City-dwellers have never known that shade of the night that is an absolute, pitch black. Slivers of light leak out from the various orifices of the metropolis, and even when they hardly illuminate, they interrupt the dark, shear it of its blackness. In a particular little slice of Kerala-forest that nestles a familiar, well-loved house in its middle, the night is not so assailable. Here, the next-door neighbour’s house is easily a city-block away. It could, perhaps, be a pinprick on the horizon if not for the enthusiastic crowd of trees in my line of sight. So when the night descends, the house’s lonely front-door lamp has the unenviable task of warding off the dark, unaided by a streetlight or even moonshine, which is sucked up by the looming foliage, sponge-like.
It is on this annual Kerala getaway of mine that I know that shade of the night. This night is so tangible a presence that walking through it sometimes makes my steps falter, and before the rational part of my brain comes back online, I am sure for a moment of crashing into it like you would into a brick wall. This is the kind of night that seems so impenetrable that the idea of torchlight dispersing it is laughable right up to the moment that I flick it on. And if unarmed with one, this is that shade of night that steals away vision so effectively that I might as well walk with my eyes shut, for I am equally blind either way. It is also exactly that shade of night that I can look out into, and remain unafraid of.
In Delhi, home ends the moment I step over the threshold of my house. From that point onwards, I am at DEFCON 1, till I get to wherever I am supposed to and the door shuts reassuringly behind me. Ten paces away from the front door is as not-home as the flight of stairs just below my floor or the park right at the heart of my colony or the parking lot right outside it or the flyover fifteen minutes away or the metro station twenty minutes away. The familiar is not the safe in the city. Bathed in daylight, sometimes it feels like it might be, if I wanted to be lulled into a nice complacency, but the night strips it bare of its pretensions. At night, I look into the diffused dark and I am afraid of the things I can no longer see coming.
The only place where the night belongs to me is on this yearly holiday. No human activity stirs the silence of the night. Unlike in the city, everyone here has a similar routine. They are all, without exception, ensconced in their respective faraway homes by dusk. The silence lies as heavily upon the world as the night, broken only by the chirping of an occasional cricket or the quiet rustling of the trees. In the midst of it all, I feel no need to arm myself with courage and a pepper spray to walk to my neighbour’s house. I meet no one at all as I make my way along the narrow dirt-path that winds through the forest, which is equally inhospitable and unknowable to everyone in the dark. Nature stamps her claim on the night, and this dirt-path is the compromise. So be it.
Stargazing on these country nights is a wonder, sure, but the calm security of their darkness is a revelation. Once a year, it is liberating to know that the familiar can be the safe. Once a year, the night can be equally unsettling to everyone, and in that shade of the night, home extends its boundaries as far as me.
Written by Swathi Gangadharan
Featured image by Stuti Pachisia