Wednesday, March 18, 2009


ECS Magazine, 2009

My mother is a big gardener. Ever since I can remember, she has snipped off tiny branches of this plant or that from other people's gardens, from the ditches of abandoned roads, from the corners of dusty junkyards, bringing that life back home to replant in her garden. Flowers, she's decided, belong to everybody. This means that she will happily sweep up an entire basketful of yellow forsythia for devotees who ask for it in the morning, and uproot a flowering plant if a visitor asks for it. She will hand the plant over since she believes flowers and plants must be shared. This sometimes causes us annoyance since we'd rather not hand over our fern to some stranger who takes a fancy to it—after all, our friend from Australia hand-carried from the forests of Nimbun, and perhaps it would be nice if our mother asked permission before uprooting it. But all of this seems not to matter to our mother, who, like birds or bees, is inexhaustible in her energy in both disseminating and gathering plants. She can't keep track of all the beautiful colors of impatiens and crysanthemums and marigolds she once had. All of them are lost or die out or are stolen by gardeners. Gardeners have become her special nemesis—every once in a while one of us hires a gardener who manages to destroy an ancient creeper, or who snips off the leaves in odd ways, or who steals precious plants for some secret nursery where they work part-time. I think at times she remembers things from her dreams and transplants them into a dream garden that never was. She's recently taken to putting big blocks of ice on our plants ("There's no water, the plants will die!"). The plants seem to appreciate this ice treatment for they bloom blissfully even in the dryness of a Kathmandu winter.

Through my mother, I came to appreciate the smell of earth after a light rain, the beauty of weeds, and the flow of life which follows the wilderness. Around autumn, I noticed that my nephew had taken to accompanying my mother on her garden activities in the early morning—picking out bugs, testing the ground for earthworms, marveling at a fresh upsurge of mint, discovering that a bulb thought dead was now sprouting new shoots. In our little corner of Kathmandu, my mother maintains, stubbornly, her little patch of wildness—tangled weeds, bamboo, unidentified herbiage. She refuses to tame her garden. No neat rows of potted plants for her, no cultivated roses, no scrupulous uprooting of weeds. Big civil wars erupt inside our family when a tree is to be trimmed—half the family (including me) opposing any destruction of greenery even if the jackaranda trees threaten to cover up the house with their canopies, the other half longing for easily managed urban space devoid of messy green leaves, untidy trees, rotting organic matter.

The miracle of nature, which we always forget in the gloom of winter, is renewal. Dusty winter trees give way to fresh spring leaves which cover the blue sky with new color. Nature inspires art not just by giving us a chance to copy what already exists—but also by encouraging us to work with what its given us and to rework it in new ways. In the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, I saw a still-life drawn by one of the most well-known still-life artists, a French woman from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The baskets of fruit were luscious, and the strawberries so ripe and juicy you felt you could pick them out of the canvas, five hundred years after they were painted, and pop them inside your mouth. Juan Sánchez Cotán, a Spanish artist and Carthusian monk, painted still-life paintings that are revered in Spain. His still-life in the Prado Museum, which was a break from the gigantic canvases that paid homage to religious devotion, is simple—it shows a vegetable, perhaps a radish, cut at the top and standing upright, with lemons, carrots and some dead game birds. Words cannot really describe the quality of light that lights up this canvas—it is as if the light of heaven were falling down upon it, making the life of the everyday come to life, showing us how the simplicity of daily life can be a spiritual vision.

After touring the Prado Museum in Madrid and staring very hard at Zurbaran's other masterpiece—a simple, rectangular canvas which depicts four pots, I went to sleep the next day and woke up the next morning with a vision. I woke up with a vivid feeling that I had just glimpsed the transcendent, something not of this world. In Sanskrit this is called darshan, the vision of the divine. For me, the darshan was of the light of heaven falling on four small and ordinary pots found in a kitchen during Zurbaran's time. For a few seconds upon awakening, I felt a profound peace and happiness.

Everybody with whom I shared this, of course, thought I was being extremely amusing. People go all the way to Nepal to have a spiritual experience and you had yours in the Prado Museum, my friend Maria said, laughing. I still remember Graham, a college friend, telling me how he'd climbed a mountain in Nepal, met up with a sadhu, had a conversation, and had a profound religious experience. I sense that cultural dislocation in another country where they can't speak the language, as well as alienation and silence that comes over people when they cannot answer back, puts them in a space where their perceptions and senses are strangely heightened. Phenomena is experienced with special clarity during those moments. Hence the religious awakenings Europeans and Americans experience in Nepal and India, when they are submerged in religious practices but are unable to clearly articulate their feelings. I had walked for six hours through the Prado Museum, seeing manifestation of religious devotions from one century to the next, one country to the next, and all that religious fervor amalgamated for me into one rectangular piece of canvas depicting the simplicity of daily life. No wonder then that Zurbaran's pots, and his still-lives of pots and lemons continue to light up people's conciousness about what God really is.

Art, nature, the spiritual experience: all of these are integrally tied, and inspire each other. For me, waking up each morning and walking to the garden is an experience that brings together all three—not only am I surrounded by the greenery of nature, but also the hand of God which has shaped it into art. My nephew comes to sit on my lap as I sip my tea. Look, Babu, do you see that bird? I say, pointing to a small black and white bird that is pecking away at an avocado in the ground. Where, where? He asks. There, I point again, but he can't really see the bird. He runs up, and the bird flies away. He comes back and sits with me again. We giggle at the dog, who has laid down at our feet and is making funny noises as he scratches his ear fussily. Then we sit in silence and watch the garden. Both of us are aware that there is a special magic to the morning which cannot be explained. This wordlessness is what captures the divinity of everyday life—the tea, the dog, the child, the morning. This, then is the art of God—his hand visible in the colors of greenery, the browns of the earth, the blue of early morning. His canvas is vast. And we artists, humble humans, must try to capture a small keyhole glimpse of that infinity as best as we can.

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