NEW YORK – In the dead of the night, I heard their far-flung cries. The wild geese were returning home to the south in search of warmer climes. If you have heard their eerie sounds, you will know how stirring and profound their echoes are as they ripple across the plains and the valleys.
A rapturous elegiac call to beat out the closing of the year before the hoary, cold winds blow in; mellifluous, shrill and plaintive.
I shut my eyes and tried to go back to sleep again.
It is late September, after all, albeit, rather warm. But the clock of nature has set in. Tree-tops are singed yellow and red. The scent of wood-pine and smoky leaves douse the amber landscape.
Half-way across the globe, my folks in Bengal are celebrating another return. Mother Durga journeys her way back to the earth, brandishing an uncommon valor in the long tresses of her curly hair and her magnificent eyes; dark and luminous, flashing with righteous anger.
And spread out in a fairy tale of iridescent colors, lights, marigold and music are the streets of Kolkata, drumming to incantatory Sanskrit chants, perfumed in the thick incense of camphor and jasmine. A giant cosmic dance on the precipice of ecstasy.
On a more subdued scale, the North American Fall sees us, regular folks, retreating home, too, after summery sojourns to the beach and the hills.
The short, northern twilight, the low light and the dark woods call us back to our hearth; lit with brooding memories of stunning spring mornings.
It is time, now, to move into inner realms of light. With the brewing of hot and thick coffee on the stove, nibbles of warm pies with ice-cream melting on top and the whiff of old books from antique shops.
For me, autumn is a singular time to be alone, to tend to the weeds and dead wood in the garden and rekindle old crushes that have been long buried in the fervor of summer activity.
To remember a line from J.A. Baker, author of “The Peregrine” -“A fragrance of neglect still lingers like the ghost of fallen grass” on this brittle and frayed season.
I have collected over the months pastel-colored books on water and country gardens, scented rooms and tales of old shrub roses and camellias from India, China, Turkey and Europe, to sustain me through these days of wintry landscape until the new leaves bud again in joy and hope.
So, while rummaging through my library, I came across my mother’s stash of perfume bottles she had preserved since her twenties. Graceful, miniature colored bottles, tied with silk ribbons. Films of oil spray still escaped, dusting pages of the books with the mystical air of long ago.
Tides had turned since the perfumes had lightly touched my mother’s wrists when she was a young bride, but those fragile crystal flacons of many tinted dreams had that sacred and immense power to endure and console through time.
Growing up, my mother’s modest advice to me on make-up had always been “never to step out of the house without a light touch of lip-stick and a perfume.”
Now chancing across Christian Dior’s “Little Dictionary of Fashion of Fashion” (circa 1954), I notice the same reflections of common sense and understanding.
He states right at the outset that elegance has little to do with wealth. It is the “right combination of distinction, naturalness, care and simplicity. Outside of this, believe me, there is no elegance. Only pretension. Elegance is not dependent on money.” It was, according to him, the flow of drapes, lines and cuts and accents of no more than two colors.
His message to the elderly and older women has always been to celebrate dressing up. In other words, he was not in favor of adhering to stringent dress codes that obliterated the middle-aged to look invisible and of little consequence.
And after all, even in our Indian culture, the Durga is not a young, willowy, petite girl but a buxom woman with four grown children. Red and gold with a fury of rage and grace marked her steps down to the slumbering Mother Earth.
And surely, if your inspiration is derived from nature, you cannot help but notice that nature is resplendent in all the colors of the Durga in autumn. Auburn, ochre and gold.
On a walk around the backwoods where bluebells in millions had cast their silvery glow in spring, the wild roses were in their second bloom.
Little buds of red and pink peeping out from underneath their golden boughs, nodding in cold and gentle moonlight.
The Winter’s Star, the Fall camellia, had unfurled to reveal pale pink hues amidst a fiery setting. A throwback to springtime, when countryside had emerged, fresh and trembling, after the gleaming snow had washed away the dirt and the dust of stagnant cobblestone pathways.
There were white sprigs everywhere in bunches of glittering weeds. And in my garden the Rose of Sharon, simultaneously, came into silent efflorescence everywhere without my ever having planted them.
A plant that usually takes a cycle of nearly three years to mature had blossomed in three months under autumnal skies. The Holly, that to my dismay, in all these years had never borne fruits, was dressed in red berries this September.
So who can say what surprises lie around the bend even when the light of fresh dreams has waned away or when society deems one too old to try again.
As long as these hidden tales of spring still spin forth in autumn, there still fizzes forth the wondrous pageant of life. Until the cold takes over.
So, if there is no limiting the powerful surges of life in nature, why should humanity be asked to retreat into cloisters of white, grey and black in old age?
But I admit, it is hard to move through the turns of the seasons and slowly brace oneself to bid a farewell to a year that has been like a friend in spirit.
That is, after we have escaped the aftermath of the heat and the hurricanes.
The falling leaf and the loud thud of the ripe fruit on the ground carry echoes of grief borne in the hearts of those who are in the throes of a season of loss.
To them the season resounds with the words of Charles Baudelaire, The Chant d’ Automne (Autumn) “I listen trembling unto every log that falls, the scaffold, which they build, has not a duller sound…”
But such is life that despite the pain, the tragedy and the agony in our bones, we are asked forth to continue, miraculously, under that great sweep of eternal sky, regardless of our history, our politics or religion.
“For let the Philosopher and Doctor preach, of what they will, and what they will not, – each is but one Link in an eternal Chain, that none can slip, nor break, nor overreach.” And so the voice of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam comes to speak to us through the ages.
Just as nothing can stop these great migratory birds from flying south – rain, sleet, snow, sunny, warm or bitterly cold – so through the night I heard the geese call and I was ready to succumb to the earth’s slow orbit around the sun.
In the break of dawn, the corn fields in the distance shone with golden harvest.
(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)