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Where have all the flowers gone

Sumana Roy | Updated on March 06, 2020 Published on March 05, 2020

Sow and tell: Mughal art has varied interpretations of flowers, vines and leaves   -  ISTOCK.COM

The violent erosion of life — whether human or plant — stands for a collective loss of conscience

None of the adults in the car knew how to react when my mother mentioned the trees that line the Yamuna Expressway. We were going to Agra — to see the Taj Mahal, of course. My nephew had expressed the desire to see it. The desire had been stoked by the general knowledge (GK) teacher in school when he was seven. These are the side-effects of changing a verb to a noun: The ‘wonder’ of the first child rhyme, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, changed into the bureaucratic seven ‘wonders’ of the world. The GK teacher had sold the ‘seven wonders’ to the little boys. Only the Taj Mahal seemed within reach.

It feels awkward to say — or even recollect — any of this now. It feels wrong, after the photos of little boys grieving their dead fathers. But here we were, inside a car that was taking us to Agra, the fruition of a plan made months in advance, in a world which I now struggle to remember from time to time. My nephew did not know what was happening in Delhi — or what had happened in Delhi — as he reached the city with his mother, sister, uncle and grandparents. Childhood is one of the last protected sites that remain — his family had succeeded in protecting him from the violence of news reports. He knew the proper names: Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal, Agra and Yamuna. He did not know about romantic love, but that was unimportant. The nouns would connect and form the Taj Mahal.

A holiday planned with desire and affection had suddenly transformed into an indulgence. We had had no direct role in it, and yet, we could not deny that we had all been collaborators in this culture of hatred that was destroying us. As if going to the Taj Mahal at this time wasn’t wrong enough, here was my mother noticing and talking about trees. I thought of Brecht:

What kind of times are these, when

To talk about trees is almost a crime

Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

My mother, now in her late 60s, has seen enough horrors in her life. She was once saved during a riot by a neighbour, a Muslim tailor, who hid her in a bundle of unstitched fabric. She, having grown quieter with age, expresses her confusion with the new world almost every day; she struggles to finish reading the newspaper. I have seen her folding it away neatly and stare out of the window, to the neighbour’s plum trees, whose leaves shiver in the breeze. The last two months have been torturous for her. She knows the names of the riot victims by heart, so much so that she once uttered their names instead of the Hindu gods she has been conditioned to invoke during her end-of-day prayer. But here she was, just noticing the trees.

By the time we reached the Taj Mahal, our enthusiasm had been displaced by anxiety. The queue ahead of us seemed larger than the population of a well-behaved city. My mother was on wheelchair, my niece in her mother’s lap. When we were in, at last, and Arif, our guide, mentioned the unique perspective created by the arches of the structure, I looked at the two of them, my mother and niece, and wondered about the difference in their perspectives. A little later, I suddenly noticed how wrong I had been in my assumption. The 67-year-old and the 18-month-old were actually noticing similar things. This was true not only for the Taj Mahal but also the Red Fort, which we visited the next day. They were noticing plant life — not just the trees and their bodies, but how Mughal art had interpreted flowers and leaves and vines. And the shade, both of botanical life and those portrayed in art.

Our guides, in both Agra and Delhi’s Red Fort, were eager to point out “syncretic” cultures. Arif traced the outlines of a few interpretations of the lotus with his fingers as he spoke; the aged guide in Red Fort, slightly apprehensive about giving us his name, in case we did not want a Muslim guide, stood before the Diwan-i-Aam and pointed out the exquisite carvings of botanical life on the lower margins of the walls. And then, pointing upwards, he showed us “Hindu” motifs, again interpretations of botanical life. As any observer of art knows, rarely can syncretic influences be identified in such binaries. I think I can say with some certainty that when he wondered, with a sigh that comes from an accumulation of years, whether such a structure would ever be built in India again, I saw fear and anguish on his face.

My mother, a little distance away on her wheelchair, mentioned trees again on our way back from Agra. Pointing to the trees whose branches had been butchered for the sake of uniformity, she said, almost to herself, “I wonder whether these were Muslim trees.”

 

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree; Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

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Published on March 05, 2020
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