COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:
December 20th, 2021:
“Rockin’ around the Christmas tree
Have a happy holiday!
Everyone dancin’ merrily
In the new old-fashioned way!”
Deen sang aloud, with the crazed optimism of the generally reduced and the beaten down. He had dragged the unwieldy box of christmas decorations to the lobby entrance and had dived into its depths – hoping for a short, carnivalesque reprieve from the outside perhaps.
I was sitting in the lotus position, trying to meditate; the tongue-twisting words “stepping space” skipping, jumping, cavorting in my mind like so many wildly uncorralled horses; or was it more like the pernicious tendrils of the Cats Claw vine – its bright yellow flowers ironic little suns in our now shadowed world – that grew an inch every couple of hours creeping over obstacles, slithering through its own green tentacles as it forged ahead and spread and enmeshed….
It was no use. I couldn’t grasp at any semblance of inner peace or quietude. I lay back looking at the ceiling, at the skylight that had once let in sunlight, and that was now covered in thick green foliage – a veritable fortress of flora that continued to multiply horizonantally along the roof; it’s vertical endeavours having been (s)nipped in the bud by us, the tenacious denizens of number 77, Galle Road, Colombo 3.
We had lost the roof. But we had maintained our dominion over the ground floor of our shelter. We were surviving and even thriving if you can call two hot meals a day, running water and a “safe” strip of garden outside, that.
We were now 60 strong in our shelter. There was strength in numbers. We exercised every day; we had daily doses of magnesium, zinc and vitamins; and we took turns, morning noon and night, to stave off the perpetually advancing, malevolent verdure. There was definitely strength in numbers. For now.
The Neo Flora – constituted as it was of the human and the plant species, was now replicating with a sense of purpose. There was now a method to the chaotic green madness of the first few months. The first thing to go was the electricity supply as Covid Vaxers by the dozens, embraced the girths of trees growing near the overhead and subterranean power lines. Shelters were now dependent on generators mainly. Solar panels had long been abandoned as they were decimated again and again by the capricious new branches of an old, now all-seeing shrub, or by the pliant young stem of a whole new plant growing right through it. There was definitely a cerebral coming-together of the Nature around us as it plotted and planned new conquests, just as we the survivors, endlessly fortified our defences.
Blue Decorations on our Christmas Tree
Deen had got shimmery blue bunting up at the top of the entrance door. The floor was covered in silver, red and gold. The trees had stayed inside as had all the other green decor. I picked up a string of silver baubles and handed it to him. I noticed my hands – they looked rough and calloused and … reassuring. They looked like the kind of hands that could do their part in keeping us safe. I looked up at the sudden burst of festivity on the wall and felt a strange mix of sensations: Nostalgia and incongruity; joy and sadness; love and antipathy.
Christmas was coming …. and so was Nature, empowered, emboldened and unremitting.
The Sojourn to Save
Yesterday i had met someone who had come to Colombo from Rajagiriya. She knew Aunty Christine and Shehani – that quirky, lovable duo, as vestigial and unchanging in spirit as the colonial architecture of the island. They had been trying to get to the city for the past month and, like so many others, had been unable to. But they were alive… they were … still themselves! I began to plan my sojourn to bring the ladies to our version of safety such as it was.
Deen said he’d come with me. Deen and I had an odd camaraderie that is born of a natural introversion now complicatedly mixed with the tenacity to be at the front and centre of everything. For “everything” now was about survival and we, with a handful of others, had begun to lead the not-so-reticent charge on that front.
We got ready, armed with machetes and axes and a backpack of victuals. We were going to walk the 7 kms, and then deal with the return journey squiring our charges, once we got there.
We set out along the main Galle road, the dual carriage way now a slender path overgrown by thickets of young Ironwood trees and an especially rugged, spiny variant of the bougainvillea. It was like walking through a tortuously overgrown nature reserve rather than the heart of the metropolis. We hacked at overhanging branches that laboured unceasingly to form a meticulous canopy before advancing groundwards to create opaque, impenetrable neo-forests every few metres. And the smell! It was like death mingled with the torrid redolence of tropical flowers. Nature had conquered the road to Galle face green; while the road towards Galle town remained a constant battle front where the humans had the barest of edges. We proceeded down that bolt hole for a couple of kilometres before we encountered the bamboo forest. Tall sinewy stems had taken root inches from one another. I had, at this point, lost all sense of direction. Deen kept us on course with a solar compass – that North Star of daytime voyagers in the post pandemic world.
