“…wild cherry blossoms
Glowing in the morning sun.”
Motoori Norinaga was a Japanese physician born in 1730. Norinaga composed thousands of poems, many of which were dedicated to wild cherry blossoms. This scholar, in love with the ethereal ‘colour and perfume’ of the delicate flowers that blossom so briefly, gave words to the emotion of ‘mono no aware’. Mono means ‘things’ and aware is sensitivity, sadness or deep feeling. Mono no aware is thus the ‘the pathos of things’, a hyper awareness of the impermanent nature of life. At the heart of this quiet sorrow is a joy for being allowed a glimpse of beauty, however fleeting.
Such pathos was far from my mind that ordinary Sunday in July last year, as the train carrying me to Kerala pulled out of the station. With the entire bogey succumbing to the arms of Morpheus, I chased visions of the past under a lone reading light. I read with increasing excitement about Pliny the Elder’s description of Muziris, the lost port of ancient India, “They sail thence with the wind Hippalus in forty days to the First Emporium of India, Muziris.” Oh, imagine the sight! Merchants from Egypt, Greece and Arabia sailing across the world on the South West Monsoon – the Hippalus. They come in search of ‘black gold’ or the much sought-after pepper, their ships arriving ‘beating the white foams’ of the Periyar River. In their holds they have amphoras of wine and garum, a fermented fish sauce – all of which they will trade for indigo, cardamom and black pepper. Oh, imagine the din and the clamour! I could not wait to see it all for myself.
Little was I to know that my love affair with the impermanence of the Periyar was just beginning.
Over the next few days I travelled the length of Kerala. My journey took me from hunting for the tiger in the Trivandrum Zoo that inspired Yann Martel’s Richard Parker in Life of Pi to looking for Richard Parkers in the forests of Periyar Tiger Reserve. From the mountains of the Reserve where the Periyar originates to catching a local ferry across the Lake Vembanad where the river drains. I caught sight of the shy Nilgiri Tahr in a mist covered hill top, and hob-nobbed with grey hornbills and families of sambhar deep in the forests. I knelt at various altars, in the oldest mosque in Asia, in the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth, at temples, and churches. I dined like royalty, a full meal on a plantain leaf cooked by an ancient granny in rainy Ponmudi, flaky egg parathas off a peeling plastic table in a tiny roadside eatery and steaming hot kadala curry served by the proud waiters of India Coffee House. There have been hundreds and thousands of travellers travelling in that part of the world, and my journey was hardly unique. Time and nostalgia, though, have gilded my trip with a patina of romance and sentiment that I would not want to remove.
I wrote of an afternoon on the banks of Periyar, here:
All through my travels, I found that the River Periyar was my constant companion. Known to be the state’s lifeline, it is the longest river in Kerala. I would lose sight of it for a few miles but sooner than later, I would find myself travelling along its banks, or taking a boat to the town across it, or catching a glimpse of it twinkling on the horizon.
“Amid rushing from one place of worship to another, from one museum to another, I had the fortune of spending a quiet afternoon by the river bank. I watched the river change moods as the Sun made a valiant effort to shine through the Monsoon clouds darkening the waters. The local rowing team was practicing for the annual snake-boat race, their rhythmic cheering punctuated by the distant chug of a ferry’s engine.
I felt a sense of peace stealing over me, similar to what I had experienced, earlier in the day, when kneeling in the cool interiors of the ladies’ prayer room of the Cheraman Perumal mosque. Time glittered and slowed down, as it had in the pews of the Holy Cross church. I felt part of that one moment in history, linked inextricably to the past and to the future. The River Periyar gave rise to the Muziris and its flooding reversed the port’s fortunes.
I expected on my quest, perhaps to see monuments or archaeological excavations from ancient times; I found, instead, the heart of divinity, the spirit of Muziris. In the words of Norman Maclean, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
I did not have the words for it then, but what I felt was a deep sense of mono no aware.
Fast forward to exactly a year to the date from the start of my Kerala trip. I found myself reading another Pliny, Pliny the Younger this time. I was in the Campania region of Italy, journeying through the excavated ruins of Pompei and Ercolano, ancient Roman cities that were buried by volcanic ash and pumice when the might Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Pliny the Younger wrote to his friend Tacitus, with an eye witness account of the eruption, and I read his letters sitting on a centuries old pavement in Ercolano. I saw ‘the ashes as they fell, and the dense black cloud…spreading over the earth like a flood.’ I heard ‘the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men.’ I felt the fear of the ancient Romans, deserted by the Gods, betrayed by the very Vesuvius that they worshipped. As I read, it dawned on me that Pliny was writing to Tacitus to convey news of the passing of his uncle in the eruption. I was reading about the demise of no other than Pliny the Elder.
It was a hot day in Italy, bright and sunny and yet I felt a clammy hand close around my heart. There in the shadow of Vesuvius, I looked around the remains of a once thriving and prosperous resort town. Staring back at me were the ruins of the giant earthenware counters that held the same garum that was shipped across to the Muziris. And just beyond was a long-ago sign advertising amphora of wine, their price varying depending on your choice. A two-thousand-year-old laundry press stood still, and the remains of an oven waited for its long overdue batch of bread.
Serene in the background, towered Vesuvius, content in its slumber. Yet again, the sands of time seemed to shine and slow down. I did not have the words for it then, but what I felt was a deep sense of mono no aware.
Cut to last week, a month from my trip to Italy. The worst floods in a century had hit Kerala. Lives were lost, and several thousand people were evacuated to safety. As the waters receded, people returned to the homes often to find all the possessions, memories of a lifetime, and often their means of livelihood under several feet of slush. Shruti, a friend who needs only a few words to communicate, called to check how I was doing. I felt a dam of emotions break as I raged with sorrow. What of the bus conductor who ensured I had directions for my onward journey? What of the burka-clad young girl in the bus who invited me to stand by her when I needed a friend? What of those school children on the ferry who gazed at my oversized sunglasses with giant saucer like eyes? What of the general stores owner who asked me to stand in the shade of her porch as I waited for a bus? What of the worker at the jaggery merchant’s who shaved off fresh slivers of salty jaggery for me to try. What of the heritage and history of the region? Why was it that in the crash of the flood waters, could I feel my heart breaking? What right did I have to feel any sorrow, secure as I was with my life intact and safe?
As I carried on shaking the metaphorical fist, I gradually sensed rather than heard what Shruti was telling me. It was all impermanent, this too was another turn of the wheel. I had the words for it now, mono no aware. It was the emotion that eluded me.
Motoori Norinaga had wished for a cherry tree be planted on his grave, and to this day the tree blooms every spring. High in the hill of Munnar, there is a lone cherry tree by the Kundala dam. It blooms twice a year. When I saw it, it was in wondrous bloom, the pale pink blossoms glowing in the morning sun.