the fears that accompany leisure


I spent the weekend in Malnad. On Saturday I rose a little before dawn and stood by the floor-to-ceiling window and looked up at the pulsing stars. Dark figures of silver oak loomed before me, their tops level with my eyes. At their feet the coffee were huddled and hunched over like ten-thousand bears.

It was that moment in the morning when the night animals had called it a day, and the other animals were snoozing. There wasn't a sound, except for a solitary fellow whose sound came from everywhere—a cousin of the cicada, to tell from his voice—who cried out to all with the fervor of a revolutionary: “rise, rise, rise, rise.” But the ears of all were deaf to him. They hear him too much, and all the time.

I stepped out from the room and went out the bungalow, toward two lights that were on at the labor-line in the distance—yellow lights diffused on muddy white walls. I stood by the one that lit the cowshed. Ganga the cow returned my gaze from where she lay, and, of her two calves, one stood at the edge of the shed and looked out into the dark of the plantation, and the other lay slouched in the inner dark of the shed. They were brooding as always, but more intensely now. The question that hung frozen in the chill air was: will the effects of the economic boom trickle down also to these cattle? Within the remaining lifetime of the cow? Before these calves have grown? Or would they live always like this, as now in this cold, like drudges from the pages of the great Russian books?

While I took pictures of them my ankles and my shin twitched, revealing my constant fear that a snake might rise up on the ground and have a go at me. I've never been afraid when I have encountered the snake; each time, I’ve been stunned into a cold fascination, and I have gazed at them, admiring their bright and brilliant reticulations. But there is ever the fear of how the next snake might present itself. And I have a horror of their hiss—even if no snake has hissed at me until now.

A short while later, I crouched by the plantation's lake, keeping a fearful distance from the hedge, feeling foolish about  still worrying about the reptile, worrying that one could be lurking in the green thicket, ready to lunge at me. There was a fast-moving smoky mist over the water, but the mist sailed away by the time I set the controls on my camera. Then the sun reached in and twisted his long yellow hand upon the lake, and there was no more even the memory of a mist.

Over at the edge of the plantation, where the earth had been dug for new coffee, frost had gathered on the webs which the spiders had woven flat on the ground in the gaps between . They glittered in the morning light, and they were dozens and dozens of them: small flat webs like mirrors, scattered on the ground. The worms and insects had stayed clear of them, so the frost seemed to have foiled the scheme of the spiders.

Seeing the spiders I remembered the birds. Are there worms that are evolved, which start out late and outwit the early bird?

The birds had been such noisy busybodies in the morning, but had now fallen silent, and most had flown away to hunt elsewhere. Tiny yellow butterflies played at my feet over the grass. I urged them to go find the flowers, but they ignored me to my face. A lone gray butterfly crashed into my blue jeans and suffered a moment's disorientation before it recovered and fluttered about, not leaving my leg by too much. All life was fair game for a meal in the morning, except me, it appeared, but none seemed perturbed by their circumstance.

I hurried toward the bungalow, suddenly hungry for the “medium-spicy” vegetarian breakfast that my wife would be waiting with. I sucked air with each spoon of the uppittu—so hot it was. “Did you see the turtles?” my wife asked me when I described to her how the mist had swayed as it sailed away upon the lake. I didn't have the courage to tell her—she was born in the coffee belt—that I'd been too absorbed in watching out for snakes in the grass at my feet.


The lake at Nandi Thota