In America, Summer has its own smell. I can’t quite describe it.
But it is there. You need to have a special moment to your own to find it. Unless you have a little peace, and calm your nerves, your senses are too numb to appreciate its delicacies.
Summer is too short here in America. And that makes it so much more precious. Flowers bloom in a lightening speed. And they are gone before you know it. Yesterday, or was it the day before, I saw a bunch of Catalpa flowers down on the sidewalk in our Brooklyn neighborhood. I looked up the tree. It’s a tree I pay close attention to every summer: I know the flowers will come and go in a flash. I looked up the tree. And the tree was empty again. In a matter of days, all the flowers were gone.
As if the tree was smiling a mischievous smile down at me. As if it says to me, “Gosh…I tricked ya, didn’t I?”
When I lived in Calcutta, I did not understand what sunlight meant to me. I took it for granted. I read Tagore’s rhymes, and loved the pictures he painted with his words. But I really did not understand how much they went into my heart, and stayed with me forever, only to come back much, much later.
Tagore wrote:
“Midday on a holiday
Far out there on rooftop
A little girl hangs a violet sari
in the summer sun…”
Calcutta roof
Here in America, nobody hangs their clothes on the rooftop to dry. Here, nobody goes on the rooftop. Here, we don’t have a rooftop to go to. Here in America, we don’t have much of a summer. Here in America, we don’t have a holiday when we don’t do anything, but look out…far out…
On my work this morning, I got off the bus, and walked to my usual little shop run by a Chinese woman named Lydia, to buy my usual croissant and coffee. And I immediately noticed it. I found the smell. I can’t quite describe it. But it’s there. I know it is.
A dry, sunlit pavement with urban, uncared-for cracks. An unknown bunch of weeds raises its head through the cracks. I go back down memories, all the way to my botany excursion days, and desperately want to remember the look-alike plants I knew in India. Or, at least want to remember the family of the plant. Is it the sunflower family? Is it the ipecac family? Is it the nightshade? I look at the dry, paperish, unattractive leaves, and the beautiful yellowish white flowers that spring up from those bracts of leaves. Oh, only if I knew the name of the plant…only if I could identify it…
But just the same way I desperately try to identify a raga when I hear it, but can’t, not knowing the plant and its flowers also leaves me with a deep sigh of incompetence. I did not get my education. In this life, I could not learn much. I know I am an incomplete, half-educated man. I did not know India before I left for America. And I did not appreciate the summer in Bengal when I was there.
And now, after having lived in America for thirty years, I still don’t know what this country is like. I don’t know its plants. I don’t know its insects. I don’t know its men, women, and children. I don’t know its summer and fall. They go by too fast. I try hard to hold them back to me. But I fail.
I try to love them all. India’s memories. And America’s present. But just like that smell of summer that I want to describe but can’t, I don’t quite figure out how to own it.
I haven’t quite figured out how to identify a way to love: love what is precious.
Summer is here, however.
Partha Banerjee
Brooklyn, New York