In my boyhood, there were few better ways of beguiling an hour or two than by simply, unadornedly, watching fireflies. Just one firefly on the wing could suffice; the sport being to try and tell precisely where and when its next flash, that enchanting pulse of LED-green light, would show up. And if you chanced upon a Raat ki rani bush aswarm with the jugnus winking away in and around it, forming an ever-shifting mosaic of fairy lights, the spectacle could take your breath away.
The firefly wasn’t alone in its gift of lighting up; another bug that phosphoresced nocturnally was the glowworm. It, too, gave out an exquisite green light, but its radiance took the form of a steady, unblinking disc, staring at you for hours together, like one of those smouldering, cigarette-lighting rope-ends that paan shops dangle at their sides. One regarded it with some curiosity when it caught the eye; but in about half a minute, the glowworm’s charm began to pall. The firefly’s pyrotechnics arrested because, of course, they were refreshed every other moment: they proclaimed renewal, both in time and in space. The glowworm, in contrast, bespoke stasis, stagnation; and the average spectator is transfixed far more compellingly by renewal than by changelessness.
What, in turn, makes renewal possible in the firefly’s case is the very transience of its flash, its ephemerality. The flash is able to reinvent itself every few seconds, in time and in space, because it is fleeting in both. Which points up, to my mind, an umbilical connection between renewal on the one hand and fleetingness, or evanescence, on the other: the quality of being short-lived fuels renewal; indeed, begets it.
Perhaps, the most telling manifestation of this connection is the phenomenon of life on our planet, its evolution. As any junior biology text will declare, this is how evolution works: organisms live for a finite stretch, then die, making room for successors with subtly differing traits, some of which may confer an edge for survival, so propelling the species’ evolution. Here, evanescence operates on a more expansive scale: for humans, over our lifespans of three score years or so. Conceive, then, where we might have arrived had our individual lifetimes extended to, say, some 3,000 years and not three score: might we still be marooned in our stone age, perhaps, or in the era of the primeval ape? We are where we are on account of our short allotted spans: over any given duration, then, transience becomes a sine qua non for renewal.
While numberless cycles of renewal and evanescence have wrought us into the beings we are, capable at times of stupendous creation and artistry, a certain yen for these very attributes seems to have been infused into our souls. Some of our best art, for instance, privileges renewal and evanescence playing out in tandem, over fixity or stasis. In Jacques Tati’s delectable tour de force, Mon Oncle (1958), the opening scene, as also the closing, shows a pack of five or six dogs, all but one of them vagabonds (the odd one out is a dainty, genteel thing, a dachshund decked out in a waistcoat) gambolling about the streets of Paris. They scent-mark benches and lampposts, frolic about purely for frolic’s sake. Minutes together of footage are devoted to these dogs: the eye of the camera never peels itself off them.
The ephemerality of the scene lies in its very lightness, its insubstantiality: in a film that purveys high social satire, intently centred on humans, this dog sequence seems gratuitous, utterly de trop. Yet it’s as if Tati is saying to us, in the prefatory slice, “Here’s a scene, however immaterial and evanescent it might seem, just a few dogs whisking about these nondescript alleyways, but it’s a scene that will never be the same again. Savour it for what it is: for although there may be variations on this tableau, and permutations, once it vanishes, it will never reprise itself.” Which is borne out by the sequence at the end, where you have the very same dogs, the very same locale, but an altogether distinct montage of canine gallop, frisk and cavort: it is new now, this assemblage: it is renewed, renascent.
The artistic impulse to renewal runs deep in some of us, to the point of eschewing, as we go along, genres of art we ourselves have practised. Anjum Hasan speaks of (I’m paraphrasing her here) the evanescence of literary idiom in the novels of fellow-writer Kiran Nagarkar, a protean trait that impels him ceaselessly to move from one genre of fiction to another, to renew his own literary colours at each outing. Kindred notions have come down to us from antiquity: Heraclitus’s “You cannot step into the same river twice”; Theseus’s paradox; Hinduism’s credo of timeless, cyclical birth, death and rebirth — expressions, again, of transitoriness and renovation inseparably bound up with each other.
The primacy we accord to renewal and, consequently, to the fugitive, may not be just a whimsy of our minds. Our very physiologies are so contrived that this comes to be. Put on your morning shirt, and you’ll feel its fabric on your skin over a mere minute or so; you will then be insensible to its unvarying presence, until the time it’s ruffled or plucked at. Our senses set low store, then, by the constant and the uniform, which they deprecate as humdrum, expendable; they sit up and take note only of the novel —and pay it heed only if the novelty itself is fleeting, not prolonged.
One recognises that some forms of evanescence are to be regretted and deplored, and justly so — the cutting short of a life in its prime; the brevity of collective memory, which allows outrages to pass unredressed. It may repay us to be mindful, however, of those other facets of evanescence, those that afford us inspiriting opportunities for renewal and for refurbishing ourselves.