Pine trees covered in mist on the outskirts of Kalimpong (Photo: Getty Images)
I SPENT THE FIRST SIXTEEN YEARS of my life on the ground floor, looking at those around me and above me. Those were the dimensions of my world. There was nothing—or no one—to look down upon. It is possible—though this is hard and even improper for me to claim—that this manner of seeing the world would rear a natural ethics in me, but it is not of this that I’m thinking of. What I’ve been thinking of has been precipitated by something recent, and, even if it might not be very new, I have begun feeling its percolation only now—my coming to live in a flat on the sixth floor.
I began to sense an unease every time I found myself on the balcony of this sixth floor flat in Sonipat, a town in Haryana. I put it to the newness of my experience—I had, until now, only lived in standalone houses in a small town; flats, blocks of life and the living arranged and then glued on top of the other, were foreign to my consciousness. From the balcony, I watched nothing—my ‘view’ was other balconies such as mine, endless open-mouthed jaws jutting out at regular intervals. If the building were an animal, it would look monstrous to someone who is as easily scared as I am—for to have many arms like an octopus or a hundred legs like a centipede is one thing, to have a hundred mouths is quite another. I put my unease to that—my inability to find leisure or pleasure on the balcony made me rush back indoors.
But I couldn’t escape from the balcony—all my plants lived there, taking whatever they could from the anaemic sun and dust-clotted air. I watered them like I have never watered plants before—I felt like a nurse, the balcony became a corridor in a hospital. They looked hesitant and alone, without access to the networks inside the earth that abet their growth and confidence. It was as if I was doing something wrong by keeping them with me, so far from the soil that was their bed and pillow.
All of these together might have nourished the niggle in my consciousness—who can tell—but it was the shock of something that made me see, almost like an epiphany, the change that had come over what I had so far taken as a given: the eyelevel of my life.
It was the trees. My view was now of their scalps. It might seem like an overreaction, or long moments that I am condensing into one, but it seems like the truth—I felt changed.
It was as if I’d found—or been given—a new pair of eyes. The transformation in Kafka’s novel has primarily been the acquisition of a different kind of eye, at least in my eyes. ‘Compound eyes’—the phrase itself has such gravitas and depth. What were human eyes and their limited powers compared to the eyes of birds and insects? The ‘bird’s eye view’ is a simplistic phrase—it does not actually hold in it the complexity of the bird’s vision, of how much they are able to see, and the changing variety of ways of such a manner of seeing.
From the ground floor, in a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal where there were very few double-storeyed buildings until the 1990s, I, a child, saw the mango and jackfruit trees in my neighbourhood, and watched young saplings, born years after my birth, grow taller than me, and soon beyond my reach. The older trees, which bore fruits in places where only my eyes could reach, seemed like a benevolent umbrella to me when I stood under them, and sometimes even a house, with their many bird nests and animal shelters, from a distance. Even though I might not have been able to articulate it in any way until this moment, this manner of looking at the trees, that made me their relatives when they were in my optical perimeter, made something quite obvious to me even though I was still a child: I belonged to the tree though the tree did not belong to me, their shadow always fell on me. Even the shrubs and bushes, some my height, some taller, others shorter, met me like my friends did, without announcing themselves, neither crouching like humans to pay obeisance nor holding their heads and noses up in the air to declare their high station. This I learnt early about plants and their difference from humans and animals—that they did not diminish or amplify themselves in response to the presence of others.
It mattered that they didn’t have eyes. I did not need to stand on my toes, on a stool, or on my knees to meet them—any part of them was them, a true part for the whole: leaf, flower, fruit or branch, I could meet them as they were. Even when I held a fallen flower, I did not pin it down with my gaze—I brought it to my nose, maybe looked at its thalamus, or let it fall from me. I did not feel any degree of possession or power.
Watching trees as if they were grass does something immediately without our awareness: our eyes become feet, they trample on treetops like our feet do on grass. Such a sense is to be found in a word such as ‘graze’, for instance: cows graze on grass, our eyes graze on the land in an analogous manner. What is the human’s perspective? What might a top-down perspective do to humans?
