"The Situation" II - New Delhi

…to clear away the leaves of time and habit…

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Clouds, Days of My China Dragon, and Arzee the Dwarf. He is also the editor of the anthology India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. His essays on literature, travel, and politics appear regularly in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington PostCondé Nast Traveller, and Mint.


A peepal tree, New Delhi. Photo Chandrahas Choudhury
A peepal tree, New Delhi. Photo Chandrahas Choudhury


I've now been home for more than a month in the lockdown in New Delhi. Although I've spoken to many people virtually, the only living things I've been able to see, directly and without mediation, for as long as I care to observe them, have been the plants in my terrace garden and the leaves of the peepal tree (ficus religiosa) outside the little balcony of my top-floor apartment in Delhi.

In a life shorn of human encounters, there has been both a sense of dramatic engagement, and a feeling of rootedness and peace, in observing the life of this tree as it goes through its annual moulting of leaves and then replenishes itself with a copious and startling green. One of the feelings that we learnt to take somewhat for granted in our age was the sense of abundance leading to hopeless surfeit: in the goods we consume and that are constantly dangled in front of us, in the relentless pulsing of the digital world, in the relationships we tried to sustain and likes we tried to invite. In the contemplation of the tree casting off all its leaves and beginning the construction of its canopy again, many buried memories and impulses appear: the experience of learning our way in language, of unsteady letters slowly growing into words and sentences; the periodic feeling in life that one must return to first principles, to clear away the leaves of time and habit to study anew the roots and shape of who we really are (or used to be) and grow outwards from them again; the sense that big things (like novels) are just an accumulation of many small things done to a certain end.

Now the tree is again a veritable forest of leaves -- in Indian history, it is known as the tree travellers seek out at night to sleep beneath. But for a few days it allows us to experience the wonder that inheres in a single leaf that has overnight sprung forth from the terminal bud at the end of a far-lying twig. And perhaps it’s with a renewed sense, slowly engraved upon the soul over the months of silence and reflection, of the sanctity of each small thing, of the relationship of the part to the whole, the web of life to the life of humankind, that we might be able to start life up again after the pandemic. I attach a picture of a single leaf from my peepal tree, tethered to a twig but with the vastness of space all around it.