NEW YORK – A few years back I used to live in Los Angeles, where deserts and the dust surrounded the cities in a wild clasp, similar to the way the oceans overlaid the land in the coastal areas of eastern USA.
Flowers were sparse, and rocks and bushes replaced the green grass. There was a Gatsby-esque sense of desperation in the big banner signs that proclaimed Hollywood in neon lights.
For most, this would have been a dream come true, but for me, coming from Bengal, with misty rain over green paddy fields, yellow mustard stalks sashaying in the evening breeze, and an intrinsic socialistic predilection, the overwhelming sense of cosmic homesickness left me parched.
Those were the days when the T.S. Eliot line memorized in college: “But the essential advantage for a poet is to not have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory,” grew in amplified significance even as I struggled with the desert landscape.
I wanted to get away from the desert. I wanted to see the starlight over the trees, the velvety greens in the rain and the furtive beauty of forests and mountains. The fat brown squirrels, the garrulous woodpeckers and the gossipy cardinals–my friends of the oldbackyard—went all amiss.
The West coast seaside provided no reprieve. The long sprawling Californian beaches reeked of glamor, of pink and white sleek limousines, of loud juke boxes, and golden bodies, basking in rose-red sunsets.
It would make me yearn for the solitude of Henry Thoreau’s country of wilderness and glistening ponds.
The beaches hugging the Indian Ocean, I am told, were no better with people standing shoulder to shoulder and vendors selling their wares in a steamy racket.
Nothing wrong, really, in having a bit of fun. But term it what you will, in the end, it was about human conquest to encroach into the sublime privacies of nature regardless of the consequences.
All of which that would have driven away the Forsaken Merman, sitting expectantly on the seashore with his children, in Matthew Arnold’s poem, from ever calling his lady love back from her city dwellings, even as the bells chimed over the pink bay.
And then it rained one night across the forlorn deserts and over the beach. Screams of thunder and bolts of lightning could be felt for over two weeks. Dark clouds covered the relentless sun-lit valleys in tangles of soft shimmer.
The heavens had eventually sent mercy down to the thirsting land.
And overnight, a crop of wildflowers in ecstatic yellow, pink and purple blooms sprung up in a wayward profusion.
The deserts and the seas are indeed a harsh place with little to sustain color and life.
We only have to ask the seafarer and the desert-dweller to know the truth. Nothing ever grows in that landscape except our own strength, wisdom and a raptured imagination.
And it is essentially that hostile environment which brings out the sunlight within us.
The dusty roads of our lives often seem like those long stretches of red and brown barrenness where disappointments, heart-breaks and sorrow line up the side-walks, tamed by the domesticated comforts of a cold job.
Or they are simply long and uneventful, with the smugness of material fullness and cruelty of man’s hierarchical ways in posh offices and small spaces. And yet so many simply move around the world, untouched and uncaring, casual and easy, in steel worlds of flamboyant commerce.
In the swamping loneliness, the heart, in the midst of teeming and ponderous crowds, beckons, in stripped nakedness, to the sparkle of twinkling lights in the night sky.
In that, we are much like Vladimir and Estragon, pausing endlessly in tepid expectation, a sin Samuel Beckett’sexistential play “Waiting for Godot” where nothing ever transpires even as they wait for someone to enter and transform their lives.
In much the same vein, we wonder aloud, within the closed quarters of our living rooms, whether on these endless roads of conformity, of inane champagne picnic parties, small talk and mindless banter, hurried feet on roads and a pageant of cars, the flowers will ever bloom amidst the pouring rain.
So while walking down a narrow alley, jutting into the coastline of a desolate beach, in diasporic homesickness, I came across an artist painting with meticulous precision the scene before her: large boulders in cascading steps across the waterscape, sea gulls greedily scooping out the frightened fish out of the sea and a multitude of waves crashing across the little niche of land.
She was as absorbed in her painting, as much as I gazed, hard and long, at the dry old ground before me.
Whereas in the dark streets of melancholy and the beach’s archipelago of indifference, I had found nothingness, the artist had chanced upon the florid face of nature’s discreet fanfare.
For to capture the fragile hope between the lines, and the dream between the silences, is the service that art lends to chaotic and fragmented life.
And what surely gives impetus to strength is solitude: the immense, vast reservoir of inner solitude, to be able to walk with oneself alone and to reach the sprinter’s magnitude for self-endurance.
For the heart survives only through the wintering of the desert.
And to quote those golden words of my favorite poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, “Every happiness is the child of a separation it did not think it could survive.And Daphne, becoming a laurel dares you to become the wind.”
And so when the lone red rose tree climbed up to my bedroom window in gallant splendor, I eventually learned to open my heart to the offerings of the desert, its beauty and its dread.
For at the heart of everything that apparently frightens us, lies something helpless and vulnerable that seeks only our love and affection. It only masquerades as the desert.
(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)