Yamuna has run out of milk, she has run out of milk. It is 7:57 in the morning. Her bus rounds the corner in four minutes and she has run out of milk. Her coffee will be black today and so will her mood because things run out, things run out. That is the nature of things — they run out and Yamuna has never learned to accept this. She resents running out and seldom runs because she resents running out of breath – resents being reduced to a stitch in her side and a shortness straining after something as essential as air which has no business running out no business running out, but things run out and just the other day when the delivery man came to her door with a package (two extra copies of her favorite book: ) and asked her to sign on a delicate dotted line his ball point pen, that slender plastic wand sputtered a bleak blue stroke and slid into stubborn silence on the doorstep of the second syllable. Ya read her signature – a jeering incompleteness that rendered her speechless and raging inside. How dare things runout! Deep inside she knows. That it is the nature of pens to run out. Pens that give every last drop of their blood to writing grocery lists, notes in history class, bad sonnets, and special instructions to Mrs. Pinto’s domestic help, reminding her to please remember to water the orchid in the living room. Because it may have run out. Yes. Things run out when you least expect them to. Patience, options, the toothpaste in the tube. Time. She remembers running out of time with five questions left unanswered on her physics exam (her arch nemesis Pratap got a perfect score). She remembers running out of words in common with a rickshaw driver on a frenzied Mumbai morning, and running out of sugar for her guests used to five heaping teaspoons in each cup of tea. She reflects briefly on the curiosity of running out of love — like the couple on the third floor who ran out of love for each other in the middle of last week, the same day that seven-year-old Parvathi ran out of money spending the last of her birthday fortune on three sticks of green ice for herself and her two best friends Janu and Gopi. So many things are finite in this world, so many things are not enough to go all the way around, so many things stop without warning and perhaps pick up some other where like lives that enter death like a door into a different body – if you believe in that sort of thing. Cars run out of petrol in the middle of the road, as blatantly indifferent as buffalos, to train departures and interview times. A rice cooker runs out of water because a girl dreaded the word domestic and never learnt that the ratio of uncooked rice to water is 1:2 and so the aluminum bottom of the pot is black from her stubborn ignorance. She will hide it at the back of the shelf when her mother comes to visit and refuse to let her cook at home saying she wants her to try the new Chinese restaurant down the street. There are people who run out of reasons for why they are doing what they are doing. So they quit their jobs and find happiness making fine teas or running orphanages in faraway towns with unpronounceable names. There was a writer who once ran out of ideas for her story. Her heroine lived in a cottage by the beach and stared out a vine-covered window at the crashing waves for days that stretched into months and then a year without anything – not the least thing—happening to her. No flies landed on her nose, no telegrams arrived at her door, no passersby approached her to ask about the delicate scar that ran the length of her left cheek. She did not stub her toe on the edge of the bed, or grow delirious or cynical or nostalgic. Her writer had run clear out of ideas on what could possibly happen next. So nothing did. Why? rages Yamuna as she steps furiously into her slippers and fast walks to the bus stop. Why must things run out? Why couldn’t the world be infinite, bottomless, reliable, obliging? A cornucopia, an Akshayapatra, an Amudhasurabhi of matter, experiences and emotions. Why did the legends always run short of reality? Yamuna reaches the bus stop a split second before her bus arrives. She floats up its stairs on the fierce wings of her questioning and sinks into a rare empty seat behind the driver. A throb of joy takes her. She smiles defiantly, triumphantly out the window at a vanishing, exhaustible world. Life flows like a river and also like sand through an hourglass. Moments heaped one atop the other. And some of them glow in our pockets like lucky stones, like secret charms, like constellation prizes. So yes. Things run out. What of it? On this auspicious morning Yamuna has a seat all to herself on the bus. For now that is enough.