What does it mean to have the power to see a living creature’s baldness? At first it seems like a useless kind of power—all I can think of is the comic energy of watching balding scalps of passers-by from a balcony above; I also remember the jokes I would hear from some of my male friends about the erotic energy that attended their looking at breasts of women walking past their second or third-storeyed building. I was only watching trees from above—I imagined god looking at us in a similar manner, though certainly with greater regret than what I must have felt. I would have liked to know whether god took as much pride and joy in our baldness as he watched over us as he did in our heads bursting with childlike hair.
BY THE END of autumn—the transitions between seasons are so swift that they are difficult to register—I began to sense baldness on the trees I saw from above. It took me some time to realise that I had, in groping for a familiar comparative, turned to my memory’s stock of images of mountain valleys that I had seen as a child. Growing up in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, it was as much the inverted V-shaped mountains we saw as we did the V-shaped valleys. The trees on the hills might have been relatives of those in the valleys, perhaps even of the same species, but they looked different to us because of where we were looking at them from. The trees on the hills looked a bit like the hills themselves—think of the shape of the pines and conifers. The trees in the valleys did not resemble the shape of the valley, though the distance between their heads often veered between gentle U and V shapes. I put it to the adage they use for long marriages—that spouses begin to resemble each other, that trees in a valley will look a bit like their habitat. I indulged the thought even as I reminded myself to check to see whether I was beginning to look like the house I had lived in.
What was it that made me uneasy about watching these bare-leaved trees from above? That humans were animals meant to live on the earth, that ‘ground floor’ brought a natural perspective, and everything else, whether above or under, was only a temporary habitat
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What was the relationship between these balding trees, most of them frangipani, a favourite of apartment builders, and this dusty district Haryana town, their current habitat? And what was the difference between my watching their leafy heads from above and their skeletal bones? The sweepers took away the leaves every morning, scratching the concrete paths that woke me up—only the branches remained. The truth is that I did not know. In the valley, I had felt the sense of accommodativeness between the trees that I did not feel here. There they had grown into each other, hugging and jostling, brushing against each other with the kind of freedom that I did not feel here. Even if they were, it seemed as ironic to me as the feeling of freedom ascribed to flags biting the wind—the flag was hoisted by a human and controlled by it as much as the plants in residential blocks like the one I was in were by the whimsies of its presidents and secretaries.
What was it that made me uneasy about watching these bare-leaved trees from above? My mind jogged to the clichés at first: that humans were animals meant to live on the earth, that ‘ground floor’ brought a natural perspective, and everything else, whether above or under, was only a temporary habitat. I knew I was being lazy. Suddenly I remembered the frog on my dissection table in the twelfth standard and my discomfort with it—not the smell of formaldehyde, not the texture of the animal’s skin, but the frog pinned to the tray in a way it doesn’t live or move when alive, and my manner of looking at it, from above. It felt wrong, and it was wrong. I’ve felt this at other moments —those memories began to come to me intermittently, without my cooperation. Was it the difference that the privilege of positions and postures that caused this unease? What else could I put my embarrassment of being around the dead to? The dead person, usually laid on the floor, covered with white cloth, while the living watch over them, with emotions that the dead can neither receive nor reciprocate—the most unequal relationship, its inequality emphasised and amplified by the viewing position, watching from above in a way that would not have been possible had the person been alive.
I remembered seeing, like everyone else, trees and the geometry of agricultural fields from the plane, both seeming unchanging, the aeroplane as fixed as the trees and mustard fields below. They came to life, losing the abstraction of the universal and turning into things that move and die and seek and hide as I returned closer to the earth. From above, the world and its trees felt a bit like museum installations, belonging not to the present but to a time and place that was neither mine nor accessible to me. To be available as something changing is the mark of life and the living. But the view of land from the plane, of the dead man’s standing visitors, the frog on the lab tray, and of the balding trees from my flat on the sixth floor or above—these views are almost academic, life and its smoke turned into the still air of a studio.
What I haven’t been able to understand yet is the annotation of guilt that marks these views. I do not imagine that birds feel them. Is it because the views under the flying birds keep changing? I don’t know why humans have found joy and assurance in imagining their gods as residents of the highest floor. I pity our gods—this boredom, this lifeless view, of the sacrifice they must make for their love of the powers of omniscience. I pray that the gods are fortunate to live on the ground floor in their next birth. They might feel less guilty.