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Journalism of Courage

The Stubbornness of Soil

When all the elements have been poisoned, it remains — fighting plastic and our indifference, dying and living, renewing itself and life.

soil, soil and environment, soil and plastic, soil and plastic pollution, inert urban spaces, soil renewal, environmental spaces, indian express, indian express news Rain brings clean water, fresh air pushes away stale air. Soil is not a member of this tribe that can flow. But it is not that things that can’t move are incapable of renewal. (Getty Images)

I’ve seen everything die — men and animals, plants and rivers, phones and love, and now, even the sky and the air. Everything, everything except soil. I don’t know whether it is this — my subconscious or the subconscious of soil — that makes me seek it when I’m away from home. In the cities where work takes me from time to time, soil is almost an artefact, as old-world as oiled hair. I chance upon it from time to time, in flowerpots on windows or in botanical gardens, where it is usually covered with grass, like the meadows one sees from fast-moving trains, where they are a condensed blur, a galaxy of green. But it is beyond my touch, beyond my grasp as it were. When I was little, an uncle, visiting from my father’s village, would ask me to walk barefoot on grass – it’d take away the unwanted “voltage” from my body, he said. I wasn’t sure whether that was true, but I know — only now have I become conscious of it — that touching soil, particularly with my hands, feeling the grains of soil scratch my palms, takes away from my sadness, even if temporarily.

When away from soil, in inert urban spaces where it is caged in containers (gardens are containers too, after all), I have run my fingers through flour and breadcrumbs, kneading them the way I do soil, before planting something in it, or sometimes just without reason. But they stick to my fingers. They do not take the extra voltage — to use the old metaphor — away from my being.

I now see patterns in my behaviour that I hadn’t noticed before. Last month, returning home after months on two unfamiliar continents, I found myself touching the soil near the gate of our house. As a doctor touches the pulse, perhaps, but also like one feels a loved one’s forehead, to check for fever. It was moist, either from the gardener’s pipe or recent rain. Soon after, when sleep had calmed me a little, I came downstairs and touched it again. I was going to see my parents soon, after many months, but before their touch this one.

It’s more than a private superstition, perhaps even more than self-therapy. I pinch soil when I can’t knead it, its granularity makes me come alive. On seashores, my eyes long for the waves, their back and forth, as if water was playing badminton with itself, but my body, my hands and feet crave for the soil. Any soil would do, just soil, soil without its racism, its different colours and characteristics. Now when I read about Sita, not just the story of her birth, of her being the soil’s plough, but also her returning back to the earth, I think of it as expected and natural — that metaphor of return is a relative of Christianity’s “dust to dust”, and shows that the tongue of all religions eventually returns to the inside of a mouth. It’s a bit of an enigma then that though death takes us back to the soil, from which, at least on the level of metaphor, we were created, we look and point to the sky when we talk about death — “upar chale jayenge” is, therefore, more an ambition than the truth. For the sky does not renew us — it renews rain, and the other elements that make life possible.

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Soil, by being the natural archive and repository of unending cycles of life and death, is, of course, self-renewing, but for humans like me, who feel aligned to its poetic, it also renews us. Like the human ear, soil, perhaps, has its own self-cleansing mechanism. Our mistreatment of soil, burning it after the harvest season, feeding it abusive fertilisers and pesticides, leaves it unwell, sometimes even comatose, but it finds a way to renew itself. In that sense it is like time, inexhaustible, even as it is being continually expended.

And it is like our emotions, like love, like happiness, like sadness, self-renewing. Like water, which washes away so much, not just the accumulations on our skin but also our being, but remains new. Soil holds that water, too, clean and unclean, even when it cannot, as during a flood. We are conditioned to an imagination that sees — and seeks — immersion and bathing (which is shorthand for immersion, of course), in the way water flows from top to bottom. Coded in it is the positive mythology around flow, it being privileged in all our models of renewal: rain bringing clean water, fresh air pushing away stale air, like pronouns push away nouns. Soil, with nothing to push it out, is not a member of this tribe that can “flow”.

Does that mean that things and people that cannot move are incapable of renewal? To assume that would be to turn soil into a doll, as we do while playing and decorating roads and mountains on jhulan (on Janmashtami). But soil is home, not just to those like us, who live above it, but to millions who live inside it. Like we renew our houses even while being its residents, these creatures, living and non-living, living inside it and dying but never leaving it, renew soil. It must be the stubbornness of soil that made it the home of gravity — I say this metaphorically, of course.


That is one of the things that aligns it to the poetics of forever. I am thinking of Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, his thoughts about rivers — For men may come and men may go,/But I go on for ever. In the ecocidal times we are living in now, that certainty about rivers — about water — has disappeared. And so about air, which we took for granted as much as we did life.

Now, homeless among the elements, amidst air which cannot bleach itself of poison, water colonised by chemicals, only light and the soil remain. Light, always whimsical and uncertain, comes and goes, sometimes disappearing for days on end, sometimes in the middle of the day, like an angry lover. Only soil remains, or perhaps, the remainders of soil, fighting everything, plastic and our indifference, evolving faster than it ever has in history, dying and living, renewing itself and life, and while doing all of this, never refusing to take away some of my sadness.

Sumana Roy is a poet and novelist who lives in Siliguri.
First published on: 30-12-2018 at 06:00 IST
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