And now there is a blue lilt to the air, a gauzy greenness an unmistakable shimmer that runs through the days. (I have lived the taste of this before in another time and place — but when and where?) Just around the bend in the road lies that fairytale ball, Spring. Every blade, every branch, every blossom in the kingdom is invited. Who can resist such excitement? See how the world readies itself for festivities with ribbons and jewels. Young oak leaves unfurling from tight casings hypnotic green, camellias tossing ruffled candy pink skirts, queenly irises yawning purple and gold, tremulous tulips breaking like dawn, jonquils and daffodils nodding dainty heads, straight-backed lavender spearing the air, starry faced jasmine bursting out of sharp-tipped buds, brilliant poppies catching sunlight like a lucky penny, wisteria with its tumbling grape-like clusters scenting the world with wisterious allure. I stumble amidst the incandescent beauty of this neighborhood in the hills. These domestic paths so familiar and full of wild surprise. I am taken by the paradox of this spontaneous orchestration. And its grand scale! The thrill of rising sap, the delicate aura of ripening, the extravagance of an indomitable force animating the particular and the universal, propelling the one and many in an ancient cycle. And why does this feel both searingly new and hauntingly accustomed? One night I wake from a dream and the darkness is a riptide of memories that pulls me back to the wide staircase of a convent college on Cathedral Road in a seaside city in Southern India. If you do not know it it does not matter. If you do, then you know how we streamed up those stairs like an improbable river of flowers, a river of stars. With our books and our timetables, our handwritten notes, our unruled foreheads. How we sat on the wooden benches of higher education as the world rained down upon us. How our minds broke casually into blossom. How we thrived on canteen samosas, coffee and conversation. The sky a brilliant blue tent of possibility. The future a languorous cat. This life an all-absorbing romance. How we floated through that time and space like dust motes, like winged seeds, like dragonflies, in a ray of sunlight. Gleaming with energies that arced far beyond our single selves, charged with prolific dreams, and inchoate ideas, untethered potential. How we lived that springtime of our lives unbeknownst to ourselves with such dazzling perfection. And now we are where we are, scattered across the world wrapped in cherished roles, older yes, wiser perhaps, another bend in the road before us. Another springtime beckoning. And who can resist such excitement? Only those who overthink it. The flower is always the bud’s undoing. Let go then. Step into the river lean into the wind let the strength of the earth rise through you. Watch your fingertips burst into bloom.
There is something arresting and unearthly about a magnolia tree in flower. Something that dances between divinity and dementia. A whirling dervish of a tree. Bursting with grace and an utter lack of restraint. See how it holds up its leafless branches. A candelabra, extravagantly ablaze with lunatic blossoms and zero sense of rationing or self-preservation. See how these flowers, some the size of your clenched fist, some the size of your whole hand, yawn open, with such unrestrained ardor it nearly turns them inside out. See how they do not bloom so much as detonate, in a series of soft explosions. See how like the fleshy tongues of dragons they are. These enormous creamy petals streaked with sunset shades. How their thick scent drugs the air. Drowns all thought in sweetness. An ancient tree architected for prehistoric times. Magnolias have bloomed on earth for 100 million years. Yes. These flowers opened above the heads of dinosaurs, long before humankind was a twinkle in the eye of the universe. And because they predate even the bees, their propagation across time and space was left to outsized beetles, who stricken with wanderlust stumbled across these velvety inner chambers. Kicked up a dusty cloud of pollen and unleashed a long chain of events that unfurled across the last Ice Age, and into the Stone Age and alongside the rise and fall of nameless tribes and civilizations, and the creation of the printing press, the steam engine, frothy cappuccinos and the birth of the internet, leading improbably to this very tree. Here. The one directly in front of me. The one my husband strolls under at the exact moment that a little lick of wind decides to kick up its heels. A handful of petals drift gently over him like a benediction. An origami instant that folds itself into my palm. Dear and delicate as a paper crane. Later I will look up what magnolia flowers symbolize. Nobility, beauty, dignity….Dignity…I think about the word. How it stands tall and runs deep and how much it has to do with integrity and how little with being — normal. I think about this outlandish tree that traces back to Time’s cradle, and its flowers that open alarmingly wide as if to swallow the sun, the way it gives itself madly to the moment. With radical generosity and no reservation. And what wouldn’t be possible — if we could learn to live like that.
If you were to ask me what it was like, I would pause for a moment. I would tilt my head to one side, as if listening to an invisible spirit. Then I would begin to speak. Slowly. And this is what I would say: Before this time I believed loss was just loss. Light was just light. Now I see that loss is also beauty and longing. Light is also shadow. This cannot be explained in words. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I will say, please consider this: Words are like pebbles. Small and easily picked up. While this may make them lovely to hold, it does not mean they are exact.
