Korok’s Arete (Part I): A Tale of Love and Focus

Korok, one of the two central characters in Year of the Weeds, spends most of his time in the garden next to the house of the Divisional Forest Officer in Deogan village. His life otherwise is bound within Deogan, an arrangement he appears to be comfortable with. He visits the sacred Devi Hills next door every day to tend to the hanal kot where his mother’s memory is kept in the form of a stone hanal, or wanders around the hill looking for wild flowers and plants for his garden. There is very little he seeks in the outside world, and he knows even less of the world’s vastness and complexity. Occasionally he has to go to Balangir town, which is the headquarters of the district, to meet his father in prison or to ask police if they could release his father’s bicycle to him. That is his life.

The centre of Korok’s existence, his life, is his garden where he tends to the flowers and plants with precision, care and a degree of focus which he would find difficult to articulate or defend, were anybody interested enough to ask him. What is this mysterious force that drives him? There is no real word for this kind of self-contained singularity of purpose. It is said that to master a craft, or an art, one needs to put in ten thousand hours of practice. The number is, I believe, arbitrary. What matters is the enormous amount of time and attention that any craft or art deserves.

But there is something that lies beyond mastery, that reaches into the heart of what it means to be a worthy human; that transcends a single discipline and acquires the form of magic, pure and unalloyed. One may, perhaps, call this ‘love’. It will have to suffice, I suppose: this frequently misused and misunderstood word. In this case, it could, perhaps, stand in for the hours and days and seasons that a Korok needs to spend in his garden, beyond sleep, beyond hunger, beyond the pain of orphanhood, to arrive at something approaching beauty, something approaching completion.

In Classical Greek philosophy, there is a word which comes close, though, and that is arete. Like the other virtues, such as patience and modesty, Ancient Greeks attempted a definition and later a personification of arete, and eventually philosophers engaged with the term in their own ways. It began with a folk understanding of ‘purpose’ or ‘effectiveness’. Therefore the arete of a dog was swiftness and loyalty, perhaps, while the arete of a chair was stability and comfort.

But what was the arete of humans? The complexity of the human condition is such that a single arete would not suffice. The arete of a Homeric warrior would be effectiveness in battle. This is an interesting concept, because Homeric warriors were accorded greatness not by bravery or ruthlessness, but by their ability to decide the course of battles. This, too, was an outcome, one imagines, of something more than a mere ten thousand hours of craftsmanship. Arete lay in practicing a craft to the exclusion of everything else, even time.

Aristotle was to extend this to defining what he considered the highest arete of all: if knowledge was a supreme human activity, the knowledge of knowledge, or contemplation of contemplation, was the greatest arete possible. And there is some merit in this argument.

For Korok, his life in the garden is the core of his existence. He is shocked when Anchita calls him a ‘flower-pen’, a pen being a small god, bound to an area by Gond rituals. And in his own way he is right. Godhood is mystical, even for small gods, and need not be the only explanation for supernatural devotion to a craft or art. Beyond the supernatural lies the human capacity for perseverance, for a certain extraordinarily resilient pursuit of something greater than oneself. Korok is fortunate to have found it in his garden, and to have the self-contained life that makes such pursuits possible.

There are no gods involved in this story, but in a way, Korok is among the truly blessed.

(Next: Part II, or Why a Garden Is Not Enough)

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