State of Nature, a Tragedy
Nandini Bhattacharya

A village, a ruined house in the foreground painted on the drop scene. Figures in white mill about in the near foreground, sometimes looking at their watches. HERO, the hero, enters the scene stage left, flailing his arms as if swatting away mad hornets.

Chorus

Have you ever had that dream where the garden comes up to your house — in the dream something between your own house and your grandfather’s farmhouse — and simply closes around it like a glove?

Welcome to the world of one moment: there’s screened porch, five-o- clock shadow netting growing grimmer grey in the twilight; the next there’s thick foliage, ropy vines, tree branches heavy with fruit knocking against the screens and the porch frame, and the whole scene bottom-lit green!

Discover the secret excitement of planters and pots talking and rearranging themselves. Watch your guests foray beyond the porch, venturing upon ropy creepers and festooning lianas along a masonry wall enclosing fruit trees that they swear had to have materialized there from other gardens they once knew.

Hero

Excuse me, Gentlemen and women of the Chorus. May I speak? In the dream I keep having it’s not like that.

It’s broad daylight, wide open space. This garden is choking to death from killing sunlight — Prairie closing in on it — but still underwriting the resistance of giant jackfruit, obscene papayas, dirty tubers, but also clusters of mango, apple, orange, custard apple, pomegranate. And squash, pumpkin, tomato, peppers and eggplant. Who dares to eat one particular mango?

Chorus

Hero, settle for nothing less than fruit on limbs and vines, and everything not only in its proper place but beyond. See garden invade house and human, and know there’s nothing’s wrong with that, nothing at all.

Do you want to eat that particular mango? Ask yourself: Do I really want to eat that particular mango? If the answer is yes, do it. Do it. You’re the hero.

Hero

Predictably, typically, ambiguous and useless answer, Chorus. Thank you.

Here’s another dream. The garden is half in the house and porch but also backing up on the tall trees outside. On a desperate, lonely Feng Shui quest. I’ve let burdensome planters with scraggly, sullen growth in them move on their own, trying to force and get – all at once — flow, symmetry and clarity, a just order of things, an amour propre of cultivated wilderness. Sometimes the planters and pots pair up with ropy creepers and festooning lianas along a masonry wall enclosing fruit trees that, I swear, must have materialized there from another garden, on my grandfather’s farm, at the entrance, where shrubs and roses once grew.

Demented forest, wind rising, spirits fluttering awake. I’m unsettled, dreaming. Of my dead mother. The farmer’s daughter. My father used to say: “Simple, your mother is simple ....” I drank the hemlock of my father’s poisoned cup and become an archangel spearing the farmer’s daughter with twisted attachment, beyond death.

Farmer’s Daughter!! I cried out when enraged.

Mother!!! I cried out when bereaved.

Chorus draws together, confers, occasionally checking their watches. It draws apart and addresses Hero.

Chorus

Alas, Hero, among the symptoms you are experiencing might there be clear golden days and ringing laughter before the light in the garden dies?

Hero

Chorus, I’m not sure I follow. However, a vegetable model of the future certainly propels me from drought to drought. My original visions of lushabundance have admitted complete defeat and lie crushed and strewn about me, like broken fencing after one of our big twisters. But these dreams
invite me to dream again, as though I were not already a mythic, tragically failed gardener of five years.

Chorus

Hero, let’s see ... at first you had some success with growing vegetables for a brief window of time and fancied yourself a hardy pioneer. Even distributed your vegetable largesse among your miniscule acquaintance, proud, committed to display?

Hero hides his face in his hands, remains that way for a while, then looks up to speak.

Hero.

I have, it is true, received a diagnosis of HUBRIS. Yes, but slowly I tired of midwifery of that hard earth, that bad-tempered soil: bone-twisting postures; liquefying heat; ticks and chiggers. The casual wriggling baby snake in everyday grass; motionless coral snake in the bird-defying net — was it cruelly feinting, lying in wait? — no, it was dead! We parted ways, my garden and I, both lonely, brooding, obstinate, like pissed-off lovers after a breakup. My garden bitterly consorted with old allies and lovers — snakes, moles, skunks – boycotting now treacherous humans, that planetary evil it nurtured, fomented and fermented in an ancient, foolish time.

Then Mother — who was a great theoretical gardener though
physically sluggish — went and died. I ignored the garden after that. I thought I was out of the woods. But the woods have come and got me. Someone had to, I suppose. The farmer’s daughter, after all.

Chorus

Was the farmer not also Village School Headmaster because he needed extra money?

