A thorn in the side

Sumana Roy | Updated on August 28, 2020

The odd one out: Even as it is worshipped in many cultures, there is the undeniable lack of friendliness of its exterior   -  BLOOMBERG/ LUIS ANTONIO ROJAS

Emotional indifference is what the prickly cactus receives in a world where human survival is on top of the hierarchy

I discovered this quite late in my life — that cactus was edible. It was Aaron, a Mexican friend, who taught me how to cook it. We would often cook Bengali and Mexican food together. And one day, while I was trying to turn a European leaf into saag, he said, “We have cactus.” I looked at him wondering whether I’d got something wrong. English was our second language, both mine and Aaron’s, and I wondered whether he’d meant something else. This was because of many such misinterpretations I had been involved in, particularly when I first went to boarding school. It is one thing to speak in English in school and quite another to have to speak it all through the day, using the language to express all bodily and psychological needs and functions. In one such conversation, two of my friends — the first a Bengali from Kurseong, the second a girl from Mizoram — had had this conversation while speaking to each other from adjoining bathrooms. It is not just the cultural expectation that most mainlanders have about North-eastern eating habits that I’d like you to notice, but the comedy of verbs in the English language.

Do you have dogs?

Yes, we have dogs.

Really? You have dogs?

Yes, we love dogs.

One of them had misread ‘have’ for ‘eating’, and, as Aaron taught me how to cook chicken mole, I wondered whether Aaron and I were in such a moment of misunderstanding.

It turned out that my suspicion was wrong. Cactus was indeed eaten, and its ‘health benefits’ had long been acknowledged. I wonder why I’d been surprised by that discovery — when fish bones were no deterrent for eating fish, why would the thorns of cacti be? And yet, it is this slight resistance to the cactus that marks my — possibly our — emotional indifference to it. We reject sharp things — anything that pokes, scratches, wounds, injures, ruptures, bursts. Even as it is worshipped in many cultures, there is the undeniable lack of friendliness of its exterior. No tree hugger would ever want to hug a cactus after all; in a conversation about the names of trees one wanted to become, not a single student in my class mentioned cactus.

In Cactus, a story by the Bengali writer Subodh Ghosh, Mr Nag, a retired judge, has created a beautiful garden in his house in Calcutta. In it are some ‘exotic’ species of plant life from various geographical climates in the world. Nag’s pride lies in being able to create conditions for their survival in Calcutta, where the soil and climatic conditions are different from their natural habitat.

This winter too Nag has taken on an anxiety-inducing task. After much effort and expenses, he has succeeded in getting an original cactus for his garden. How does one compare the deserts of Arizona with Alipore? In faraway Arizona, the strange mysteries of the singed desert sand keep the cactus firm and erect, like a saint, but Nag wants to pet the cactus in the extravagantly moist soil of Alipore. Though it might have seemed like a hopeless enterprise at first, Nag now thinks that it’s not as audacious as it seems. If only it could weather this one month of cold weather, then this cactus from Arizona would have succeeded in defeating the old curse. Nag’s far-fetched wish will come true. The cactus will survive. It’ll be a surprisingly rare achievement for Nag’s garden.

Five yards of flannel have had to be bought. The awning of flannel around the cactus has been erected to protect its shivering body. The cactus that’s grown in the affection of the searing desert sun might die in the cold of the month of Magh.

As soon as evening falls, Nag visits the cactus. He visits it again at 10, inspecting it, and looking for perforations in the flannel jacket. The cactus isn’t cold, is it? Only after he’s reassured that the cactus is well-protected does Nag leave. Dalbir, the guard, takes over from him after that.

Ghosh effects a moving, even if slightly simplistic, binary in the way we privilege human life over plant life. The opposite — of the life of the cactus being as important as the life of a human — is ascribed to upper-class fancy for the non-human. In the story, Dalbir, the Nepali guard, who worries about his mother shivering in the winter in the Darjeeling hills, allows a poor woman to steal the “five yards of flannel” that would protect her from the cold. Dalbir loses his job because he refuses to follow Nag’s instruction of chasing the old woman to recover the piece of flannel. The writer’s sympathy is, quite clearly, with Dalbir and the woman — that human survival must remain at the top of the hierarchy, a mainstream view.

I wonder if we — and Ghosh and Dalbir — would have felt differently had it not been a cactus but another kind of plant or animal that was being protected.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on August 28, 2020

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