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Silent Spring, Holy Spring
April 13, 2003
Spring always brings me cheer. It is hard to be gloomy when there is a profusion of flowers and buds all around, and the light, unnamed green of young leaves. My car is surrounded every morning by bright yellow laburnum flowers thanks to the trees all around. I remember in Bangalore seeing a carpet of freshly fallen indigo jacaranda flowers every morning. In the evening, when I walked back, the same flowers would be dead, trodden on, ready to be recycled, dust unto dust.
As Vishu approaches on April 15th, the kani konna (Indian laburnum) with its magnificent bells of yellow flowers are in full bloom. I remember childhood Vishu days when we would be woken up with strict injunctions to not open our eyes until we reached the prayer room. There, on a bell metal uruli, the women of the family would have set out a yellow kani cucumber, coconuts, a brass lamp, a mirror, a picture of baby Krishna, rice, fruits including mangos and jackfruit, a mundu (dhoti), a coin, and gold.
This is the Vishu kani, literally the viewing. And we knew that afterwards, all the children would be given money by the elders, the kaineettam, a shiny new coin. Every one in the family would give money to everyone younger than them; although these days, it is no longer a coin; inflation forces us to give twenty, fifty or hundred rupee notes.
Thereafter, everyone wears new clothes, and women wear the traditional mundum neriyathum, the spectacularly beautiful off-white and often gold-bordered two-piece Kerala sari. And we have a special sadya, a vegetarian meal on a banana leaf. Yellow/gold is the primary color, the color of harvested rice.
I have no idea what Punjabis do for Baisakhi, which falls on roughly the same day, but I always remember Jallianwallah Bagh. Tamils have their New Year, 'Puthandu.' The Yugaadi, or New Year, for Telugus and Kannadigas has already come and gone, on April 2nd. This is the year 5105 in the Hindu calendar, for Kali Yuga began in 3102 BCE.
These harvest festivals and the welcoming of Spring must have ancient roots: in early agricultural communities, it must have been a thanksgiving to the gods for their bounty. Our temple in Trivandrum had its utsavam too: and I stayed up one night for the procession. Preceded by kettledrums and chenda players, and then followed by a panchavadyam: cymbals, horns, drums, the deity was taken on procession on a large elephant, followed by a dozen smaller ones.
I am conditioned to think of Spring in these terms: of something holy, of new beginnings. When I was younger, in the Spring my fancy used to turn to thoughts of love, too, but these days discretion is the better part of valor. However, I have also been thinking of other, more somber things: in particular Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, the classic that spurred on the environmental movement in the US.
I read a recent report in the media that the vultures are disappearing from the Indian skies. Carson wrote touchingly about the disappearing songbirds -- hence the 'silence' -- victimized by DDT. In India the raptors are disappearing because of pollution (of the land and the water), pesticides, and the disappearance of wildlife and carrion in general.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse have been quite active this Spring: war, pestilence, and the like. There are the depleted uranium shells used in the Iraq war, with unforeseeable consequences based on the background radiation they contribute to. There is the epidemic scare based on SARS, which at least some people think may be a manufactured virus, a Chinese biological warfare experiment that got out of hand. In other words, bloody mindedness goes on as usual, Spring or not.
After all, this is the Mesopotamia we are talking about, the cradle of Western civilization; and Baghdad was once a glittering imperial capital. It has indeed been laid low. I remember once being startled to come upon a statue of Hammurabi, the ancient law giver of the Assyrians, outside San Francisco's City Hall. It was a gift of the Assyrian people, whom I had thought extinct: but they still exist, despite persecution and dispersal.
I was struck by the images of the toppling of President Saddam Hussein's statues. The obvious lines that come to mind are from Shelley:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Fame and fortune and ephemeral. As the poet Kumaran Asan says:
Sri bhuvil asthira, nissamshayam
Splendor is temporary in the world, doubtless!
Which I have always thought to be especially close to the Latin phrase sic transit gloria mundi. The poet, as always, is right: the vanities of the conqueror and the conquered are both temporary. In a couple of hundred years from now, will the stump of the Statue of Liberty be sticking out of the water outside New York City, as you see in a lot of disaster movies?
I am reminded of a Puranic story quoted by Heinrich Zimmer in his wonderful Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (Motilal Banarsidass) of the divine boy who visits Indra in his splendid palace. The boastful Indra, proud and powerful king of the gods, shows off his palace and speaks of his valiant deeds.
The boy smiles enigmatically, and Indra wishes to know why. When pressed, the boy tells him the secret. While Indra had been carrying on with his bragging, the child had observed a large group of ants walking by. And the leader of the ants had told the boy that he had been an Indra in a former life, and so had every one of the ants in the group!
Hubris, followed by nemesis. This is an inviolable law of nature. This Spring saw nemesis arriving for one who fancied himself. Eventually, it will arrive for his conquerors, too. None of us can afford to preen ourselves. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee.Rajeev Srinivasan