The Fate of the Meadowlark
by Jessica Sequeira
Since a few hours ago, when we wrote those short notes to each other, I’ve been to a meeting of the Failed Novelists Society. This was partly an attempt to advance a story I’d thought up at the so-called ‘write-in’, when everybody convenes in a single location, maintaining silence as they work on their respective projects. Partly it was also motivated by a desire to escape the damp chilly weather so correctly stereotyped as the English climate this time of year. Finally, and not least importantly, it was in part driven by a slight sense of madness, the result of an excess of my own company.
My plan was to work on a text called The Fate of the Meadowlark, a tongue-in-cheek tale of the attempt of three Bombay students in 1940s Cambridge to relocate the soul of India to Chile, frustrated by the dead end into which their national project seemed to have trapped itself post-independence, and attracted by the parallels between the indigenous cultures of these two parts of the world. As the Failed Novelists initiated their silence, following the opening of various packets of crispy snacks and the ritual preparation of bringing the water to a boil, I settled in to begin the story.
The three Cambridge students, the first a radical neovedanta Hindu, the second a poem-writing Muslim and the third a communist Christian (no, they do not walk into a bar) decide that their points of view fail to align with those of the right-wing Hindu state, and decide to set up camp for an ideal India elsewhere. As a token of this move, they choose to send a symbolic object to a small town in Chile, where the “new India” might take healthy root. What could this object be?
I looked around. I listened. A window was making the creaking noise that I mentioned to you in a previous email, some kind of complex relationship between wood and wintry wind in these parts, and for me the occult explanation for the English mastery of the ghost story. The creaking sounded like a bird, a gloomy, somewhat hoarse one. Creeeeak. Cheeep. A bird. Yes. The object the students decided to send was the statue of a bird.
Why a bird? Why to Chile? Coincidence paved the way. They were walking around the Fitzwilliam Museum when they came upon an exhibition of a female Chilean sculptor’s work. She had a bird on display, made of clay. The three students had popped into the museum not because they particularly liked art, but because of the drizzly grey cold that I also mentioned, if not above, then no doubt somewhere else in our correspondence, since I’m irritatingly always going on about it.
The students had been discussing the political situation when they almost walked into the statue. “A nightingale!” said the Muslim poet, “the perfect symbol of India.” It was actually a meadowlark, as the Chilean sculptor hastily corrected them, but they brushed aside the detail. A nightingale! To Chile! Their fancy took flight.
I was starting to feel hungry at this point in my writing, and specifically, I was craving something sweet, plump and chewy. Recently I’ve come to the realisation that compared to most people, I consume an inordinately high quantity of golden raisins, be they from Chile, California, Iran or South Africa, and have specific dreams around the different varieties of grape. Poetry is to be found in the most humble vessels.
But I carried on. Briefly I checked social media and saw that the colleague of a friend in Chile has just had his eyes shot out by the police—both his eyes—and is in a critical state at a local clinic. How to escape this horrific violence? How to avoid the disorientating feeling, bordering on nausea, when the banal swings
into terror so abruptly? The thought of the plump, squishy eyeballs made me queasy. I wrote a message to my friend, and then struggled to focus my thoughts.
I wonder if there’s an ideal soul from another tradition within contemporary Chile, waiting somewhere in the wings. I wonder if it would help at all, at this moment. I wonder if this ideal soul, which has no obvious current material existence—a deep belief in love and the spirit, and a devotion to life lived through animals and sky and fruits and branches and plants and everything else around us—somehow has, through the lyrical beauty of description alone, the power to shift perceptions towards peace. The tragedy is probably that yes, it does have this power, but only for those who already enjoy a predisposition towards this form of thinking. The power-seekers will continue to use and abuse their clout through boundless violence, as the pacificists write poems for birds.
The Indian students, still idealistic and dreaming of a better future, purchased the meadowlark statue from the Chilean woman, which they in their ignorance believed to be a nightingale. Happily they prepared to post it, along with a note: “Please welcome the soul of India to your lands.” The day before they did so, however, the Christian saw his chance. For him the nightingale, present in the ghazals and singing on behalf of Allah, though it also appeared extensively throughout other Indian poetry, seemed to be only a partial embodiment of his vision. “It needs a touch of economic reorganisation, and a dash of the romance of agricultural labour,” he murmured.
Opening the box in which they had kept the statue, he lightly curved its beak into the form of a sickle. A subtle move, but it pleased him to know that the soul of India to be exported would include this crucial element. It was not necessary for the others, or even those receiving the bird, to know.
A few hours later, however, the neovedanta student, unable to sleep due to slight hunger pangs, insomnia, the icy climate in town and the idea that a songbird might not be enough, decided to take a final look at the parcel. He cottoned on immediately to what the Christian had done, and in a moment of rage and disgust, he took the bird into his hands and crushed it.
Not a second had passed, before he repented. “Then again,” he thought, “perhaps this return to origin is for the best.” He rolled the smashed clay into a ball. It was oneness; it represented everything; it was all; it was Vedanta; it was the many in one; it was duality made visible as its true unity. All possibilities were contained within his Hinduism, which was open-minded and tolerant, unlike the kind in the physical India he and the others had made plans to reject.
Morning came. The students had asked the Chilean woman an appropriate town to which might send their soul of India, and she had thought of the tucked-away village of the cousin of a cousin. She’d also told them that she could post the parcel on their behalf. Women were still not allowed to study at the university at this time, but apparently they could be there as visiting artists if from another country, and the students had no problem relying on her help. Just before she dropped the box into the mail, however, she experienced a doubt.
She slipped a knife into the corner of the box, and wedged open the lid, to take a last look at what she thought would be her meadowlark. Instead, she found the ball of clay. She laughed to herself; then she frowned. The ambitious desire to encompass all the world’s philosophies into Hinduism, however well-intentioned it might be, was not, for her, the soul of India. This soul, if there was one, did not materially contain the souls of other philosophies but had to arrive as concept alone, to be sculpted in local clay. She took the ball out of the parcel and dropped the parcel into the post. On the way back over the bridge, she threw the ball into the river. Later she’d recount this in her memoir, Sculpting Time (a rare book I found tucked in the back of a sock drawer when I got here).
I gulped down some tea, looked at a few memes and photos of walls graffitied in poetry, listened to a pop song and went back to my story. Confusion and disappointment would be the reactions of the festival waiting to receive the object: yes, a festival, because word had got round thanks to a few eager letters pre-circulated by the students, enamoured by the power of words, and a huge crowd, if not enthusiastic, then at least bored and curious, was planning a three-day parade to receive the item. Yes, some feathers would be ruffled, but then folks would begin to understand.
Nothingness, the very emptiness inside the box, was the soul of India, thought the sculptor. There and not there. The object was suggested by its absence. Not this, not this. Not a thing at all. And then away people would go to listen to the sound of a meadowlark on a quiet spring day, and make their own things out of clay; and they would feel the rhythms of spring pulsing through their bodies, balmy and full of colour, and on darker days of great cruelty in the place where they lived, they’d always remember this moment of extreme happiness, this day they’d welcomed the soul of India, as they felt the warm earth in their hands and whistled in the sweetest Chilean tones of all.
And meanwhile the three Indian students, each happy in their own perception, satisfied with their secrets and knowing only the partial truth, convened for brunch, smiling as they tucked into their currant scones.
Next to me is my own little clay meadowlark. And here is your parcel of figments, full of nothing and everything. I’m pressing send.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French.