01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

Neem Leaves and Silence

The writer tells us to involve our sensory memories and versions of silence while writing.

Neem leaves...
Neem leaves... Getty Images

There is something about the Indian summer that seeps into our writing and music, a stream of consciousness that seems to both arise from and lead to it, this season of mango blossoms, four o’clock showers, lemon tea and steam rising off roads and walls. In my childhood, it was also the time for chicken pox, the sensory presence of illness melting into that of the season – neem leaves and mango blossoms. It reminds me of smells, fragrances, sounds, soundlessness, of moments when the world seemed to be in silent transit, noiseless, like the Earth’s around the sun, or on its axis.  

One such summer I found myself, age 10, quarantined with chicken pox and boredom. Chickenpox used to be a three-week-long affair, till the scabs fell off and the skin cleared. 21 days with nothing to do was unimaginable. I was a talkative kid, my mother was busy with home and college, and others did not come into the room except to give me my plate of unpalatable, pox-appropriate food. In a house with a large extended family, mother-child time was anyway a luxury, so, the only way to beat the blues, the itchiness and the alone-ness was to read.

That’s how Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia slipped into my life – ten thick volumes with their rich text and pictures on every subject conceivable. Confined to a bed and a room, I began to travel the world, live in its monuments, climb mountains, navigate deserts, ride the waves of all its seas, dip my feet into rivers and streams, meet people, and listen to their stories, watch humans and machines at work, learn the shapes of music notations, wrap and roll my tongue over foreign words and their meanings... For my ten-year-old mind, it was as if a million flowers had blossomed all at once, their fragrance mingling with the smell of those old pages, already turning brown, smooth to the touch, the cover hard and grainy, its rich brown spine held against my feverish cheeks a blessing to inhale and remember for the rest of my life.  

Along with the book, Ma would place a bundle of neem twigs, the leaves fresh and bright, and the erratically broken-off twigs almost fragile. The books were to keep me occupied and the neem to brush away the itch and the scabs as they began to come off. But then there was another ritual to follow, to cleanse the books I had touched and hugged and laid my head on at times.

Once I finished reading or got bored with a volume, Ma would wipe it clean of germs with a piece of cloth dipped in boiling neem water and squeezed dry. She would do this for each volume, as many times as I took them from her.

In 21 days, I had read through, as much as possible, first out of boredom then with rising curiosity and interest, the 10 tomes. Reading them, and then watching Ma quietly wipe them clean became a ritual, a silent communion among the books, Ma and me. In retrospect, the cleansing became a kind of parallel time that we spent. Ma was always reticent, quiet, usually a single word, sentence or silence in response to my deluge of words – it was a lifelong pattern; nonetheless, she found a way to communicate and to salve, and as she did so, the silence in the room mingled with the smell of neem leaves in water and the smell of the encyclopaedia’s old pages.

***

When my short fiction collection Cast Out and Other Stories was published in 2018 (Dhauli Books), I was asked about my writing style. I had written those stories in an un-self-conscious mode, writing as they spoke to me, rarely stopping to ponder over style. I realised later how much I had drawn from those moments when Ma and I and the books sat together in the bedroom, the windows open to the summer sounds, to the quietude of the afternoons, to the smell of the trees and the warm grass, the hot road outside, the smell of the pox, the smell of Ma’s saree and her body as she bent over me, helping me get to that scratchy point on the back where my fingers couldn’t reach; the feel of the neem leaves brushing across my skin, the noise of vehicles on the road, sometimes muted, sometimes loud; of family members chatting in the veranda outside my room, or in the kitchen, the chatter of birds and the sudden silence when they ceased to do so.

***

Much of what one writes comes from sensory memory, I tell my writing and editing classes, and that ‘silence’ is one such detail that is often overlooked. When I ask my students to shut their eyes and think of a sensory memory, they often recount moments of quietness, but rarely of silence. As a child, I didn’t know the difference between silence and quietness. As I grew up, I realised that quietness could be a natural attribute, whereas silence is an internal state of being that lingers long after the quietness has passed. Silence is of many kinds, and there is no one word that can describe them all, their tones and resonances. Writing needs silence, within and without. The white, impersonal noise of a café, is silence created in the mind. The cacophony of the home front sets up eddies of silence that has to be willed into being. The silence at the end of a question has layers, simultaneous as well as wayward, to be woven into the writing.

When I bought Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence for Ma, she said I had understood her as ‘only a daughter could’. Or did she use the word ‘should’? One sentence and silence afterwards. I remember trying to wade through that silence, but I wasn’t worldly-wise enough at the time to find my way to the other side. It was as if every word, every sentence she spoke, was a negotiation with not wanting to speak. I began to understand the spaces in this tussle much later, through the characters that inhabit my stories.

I see myself reflected in Ma’s silences, like Monet’s “Four Trees”, meeting at the edges of contact, then fading away, understanding who I am by understanding the nature of the quietude. Silence and its forms have seeped into my writing. The meditative nature of writing is nothing but listening to that silence, to the words as they soundlessly take shape on the page; their articulation, tonality, meaning, their coming together and going away, their bearing images and distilling thoughts; their ellipses and spaces. Listen to the distillation! the silence urges. When I give in, I write; when I don’t, I pretend to write.  

Silence is courage, silence is cowardice. Silence is protest, surrender, rebuke, approval, presence, absence, shield, wall, restfulness, negation; silence hides a lie, silence is truth unspoken... Over time, I learnt to decode this as I observed Ma. How each of these speaks to me as a writer, and often guides me as an editor, is something I have understood only in retrospect. Much of it has slipped into and between the lines of my writing as unobtrusively as the smell of neem leaves and the encyclopaedia’s sepia pages did into my life all those years ago.

(Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and professional editor based in Pune. Her debut collection of short fiction 'Cast Out and Other Stories' was published in 2018 by Dhauli Books. Her stories have appeared in print and online literary journals and anthologies. She edits fiction at The Bangalore Review and teachs courses in “Writing and Editing” at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce and Flame Liberal Arts University, Pune.)