Hero

Yes, Chorus. Indeed, also Village Schoolmaster. Oldest of three sons of Great Grandfather Old, whom I knew for one minute, as if in a chariot passing another at a crossroads, but peacefully. My grandfather‘s name was Big. What a melancholy man Big was! Always he sat cross-legged on his large wooden bench — an inconsolable egghead among farmhands — grieved and puzzled. Widowed twice, left with several children to raise, a wound that never healed. Head of household, a grown man with the scrunched face of the grimy orphan. The farmhouse had acres of vegetable gardens and mango orchards around it. Behind it was the pond where village women swam laps back and forth. Their clothing blubbered up like whales, ballooned up like sails. All day.

In the walled front garden of the farmhouse, Big’s youngest brother Small grew flowers, mostly roses.

Chorus

Yes, we have heard of those Years of Roses. The Oracle says they last as long as love does.

Hero

Dear Chorus, at least this once the Oracle got it right. Small was a man of enthusiasms and loves. He had been good-looking in his youth. He had a
crater on his back where some ribs and a lung eaten by tuberculosis were gone. He’d gone to the hills, expecting to die. He wrote poetry there in dangerously tilting calligraphy and worshipped the doctor who gave him back his life, minus a lung and some ribs. Afterwards he married a sickly, pale young
woman whom pictures show as having a prominent hooked nose but quiet, sensible eyes. Unfortunately, she died young.

Small never married again. Maybe he became less optimistic; maybe he had loved her too much.

Chorus

Gathered up by the reaper grimly in first flush if not bloom, maybe she wasn’t the blooming sort. There are such: Cassandra, Iphigenia, Antigone.

Hero

After Great Auntie Gone died, Small woke up one morning, looked out the window at the spun-gold day and the amber air, and threw himself into growing roses, willy-nilly. He didn't just grow roses, he learned their names, their families, their mulching and composting particularities, their blights, their smiles. Standing by them, he explained their lives and loves reverently.

Chorus

Maybe the rose bushes listened, grew interested, nodded, blushed! And you were once heir to the rose world, and yet you can only dream of vegetables. What gods, what fates, what curses have thus reduced you?

Hero

Yet, love, even for vegetables, can be vaster than empires. But there was a serpent in that garden, of course. One of my uncles. Snake. If you, Chorus, have ever seen a smiling serpent face — flattened nose with ovoid nostrils, eyes set wide apart, a pentagonal head — you’ve got Uncle Snake. The great generation of growers were aging, and the new one — my mother and her too many sisters and their one brother — were a little interested in growing, but more in eating. Snake most of all.

Chorus

It would become clear later, too late, that he’d been long in training. Training in deceit, nursing his venom, sharpening his fangs on words. Because wordy he was, this Snake! Wordier than us, We the Chorus.

Hero

Words without wisdom; right. As I sometimes, forgive me, think of you. Fancied himself a wag; certainly had me fooled. Hissed and swayed and intoned — I was hypnotized. The self-crowned court jester of the house, he coined absurd concepts and cutesy phrases to regale us. Like a jocular, avuncular sort. I certainly thought so.

I think Big always regarded Snake with misgiving if not dread; given Big’s habitually apocalyptic look, the two were hard to tell apart. In the end Snake tore the house down, I’ve heard. At the end of her life, my mother was battling Snake in the courts for the sisters’ rights. She, pierced by his inner snake, was already growing the coiling cancer that killed her. The case is still in court.

But while I dreamed of gardens, I rediscovered my inner snake.

Chorus tumultuously, agitatedly, frantically, moans, looks at the watches again, then speaks.

Chorus

No one recognized, not even Old, that most people who dream of gardens do so because something or someone has eluded them. In your case, you couldn’t tell anyone at the time. We are glad to be Chorus. But as the chorus, the touchy-feely part is not really our business.

Hero

Dear Chorus, shut up; listen. I feared I’d lost forever those gorgeous green-gold days — green-gold like the coral snake that died, trapped by my ugly

Home Depot mesh, the beginning of the end. I shut myself up in my dark house and slept through the day.

Chorus

That’s Depression, our distant cousin. Dear Hero, movement must have been like bones breaking; breathing like inhaling ground glass. Outside, people

of all ages, shapes and sizes, and life tasted like the still suspended fine spray of thin, sour vomit.

Hero

Yes, a world of swirling simooms; other people flitting past like ghosts or aliens. I was murderous. I imagined myself axing down dim shapes as they floated past me, though they were poor, lost things, just like me. I remembered my childhood in Big’s garden and wondered where all the comfort in the world had gone, Chorus.

Chorus

Yet, sometimes you saw voluptuous fruit and flowering trees (your hand almost shooting up in yearning) canopying green yards behind those ubiquitous homestead fences: lawn chairs, patio tables, perhaps a pergola, a child’s swing-set, a Jungle Jim, toys and balls on lucent shards of grass visible behind white picket paling. A successful garden. A glimpse of another’s desire for beauty. Unbound to this soil, crying “Altopia!” your heart clenched and ached.

