Elizabeth Pandolfi

MUNNAR. A town in Kerala, the only Communist state in India. Indians call Kerala “God’s Own Country”; if this is true, then Munnar is a new kind of Eden. You will find it high in Kerala’s mountains, an unending, undulating expanse of green, leafy vastness. This town so close to the sky is a world of soil and air, grown up into tea plantations. When the sun shines, the millions and millions of tea leaves smolder and glow with a cool, ancient radiance; but when the sky turns gray and white, when clouds descend onto the mountaintops in wisps and puffs of fog, that is when the leaves betray their hidden selves. In the soft gloom, you see them for what they truly are: ghosts; conjurers of forgetting, of delicious, tempting, loss.

Munnar is a beautiful and dangerous place, a lovely Medusa: one look, and I froze into stone.

THE MOUNTAINS. If you have never seen tea, imagine fresh-picked tobacco. Tea is just as green and just as thick, but on a smaller scale. Tea plants come up to your thigh or waist, with leaves about half the size of a young girl’s palm. They grow on mountainsides, steep and rocky. The plants are dense, dark chlorophyll green, with leaves that look like they’re breathing. Those leaves are so numerous that they seem to be multiplying: growing before your eyes. When you walk along the roads that lead into or out of the tea plantations, they might reach out to surprise you out of your stone-stupor, to call you back to life and breathe some of theirs into you. You would come home from your walk smelling like rain and soil, slightly green on your fingers and toes. You would notice an increased sensitivity to sunlight. Washing your hands with clean, cold water would be a sensual experience, one that required several slow minutes now, instead of the usual quick seconds. When you got undressed for bed that night, you would see the green climbing up your legs, and in the morning there would be little of you left. What could you do except go back to the tea fields, leave the path this time, wander through the knee-high forest feeling how silky those leaves were, until finally you lay down to sleep. You wouldn’t wake up; wouldn’t return.

The danger, I see now, was not in having the life in you temporarily frozen by this town made of tea, but in having it whipped into a wakefulness so acute that you would forsake everything, if it only meant you could hold onto that feeling. The air was cold and clean in Munnar, so different from the heavy, monsoon air of the plains from which I’d come. On my first day there I saw a mountain ahead of me that seemed close enough to jump to. I knew I could live there a long time, sitting on a ridge that overlooked the whole valley, my red jacket hugging me, my brown cotton pants wet with mist, my dark brown hair floating in the wind. I would stay there until I died and became a shell of a person, still sitting, still watching.

And now, deep inside me, there lives and breathes the slightest tinge of regret that I didn’t.

THE SUNSET. The sun in Kerala was greedy, burning through fog and gloom late in the day so it could caress the leaves, slowly, on the way to its nightly death. I leapt onto a wide path that wound up a hill, then up another one, drawn by the red burning rays and the golden shimmer of the tea. On one side of the path was the edge of the mountain; on the other was tea. I was already high up, and I went higher. There were huge, purple cumulus clouds in the bright pink sky, and it had started raining. I watched my feet walk up the pinkish dirt road that had rocks deeply embedded in it about every foot or so. I tripped once and my arms swung out, one towards the drop-off and one towards the tea. Either direction would have led to my oblivion.

I balanced myself, and then my feet started running up the path to the top, where the sun was going down. I wanted to be in the sky, to turn purple and pink with the clouds and feel the rain on me, like the tea plants do. They were all around me, glowing dull and green in the darkening atmosphere. They went on for miles, descending and ascending mountain after mountain, until the leaves disappeared in the gathering dark; then the plants also vanished; then the very mountains they lived on. I had to get to the top of the mountain before any of its leaves obscured themselves, before they truly became ghosts and I, seduced by their sweet green breath, wandered into them to sleep forever. I climbed the final, steep hill on both hands and feet, like a child. I stood up when I reached the top, and I felt the living and breathing surge in me, I was inside the thick tea leaves, the soil, the misty rain, the purple clouds and pink sky, and the snapping air. I could have forsaken everything. I was everything.

Then the rain came down hard. I felt it on my face first, in my eyes and on my cheeks. It cooled off my skin, which was feverish when I touched it with my hand. As the fever left me, so did the exhilaration. I started walking down the path, heading home, the rain pushing me along with a million tiny hands. Before I got back on the road into town I turned around to look once more. The sky was almost all the way dark now; every tea leaf was gone.

LOSS. I have a picture of me up on that hill in Munnar. In it there are purple clouds and a pink sky behind me, and darkening tea all around me, and I am smiling with wet hair and flushed skin. It is after I became human again. I sometimes wish I had another picture, one of the moment before—I wonder how my eyes would have flashed and burned, how my skin would have had a tinge of green and gold. I think that if I ever did have such a picture, there would be no me anymore; I would, looking at it, turn to stone right then and there.

Elizabeth Pandolfi is a writer and aspiring dog trainer living in South Carolina. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays on India and its landscape.

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