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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

The nameless flower is an untitled poem

alking with the writer Tabish Khair in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, I suddenly point to a cluster of flowering plants and say, "Aren't these periwinkle flowers?". "I'm not good with names, especially those of flowers," says Khair, and then the honest researcher in him adds, "I always look up the encyclopaedia ..."

This is not the first time I find myself in such a situation: I am always eager for names of flowers, and yet, when given one, I manage to lose the name in no time. As an avid, often over-enthusiastic gardener, I often steal plants from roadsides — these usually go by the urban nomenclature, 'wild flowers', a terminology that makes it seem that The Bible Version 2.0 declared that in the new gardens of Eden Apartment, flowers were meant to bloom in pots on shaded balconies. These 'wild flowers' are blooms without names — 'wildness', like the wilderness, cannot have a name. Isn't that why the wild is, to use Edmund Burke's argument, sublime?

In the Bangla film Gurudokkhina, a stanza of a song about guru-dakshina goes thus:

Naam na jaana awnek phool-ee pawther dharey photey
Jeebon ta je jhorey jhorey phool-daani na jotey ...

Nameless flowers grow by the roadside,
Their petals fall and wither away without having found a home in a vase ...

My brother and I, being naturally irreverential, disliked the film for its melodramatic depiction of the teacher-student relationship, the film releasing at a time when we found teachers the burden of our lives and the planet. For years we would point to flowers in parks and hotel lobbies and announce their names to the world: 'Naam na jaana phool', nameless flowers.

This must have been the proto nature poet in us, for neither of us ever got around to writing poems about flowers. In fact, ever since we'd been socialised into the 'Roses are red/Violets are blue/You are sweet/I love you' code of romantic love in middle school, we'd decided to rebel against the relation between flowers and love. And against poetically baptised flowers. Because though flower power was cool, flower poems were not. 'Ghaash aar phooler kobi', the poet of grass and flowers – that is how we had dismissed Walt Whitman when my maternal grandfather's library threw up an early 20th century edition of Leaves of Grass.

I find it easier to love strangers, both men and flowers. Infatuation survives pretty well without names. Is it mere coincidence that Shakespeare mentioned a flower when he wrote about names and recognisability? What's in a name, that which we call a rose ... And so we begin to associate poets with flowers, Rabindranath Tagore, for example, with red oleanders, the madhobilata, the shiuli, the champa, the last of which is the subject of one of my favourite child-rhymes:

upposing I became a champa flower, just for fun, and grew on a branch high up that tree, and shook in the wind with laughter and danced upon the newly budded leaves, would you know me, mother?

The inversion of recognisability — from the child to the flower – is a delightful one, and is another good example of the intuitive relation between a poet's poem-making process and the name of a flower. Arvind Mehrotra, in a chapter on Arun Kolatkar in his collection of essays, Partial Recall, recalls the latter's unease with 'translated' names of Indian flowers: 'He (Kolatkar) had shown me 'The Turnaround' ... but, unhappy about one word in it, 'daisies', had asked me not to include it in Periplus. The Marathis had vishnukranta, a common wild flower widely distributed throughout India, for which he felt 'daisies' was not the right equivalent. Here is the poem:

.... I could smell molasses boiling in a field.
I asked for some sugarcane to eat.
I shat on daisies
and wiped my arse with neem leaves.

Perhaps it is impossible to love flowers except in one's mother tongue? And so my young cousin's surprise at the discovery of Daisy Irani as a human child in a motion picture — she had thought it an Iranian variety of the daisy.

Like most children of the post-colonies, studying William Wordsworth's Daffodils in junior school without knowing what it looked like (the subject of a fine essay by the poet Derek Walcott), I found the 'host of golden daffodils' as useless as gardeners do weeds. My husband, who can quote from Kant even in his sleep, tells me that it is impossible to find nameless flowers beautiful because beauty can come only in form, and the nameless is essentially formless in our imagination.

This year, for the first time in my life as a gardener, I planted rose grafts. Between my colourful summer roses grow tiny mauve flowers, so tiny that they look like a pointillist painting from a distance, the gardener's nightmare — 'weeds'. I cannot say why I prefer them to the roses, these nameless flowers that grow without my indulgence or acknowledgement. I am reminded of Rabindranath Tagore's poem, Little Hearts and Great Hearts –

A tiny flower, of no worth at all,
Was growing from a cranny in the wall.
'Measly beggar!' cried every plant that grew.

But the rising sun called, "Brother, how are you?" (in Sukanta Chaudhuri's translation) — and so I don't argue with my husband when he, always terrible with names (of men and plants alike), offers this in a late evening whisper: "The nameless flower is an untitled poem".

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