The wind’s direction has been changing from south-west to north-north-east on my phone’s weather app as irregularly as a breeze throws around leaves. The sky clouds over, rain follows, icy with hail sometimes. The cold’s teeth sharpen. Snow is possible and, although we know the mess afterwards, we want to be suspended in the dreamy silence snow brings. This year though, there has been mostly sleet and ground frost that melted into muck, only once or twice the enchantments of a snowfall.
This doesn’t feel like the start of warmth, but the earth knows more than humans do. Just a few days into February, in our part of the Himalaya, the soil changed. Overnight it had become loamier, more friable. The ice-hard, cold-dead ground was coming back to life. Worms slid through the clods when I forked the earth. Beads of green dotted the bare brown, multiplying every new morning into grass and weeds. In another week, below the budding plum trees, the white tips of bulbs planted months ago had pushed their way towards the light.
Itching to muddy my hands, I thought I’d knock my pot-bound chrysanthemums out to divide and replant them. Out of the pot, I found that the roots of the overgrown chrysanthemum plants had twisted round and round from the top downward to the base of the pot. The entire caked soil was in the tight embrace of the corkscrewed roots. I had to twist and very gently prise them apart until I had separated the tiny saplings and could plant them in the ground. Now—from one plant—I had twenty.
Many people advise wearing gardening gloves, and it’s sensible to do that when dealing with thorns or nettles, but you can damage tender roots and shoots with those clumsy big gloves. You need to feel things with your fingers: real maalis never wear gloves. Some years ago, on BBC Radio, the gardener and writer Anna Pavord was being interviewed for Desert Island Discs, and she described dragging herself along the floor towards grass and earth when she came out of an intensive care unit after surgery for stomach cancer:
“When I could actually move . . . one day I was in a different room and there was a patch of lawn outside the window… On my hands and knees I crawled along the corridor to get out onto that grass. I just needed to feel the real world. The real world to me is not buildings, it’s not cement or tarmac, it’s not all the stuff of which so much of the world is now constructed.”
She went on to talk about why she did not wear gloves when gardening:
“I like to feel the plants, I like to feel the earth, I get a real sensuous pleasure from the touch of plants and from the touch of the earth and, you know, the feel of sticks and all the other things you sort of have to touch when you’re gardening. It’s all part of it.”
Our patch of the mountains is ringed by deodar, Indian Cedar trees that are at least a hundred years old and, for that length of time, they have been covering the earth underneath with their needles and pollen. The needles blanket the ground, a mat that suffocates other growth and releases acid juices as it disintegrates. On this acid soil had been a building: once a cow shed, it was turned into a two-storeyed cottage which was later abandoned; empty for years, it disintegrated into a heap of mud plaster, stone blocks, rotting wood and shards of window panes. The hump of land on which this shell stood when we found it had become, for generations of goats and humans, a rubbish heap and grazing ground. But the ruined cottage faced north: a long sweep of Himalayan snow peaks, including the Nanda Devi, was on the horizon. We decided to remake the cottage to live in it.
Once we began living in the remade cottage, we had to clear all that was not soil year after year, going down deeper as if at an archaeological dig. Construction rubble had now been added to the rubbish of decades. What if we find hidden treasure, the village women digging with me fantasised. Gold. A pot of ancient silver coins even. It’s been known to happen. But the closest we came to history were colonial-era sardine cans. For the rest, we dug out glass bottles, discarded syringes, medicine foil, age-blurred polythene packaging. We have had to feed our patch for years—hundreds of sacks of cow dung manure by now—to turn that wasted earth into dark brown soil in which things could grow.
Down in the plains early this year, I went in search of the other kind of earth—clay from the river, used by potters. On the banks of the Hooghly, one section of North Calcutta still has a potter’s colony, Kumartuli, which literally means ‘potter’s settlement’, an area that potters have inhabited for three hundred years. If you step off the main road with its buses and cars and shops and walk inward here, it is as if you have left the modern, mechanised era and entered an old root system of mud-caked alleyways that goes down towards the riverbank to suck out clay from the silt and turn it into sculpture.
A long time ago, the workshops of Kumartuli read the writing on the wall and abandoned their kilns, and with them the making of terracotta pots or pitchers that used to be a part of every household before plastic came. Their work became the sculpting of clay gods and goddesses for worship. Today, both sides of the alleys have rudimentary buildings, sheds, and shacks packed into them, leaning one against the other. Each shed is a workshop, and the work is organised as if at an assembly line. At the top is a foreman, perhaps the owner of the workshop, who walks around giving orders to the artisans.
To reach Kumartuli from South Calcutta, you walk along the river on the Strand. The closer you get towards the North the more streets look as if Victorian England has mutated, bizarrely, in tropical Calcutta. Lean-to shops, streetside temples, and two-tiered sleeper buses have been dropped in muddled stacks next to Victorian office blocks built a couple of centuries ago to demonstrate the power and glory of the British Empire to newly conquered natives. The grandiose buildings have fluted pillars, cornices, sweeping staircases, domes, arches—blotchy now with urine and red spittle. The walls against which vendors are sitting, weighing vegetables and cutting up bloodied fish, are the outer boundaries of ghostly warehouses of colonial times: high-roofed red brick structures with shuttered windows, so long abandoned that banyan trees have webbed entire buildings with their roots and branches—gigantic versions of my potted chrysanthemum.
