Korok’s Arete (Part II): When a Garden Is Not Enough

The second of a two-part post on Korok, one of the two central characters in Year of the Weeds:

Here is an interesting exercise for Voltaire readers: young Candide, after numerous trials and disappointments, realises how wrong the optimist Pangloss is, and decides to cultivate his own garden.

What next?

Korok, unlike Pangloss, is no optimist. He does not need to experience the world to be convinced of the merits of cultivating his own garden, or living a complete life among his own people. He knows who he is, and where he belongs. All he wants is to continue in his garden. And then the weeds turn up. So what is Korok to do?

Pangloss in ‘Candide’ declares that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. This is a position that Korok can never be lulled into agreeing with. He lives alone, is dependent on state largesse for food and rations, or the kindness of his neighbours. He is most certainly the poorest of Deogan’s residents. He lives in a single-room house which has so few possessions that they can be bundled up into one of his friend Anchita’s bags and carted away in minutes. His father’s bicycle is ‘under arrest’ at Balangir police station. He has no ambitions, but his days are haunted by Superintendent of Police Sorkari Patnaik, by the government and the Company’s machinations, while the nights are menaced by Maoists who drop in and eat up his dinner, forcing him to sleep hungry under a tattered blanket on a bed with no mattress. Pangloss wouldn’t stand a chance, because his illusory optimism would hold little attraction to an illusion-less boy.

One of the principal responses to inordinate optimism is, philosophically speaking, a guarded realism and a return to the small act, the intimacy of tending to the humble plant or flower, the numerous tasks of gardening, the security of enclosed activities. But weeds do turn up, invading personal spaces and even the most intimate of tasks. They take up the recesses of the mind; they clutter the daily routine, siphon off nourishment and kill all growing and green things.

Season after season, Korok has to be on the guard against the weeds, which keep returning. As he discovers, the world — or rather the government, the Company and the Maoists — are also relentless, like weeds, and will keep returning. The only option for a gardener is to be on eternal vigilance.

Cultivating one’s garden is, therefore, not the end of the story, but actually the beginning. Korok’s experience with the ‘weeds’ that threaten to take over his village, the sacred hill and his beloved garden convinces him not only of his responsibility to his craft, but the necessity of this eternal vigilance. Therefore as the seasons pass, and he battles the weeds in the garden of his life and the actual garden of the DFO, Korok’s determination to defend the very small corner of the world that is his own becomes stronger.

The final lesson for a realist is not the determination to cultivate one’s garden, but the necessity of defending it, if the garden is worthy.

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