About 2 kms from Nawala Road, we came across the Slumbering Palms as the place was now called. Orderly bosks of coconut palms grew from and around the median strip that had once divided the incoming and outgoing city traffic; their sturdy trunks almost horizontal with the ground, blocking the road but creating inadvertent, unconventional bridges to and between the rooftops of once bustling stores. We were finally able to attain elevation as we scrabbled 10 feet above the ground in fantastical sun dappled terrain. It was almost fun.
Invitation to a Turning
We arrived on the exposed rafters of 210/5 Nawala road at about 1pm. There was a perfect palm tree ramp from the roof to the garden. The garden itself, although much abbreviated with its new fringe of palmyra palms, was still clear of the ineludible, inevitable thickets and coppices of green. The universe seemed kind so far. We walked into the house which looked like the inside of The Magic Faraway Tree*. Trunks and branches grew in meandering, traversable collages from roof to ground. It was a quaint, almost gentle subjugation of the domain by an empathetic conquerer. I walked ahead to Aunty Christine’s room and stopped in my tracks at the door. The sight within was a surreal interfusion of beauty and absurdity. The bed was surrounded by 5 magnolia trees some of which had grown right through the roof, letting in mottled sunlight in little patches. Aunty Christine lay motionless on the bed.
“My God! It’s you!” I jumped at the voice just behind me. Shehani stood there, looking pale but ready to strike with a large butcher’s knife. There had obviously been intruders during their course of Nature’s lockdown, and the women had prevailed. I hugged her close, feeling the energy drain out of me suddenly. Emotions that had been locked away when our lives changed, threatened to overwhelm, overcome and dissolve me. I sat down on the bed fighting for control.
“M, we can’t now….don’t give in now” Deen said in a low voice.
I swallowed hard and looked at Aunty Christine.
“Is she alright?” Deen asked the question looking at the prostate, gently breathing form that lay in almost majestic repose on the bed.
“She’s been sleeping a lot lately…. but she’s ok” Shehani responded as she walked around to the bed and gently shook her friend of 40 years.
The older woman opened her eyes and took in everything calmly. She smiled and i grinned, choking again.
She got up, more sprightly and energetic in her movements than i had seen of her in years.
“It’s good to see you. You look thin. You must eat properly. And don’t worry darling, it will be alright”, she said giving me a little hug. She walked around the room, gently touching a vase of wilted flowers, caressing a picture frame, fixing a drooping cushion, all while looking around her as if for the first time…. or the last time.
“Take care of this one” she finally said to me, smiling towards Shehani, “she’s a fighter and will see this through just like you will”.
And with that, she lightly touched the largest of the Magnolia trees in a gentle caress. Even as I watched, i knew….
And then she was gone….one with the beautiful, tall tree that now rustled softly in the quietness of the room. I looked on, my mind devoid of all thoughts and feelings – a merciful fleeting benumbing. I looked at Shehani. She was immersed in a private communion of her own with the murmuring copse around us. She finally looked back at me and in that glance, we shared a moment of surreal clarity on the new nature of our timeworn world. I then whispered my little farewell to Aunty Christine, to our own Steel Magnolia.
A New Religion
I was feeling overwhelmingly contemplative, disembodied almost in a strangely unemotional way as we headed back. A new spirituality around our neoteric/ augmented End of Times was taking root. And i think i was experiencing the first glimmerings of a new metaphysical awakening; an acceptance of an alternate end to our human forms; a consciousness of the very real cosmic thread that binds all living creatures in a dignified whole.
No, it was not all bad. It was new, it was counter intuitive (for now), and so it elicited fear and aggression. But it was also the closest we had come to finally reckoning with our inter-species relationships; to understanding our absolute mutualism with Mother Nature.
I knew it then; I could it feel it in my bones; this was not a blight that would someday go away or be vanquished by the force of the Human collective.
This was the start of a new Epoch of Consciousness, and we would accept and we would learn this new Faith for all.
De Khudai pe aman
Read SOILENT GREEN-Part 1 here: FICTION| SOILENT GREEN* – Part 1
*Soilent Green title inspiration from a 1973 American ecological dystopian thriller – “Soylent Green”, starring Charlton Heston.
*The Magic Faraway Tree: A 1943 children’s novel by Enid Blyton