed. When was the last time you saw stars so bright? I asked. Every time I visit a forest, he said. Topophilia, ‘a love of place’.
The Earth is so much a part of my personal loss and at the same time such a comfort. In a way like that friend who sat with me and told me a story. It didn’t turn back the loss. It didn’t heal my grief. It made the bearing of everything a little more possible. The same way sitting under that star-scattered night sky was a consolation. A relief that it’s there. Hidden behind many layers of grime and pollutants that we have suspended. But it’s there.
What do we do when grief and loss surround us? Some of us make our own islands. But for how long? Those islands are also being engulfed. Like our minds, which when left alone too long, we let them sink into despair.
So, then, what do we do when grief and loss surround us? We come together. We spend deep time alone, bathing in forest light, walking in the wild, and taking deliberate, savoring breaths. And then we come back together. To talk, to dissent, to protect. We come together in our grief, with our tears and despair and remember the wonder that Rachel Carson (and so many more, oh so many, thank you for those words, those poems) wrote so eloquently about; we experience it, and we demand protection for it. Because this loss, this collective loss, we are responsible for it. With our actions. Our appetites. Our ineloquent aspirations. Ricocheting back to us now as nature’s fury and chaos. Of our doing.
I sleep fitfully. I dream rarely. Thankfully. Because, when I do, it’s of more loss. Of friends. Of family. When I wake up, it’s a continued grief. Of his. Of the Earth. Life without him is hard. And without the rest, even harder.
Because this is all I have now. What we all have now.
The swaying praying mantis.
The heady smell of the fennel green alstonia.
The metallic call of the coppersmith barbet.
The dizzying dust-baths of the sparrow.
The parakeet pair shrieking in the gulmohar canopy.
The whirling mahogany pod.
A changed climate.
Everything I love, disappearing.
But this is what we have now.
Illustration by Isuri