Southward, going away from Kumartuli along the river, you pass the Nimtolla, a two-hundred-year-old cremation ground where bodies are still burned on wood pyres—as well as electric crematoria. Who knows if human remains slip into the water along with flowers, cloth, incense sticks? If you carry on upriver you reach Prinsep Ghat—with steps leading down to the water. There is a monument with white Roman pillars and grand inscriptions and an odd little railway line complete with a level crossing that runs parallel to the river. A newlywed woman in a chiffon gown is trying to balance her needle-sharp stilettos on the cobbles that line the train track—she is accompanied by photographers who are walking her down the lines towards a particular spot on the riverbank. It will be a professional photo shoot for Instagram and Facebook, as much a wedding necessity now as the bridal sari. The bride’s recently wed husband reaches out to hold her hand, but is simultaneously trying to protect his own polished shoes.
This is where courting couples set off in wooden boats for cruises down the Hooghly. Early this Sunday morning, whole squads of masked men are sweeping away the garbage from the gardens that have been laid alongside the newly repaired monument to James Prinsep. Lovers, hookers, picknickers come here every day and they leave a trail. The cleaners’ method of work is simple: they sweep all the waste into the river. This is most definitely against the rules, but maybe the company is on a cheap contract and wants the quickest route out. As our own boat goes down the river, we see the workers at it all along the banks, sweeping the evidence of yesterday’s merrymaking into the river. Our boat ploughs through slow-moving islands of empty bottles and foil packets. In the coves and shallows the bottles and packets bob in the brown water, trapped in weeds, destined to live there for years to come. The clay for the idols at Kumartuli is brought by boat down this river, from a village nearby.
The lowest rung of artisans consists of men who clean the dredged earth. After they do that, they stand calf-deep in mounds of the clay and work it with their feet until all the lumps and air have been stamped out. Meanwhile, straw frames have been made and mounted on wooded stakes and the prepared clay is moulded into crude human forms on these frames. The more accomplished artisans then work on these forms, adding detail—drapery, eyes, claws, snouts, fingernails, paws, muscle—until the sculpture begins to breathe life. Row upon row of half-made sculptures stand in the alleyways, slowly turning into goddesses, lions, gods, dogs. Clay tresses are pressed from moulds, every strand a thick wave. The goddesses’ heads are made separately and laid out to dry upside down: they will be attached later to the necks.
Several layers of material go on to the frames, mostly clay of different consistencies, but also thin cotton, usually an old sari, to smoothen and stabilise the idol so that it does not crack when drying—because these sculptures will not be fired. Onto the sari layer goes another one of slurry and then finally, paint, ornaments, clothes. And the most delicate part: the painting of the eyes. Once the idols have been consecrated and worshipped and the festival for which they were made has ended, they used to be returned to the river and the whole cycle of dredging, wedging, making and dissolving began afresh. What was earth becomes earth again.
These days the idols are no longer immersed in the river as before, they are recycled differently to protect the water from toxic paints and plastics, but they are nevertheless returned to clay. It is astounding that so much detailed artistic work should be both anonymous and evanescent.
If earth becomes earth again with unbaked sculpture that is dissolved back to clay, the opposite too is true: parts of the sea are embedded in buildings all over the world. In Spain I saw sea shells and fossils in buildings both medieval and modern. Some years ago, the Spanish newspaper El País reported: “Few of the people who wait for the subway every morning at Madrid’s Ciudad Universitaria station are aware that the black limestone that lines the platform walls guards remains of the shells of ammonites, distant relatives of today’s octopuses.” Such ammonites in buildings are reported from many places in the world where limestone is used as building material.
An amateur geologist in the USA, Christopher Barr, who has devoted himself to finding urban fossils, reports 150 million-year-old cephalopods embedded in the marble which forms a part of the doorway at the Reptile House at the National Zoo in Washington DC. This marble, called Red Alicante, comes from Spain. When Stegosauruses roamed the earth, Alicante, now a part of Spain, lay deep under sea water and shells of free-swimming cephalopods sank down to its seabed forming a sediment. When Alicante joined up with the landmass that is now Europe and its seabed rose and became land, the sediments turned to limestone. Shells of cephalopods that had sunk to the seabed in Jurassic times had now become fossils in limestone, one of the commonest stones for building in many parts of the world. And this is why watery creatures can be found today in buildings nowhere near the sea.
If octopuses can turn to stone and sea creatures live on earth in this way, it is only logical for our bodies to return to water when they become nothing more than organic matter that will quickly decay unless tipped into the recycling bins of nature. Ash does not decay. All that can decay has already been burned away when a human or animal body is cremated after death; still, we feel the need to put to rest—to return to earth or water—the ashes of those we have loved and lost. When my father died, my brother and I were too much in a daze to think, and too young for our voices to matter. I remember a confusing, crowded evening when our plane landed from Bombay where he had died, and we were taken from the airport to the Ganga at Dakshineswar, to immerse his ashes. It was so quick we had no time to think, let alone overthink.
At home, here in the hills now, we still have the ashes of our first dog in a terracotta pot. It is a part of our house and our life. Soon after she died, people told us to mix her ashes into the soil in a corner of the garden and plant a tree on the spot to remember her by. And I have considered taking a portion of her ashes and grinding it into a ceramic glaze for a pot that I will fill with water and fresh flowers every day.
These are not ghoulish thoughts: the ashes of someone you loved are what remain when every other physical thing is gone. It is the last piece of bodily evidence that they occupied space, breathed air, watered and fertilised the earth as best they could, and mattered in endless, indefinable, every-day, every-minute ways. It’s possible that a time will come when we fork our dog’s ashes into the soil and plant lily bulbs there, which will every spring poke out and remind us that life goes on in an endless cycle. But not yet.
This post was first published in India Quarterly.