A LETTER OF CONCERN
TO MALI UNCLE
Dear Mali uncle,
Good morning. I hope this letter finds you and your plants well in these trying times. It feels both timely and untimely to share more sorrow and resentment with you amidst this pandemic but I hope this serves as an instrument to reflect on our relationship with the wider world.
It was the summer of 2018. Mother had sent me to get some flour from Pethani Stores. While walking down the street, I passed the usual, the shoemaker and his dog, the sleepy bamboo juice seller, the watchman uncle whom I share an unspoken bond with, and the arrogant tailor. Amidst this greyscale familiarity, I was delightfully blinded by pops of color. You stood there by your cart, a simple wooden frame filled with marigolds, hibiscus, spider plants, sansevierias, and other flora, names to which I hope to memorize in this lifetime. It was a sight one could hardly miss, the works of a craftsman, arranged as per ascending order and graded by color.
Our window at home houses many green inhabitants and passing by your cart, I couldn’t help but compare. Our pots had turned brown with moss shavings, weeds had taken over some original inhabitants and some edges had curled inwards, turning brown. In comparison to your trimmed, glossy partners, our window looked unkempt. I take pride in the wilderness that grows within the walls of our home and this passing sight was taken as a personal attack. I walked ahead, wondering if I was falling short on providing the needed care and attention.
Maybe I was, so I retraced my steps. We had a lovely chat, you gave me some pro tips on soil fertility, we made a deal and the next day arrived in a whim. You were at our door, with a jute bag filled with soiled tools from a previous visit and some shiny packets that resembled Paan (betel leaves) packaging. The pruning shears had rusted, symbolic to have seen the test of time and it gave me some assurance of making the right decision in choosing you to reshape our window. The transformation was to begin and I couldn’t wait.
You walked up to our window and carefully monitored the plants. You picked the spider plant, the roots of which had risen above the soil. A wise start, I thought to myself. I had cleared my schedule to feast my eyes. I was ready. You planted the pot between your legs for a better grip and gathered all the leaves into a care bundle. You started to pull and pull at the leaves with all your manly might. And soon all hell broke loose. In those few minutes, my mind had humanized the spider into me and you into a monster. You were pulling at my hair, one strand at a time. You clearly seemed to have missed the massage-the-roots-first-and-tug-gently-memo. I felt dizzy with pain. It felt like a lifetime of nightmares, compiled into one, and played on a loop, in slow motion. The roots were out, and so was my heart, accompanied by a rolling tear.
We needed a glass of water but you tore one of those shiny packets and showered us in a white powder instead. We dint seem to share the same language, or maybe we never did.
I did not let you touch more plants. We paid you half the sum and you were asked to leave. But I couldn’t stop feeling the pain that day. It felt strange, to feel that kind of pain. It resembled the likes of when my grandfather had passed away. It felt unfair to compare the two, but I would be lying if I undermined it any sense. I let that grief pass that day. I slept over it. I checked on the spider plant the next day and it seemed all right but that strange quivering feeling from yesterday had not left me. It stayed with me for days together. It has taken me 2 years to make sense of it but I write to you now, knowing where it came from, hoping you will understand why I glared at you with astonishment, stopped you midway and asked you to leave without any closure.
That day when I saw your cart, what I saw was not just crafted arrangements but an ongoing romantic relationship you seemed to have staged with the natural world. You had made the first move, seeding a thought, months of conversations had followed, you had responded to their needs with warmth and care and they had responded back lovingly by surprising you with varying colors of blush and by dancing to the wind. You seemed to have learned the language of the outside world, such a rarity I thought in this human-centered world. But I was wrong, in those blinding moments, I had seemed to have forgotten the context of our times. The arrangement was nothing but a marketing gimmick and your tip a passing comment that you had picked from the other Mali, while you’ll share a beedi. This was yet another exchange of money, devoid of any love. The pain that I had felt that day did not come wholly from the mishandling of my spider plant but came from deeper below, from a place of trust and belief, the belief that we humans share an uncanny language with other beings and if we listened carefully, we could dance to the poetics of this planet, a romance greater than any written so far.
As I write this, I hope that you are safe and well with your family, rekindling this very romance and I hope you are reading this by your window, as you listen to the birdsongs that fill the skies, and as the Earth regenerates.
Lots of care,