Hero

Chorus, when does the son of the soil turn into her rapist? When did Snake become the sworn, lifelong enemy — his venom glands blindly guided by his reptilian brain — of his nearest and dearest? When did his birdlike face — falling off on either side from flat nose and dark, rounded nostrils, meeting his pointed ears — begin to turn mottled, blue-ish? What had wounded him? When?

Chorus

Let’s see.... Was he a middle child, now?

Hero

Indeed! And the ugliest. Prematurely bald, but neck and torso black with matted hair. Had his mother run out of love for him? Not loved him as
much as she loved the oldest, the younger, the
youngest?

Chorus

Aha! Told you! When does a garden not grow? When
love dies.

Hero

Snake’s first overt declaration of insurgency was to let the dog he pretended to love — we called him Dog — into Small’s garden, where Dog destroyed Small’s rose bushes. And then he had Dog put down. As if Dog would talk.

Chorus

And finally, one last dream? There’s always one.

Hero

I still see it. The farmhouse drowning in pale, colorless twilight. Me in a round room with bay windows, under a domed ceiling. Yes, it is dear sad
Big’s house, but where is the spun-gold light of the Years of Roses? Lost. Because I, I, I... the very important person known as Hero — didn’t mourn this house in time. Because I didn’t return in time.

Chorus (Aside)

There. It’s always all about him.

Hero

That evening, in dying light, I sat among men and young boys. That night there was also Dark, Snake’s cousin. I remembered Dark for his fierce penchant for burying his bony face hard in our young girl cousins’ bellies and crotches, threatening to eat them up. He also pinched their upper thighs, holding the long, sliding muscle hard and long between his clawing, bony fingers, until they screamed and chanted whatever it was he wanted them to say.

I knew exactly what he was doing. He had a facial erection.

In the round room, that evening, Dark and Snake bopped and high-fived each other. They passed a bottle around. I froze when Snake turned and fixed his eyes on me and said, “Didn't bring?”

Chorus

Missing pronoun “it” means expensive alcohol — preferably whiskey — from phoren.1 We also translate, upon request. You didn’t bring.

Hero

After that, I don't know how, I found myself in a narrow passage of a cheaply built public toilet! Drab, grey cinderblocks already chipping at edges;
blurry, broken people; flooded floors; stinking slush; shit, piss, mucus and vomit everywhere. You couldn’t go there in the hour of your greatest need without tap-dancing across taupe effluvia.

I stumbled backward — thank god I had no especially full bladder or belly just then — and came back out onto the street. The light was bleak lead, like light in movies where concentration camps — barbed wire and all — stand secretive in soft snowfall.

Far, far away, tall silos and stacks raised cropped heads. I couldn’t recognize any of them; the village never used to boast pockmarked Priapuses.

Chorus

The world is changing as it goes. Roses take love and dedication.

Hero

“BEZEROP,” said the sign against the smoldering grey horizon bombarded with frequent sulfur flares. “BEZEROP?” I whispered. Big’s voice, behind me, with its tendency to sadness, quavered: “Globalization.”

The sky was molten nickel, the earth cold and ashen, the river coiling in the distance like a steel kukri slicing through the world.

I had no idea what BEZEROP stood for, who owned it, what it made.

But I knew it was the hideous face of the angel of the end of Time looming over land where mango orchards, lychee bowers, rose gardens and cauliflower seas had once crested and swayed. Altopia of toxic ash and radioactive dust turning into slow, magmatic death. The end, my friend.

Unexpectedly Big — he’d always farted publicly and loudly — popped out a confession: he’d taken money from Airtel for a cell tower to be set up on his land.

How could you? I thought, but then.... How could he?? How could I??

No more gold-green sunlight leaf-ripple; no festive mangoes. Only nickel, steel, pewter; skies slowly burning Armageddon.

We, I saw, were back where we’d started. The State of Nature.



1 Indian pidgin for “foreign,” abroad.

During an active academic career and while single-parenting, Nandini Bhattacharya has been writing fiction — mainly short stories and novels — for several years. She has received residencies and fellowships at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writers’ Workshop, the Southampton Summer Writers’ Conference, The Voices of Our Nation Arts Writing Workshop, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop in Paris, and the Vermont Studio Center (July 2019). She has published three short stories and her novel manuscript titled Love’s Garden is under review; a second novel manuscript is in progress. Recently she was chosen as the first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), as a finalist for the Fourth River Folio Contest for Prose Prize (2018), and was long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019).