Language is irresistible, and often unreliable. Me and you. Black and white. Endings and beginnings. The delineations we make are functional, not always accurate. This is why I like the word bittersweet. It does not pretend to extricate what is inextricable. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I will say, please do not misconstrue any of this to be sad.
A child draws a wavy line on paper and calls it water. This is a simplification. The depiction omits depth and flow. A picture’s truth relies implicitly on the dimensionality of the viewer’s experience. It is the same with words. Happy and sad are simplifications. What we are talking about is the alchemical dimensionality of experience. Please take a moment here. To fully appreciate how nonsensical and important, how like a dissertation topic that sounds.
Sometimes it happens like this: In the blue shimmer of evening you take a walk with your husband. Like a jack-o-lantern (only kinder and much better-looking) he is lit from within. A-glow with goodness. He is also unwell. An autumn rose blooms, vivid as an accusation, over a garden fence. For the first time, you will experience the perfect beauty of the rose and the strickenness of mortality as the same thing. As inevitably one as the wave that rolls onto the shore and the wave that’s drawn back to the ocean.
There is no unknowing this. Once you have seen it, you are a half-done Midas. Everything your gaze touches will gleam both dark and bright. A disorienting, truthful mingling will take hold of your life. One day you will wake to a sun pouring molten gold over the hills, and your hand will fly to your heart as if to staunch blood from a wound. At night a distant dog will bark at the moon, and in that lonely howl you will hear a world of love and courage. Aggrieved and robbed of absolutes you will stumble into new realms of richness. You will mourn the loss of a certain kind of innocence. And you will surprise yourself by the admission, that given the impossible choice, you would not choose to cross back.
Little by little, you will learn to hold the infinite complexity of what is, with a simple(r) heart. But this cannot be explained in words. You who have felt this, know exactly what I mean. To the others I say gently: Fold these words into a back pocket friend, and go on your way. Perhaps they will wait there. Like so many little pebbles. Dreaming side by side… Until it’s time.
An upstart bluejay seized the morning, just as a squadron of clouds annexed the sky. Meanwhile an imperious garbage truck took possession of the streets, and a spendthrift wind acquired the trees. Every last one. I who rose late and have commandeered nothing, watch from the window. Had I more ambition I would be perturbed. But the spirit of conquest has always seemed troublesome and presumptuous to me. Time is not interested in my philosophy. This is is not the moment for self-effacement chides the clock on the wall. Go now. Before I beat you to it. Go. Lay claim to your life.
Tolerance is one of your strong suits. Barring that one week in the year when you have a cold in the head and all bets are off. In this bleary-eyed time of cough and sniffle small things trigger disproportionate consequences. The clanging of the garbage truck, the stain on the tablecloth, the stack of junk mail. These trifles and many like them, stir intemperate impulses. The leaking faucet and the sales call seem expressly calculated to destroy your happiness. The traffic jam, a sink full of dirty dishes and disagreeable weather are taken as personal insults. You have fallen out of the world’s favor. And the future that stretches ahead of you is unspeakably bleak. And yet, as it has happened ever before, it will happen ever again. The fog in your head will gradually disperse and the world will grow bearable by slow degrees. Your life and its importance will recede like the tide and you will remember to take a genuine interest in others. Gratitude like a migratory bird will return to your heart. Twig by twig build a nest in its branches. And at night, driving home you will catch sight of a crescent moon suspended in a dark sky . A ghostly punctuation mark that will catch your breath and tilt you from low grade wretchedness, headfirst into love.
And so it is given to us. Again. As flawless and exciting as a freshly unwrapped bar of soap. Dazzling as a field of untrodden snow. This brand New Year. A vision perfect as a tiered and frosted wedding cake. It cradles our past and all our possible futures. The way the night sky holds the light of vanished and unborn stars. We have roamed the days of the last twelve months with wild hearts. A restless and precocious herd. Easy prey to fear and greed, yet capable of forgiveness. And a fierce, indomitable love. We are children slowly learning how to steer our gifts in an intricate, uncertain world. While our small, blue planet, that solitary long-distance runner, undemanding and unsupervised, begins its next long lap around the sun.