Flowers constitute a central part of our aesthetic imagery and it is their lasting impact on our souls that make them so wonderful and yet so vulnerable.
Ayesha Arfeen is a Doctoral Researcher at CSSS/JNU.
I watched a movie called “Cheluvi“. Later, I discovered that this movie was based on A.K.Ramanujan’s story “A Flowering Tree”. It is believed to be a Kannada folktale told by women and was translated from Kannada to English by Ramanujan. The book ‘A Flowering Tree and Other Folktales from India’ was later in published in 1997, after Ramanujan’s death.
The movie Amar Prem is based on a short story named ‘Hinger Kochuri’ by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay. The film is a remake of the Bengali film, Nishi Padma (roughly translated as Night Lotus) by Arbinda Mukherhjee. The name of the female protagonist is Pushpa, meaning flower. She becomes a prostitute due to certain circumstances. Now, the soirees at brothels start at dusk. The parijat too blooms at the dusk. The prostitutes or kothewalis are functional in society in the way that they act as opium of the deserted and depressed souls in one way or the other.
These people have nowhere to go, no one to entertain at home and so they find solace in these soirees. One such man was Anand Babu who would frequent Pushpa’s place and they developed a bond beyond name or any recognition. The flowers too cheer, especially the nocturnal people in the silence and darkness of the night. The flower is scented and it attracts people. The prostitutes too deck up to attract people. They act as fragrance in the life of so-called depressed lots, may it be for a short time.
According to one source (Vishnu Purana) of Hindu mythology, the Parijat (here the female protagonist’s character of a prostitute as is according to the common standards of society) has to be enjoyed by all as it came out from the churning of the ocean. This was uttered by Satyabhama, wife of Hindu deity Krishna (the incarnation of Vishnu). Krishna too agreed with her. The flower is said to be a flower from heaven for which Krishna and Indra fought.
The earth from a prostitute’s place is used at the time of Durga puja in West Bengal of India. The kid’s name in the movie is Nandu or Nandkishore (another name of Lord Krishna). Pushpa sings ‘Bada natkhat hai re Kishan Kanhaiya’ for this kid too. This is not by chance.
This certainly carries some metaphor. Lord Krishna is believed to have won the battle with Indra and brought back the flower from heaven. Nandu, in this movie, plants the flower in Pushpa’s front yard. He makes her promise to look after and water the plant every day, when he leaves the city. In the climax, the plant has grown into a big tree full of white flowers. The climax scene where the plant has become a tree, still gives me goose bumps. Nandu finally takes Pushpa, who now works as a servant in people’s houses, to his home as his mother.
In Amar Prem, there is a song “Raina beeti jaye, shaam na aaye”, (Shaam is another name for Hindu deity Krishna) which can be understood as a woman’s desire to be plucked. Once one reaches puberty and before the desire ends, she wants to be loved. Rabindranath Tagore, too talks of the flower ‘Parijat’ which wants to be plucked. This flower seems to be the symbolic representation of a young, desirous woman. Rabindranath Tagore, in Gitanjali (poem no. 6, p.20), writes:
Pluck this little flower and take it, delay not! I fear lest it droop and drop into the dust.
I may not find a place in thy garland, but honour it with a touch of pain from thy hand and pluck it. I fear lest the day end before I am aware, and the time of offering go by.
Though its colour is not deep and its smell is faint, use this flower in thy service and pluck it while there is time.
Unlike Delhi, it used to rain a lot in monsoons, in Odisha. There was again this tree exactly in front of my classroom but a bit far. I used to watch it intermittently during the lectures. And immediately after the class, while we rush to our car, I would keep on looking back to the flowers. Had I been a poet or a wanderer, had I not been compelled by my upbringing, I would not go away from the flowers and would sit there for hours. When it rains here, each time it reminds me of the water droplets on those flowers and those leaves. This feeling hovers over my mind for long.
We tend to relate the woman, the mother to the nature but if one is sitting below a tree or climbing trees or plucking fruits from trees, a woman is generally discouraged. What an irony! It is like telling one not to realize one’s own sexuality or sensuality. I am talking of the commonly perceived notion and the denial of its outcome. This film Cheluvi has a strong message which relates women to the nature. The whole nature-nurture debate becomes relevant here.
Cheluvi narrates the story of two sisters who used to go to the forest to pluck flowers. They somehow started a strange ritual. It required two pitchers. One for turning one into a tree with white flowers and the other had to pluck the flowers which were unique.
The other pitcher was used to water the plant properly and brought back the human form of the sister. One day a prince watched it and desired to marry the younger girl. He was also curious and asked her to perform the ritual for her. One day, her sister, envious of her status as she was married to the prince now, distorts the ritual. This made the girl crippled when coming to the human form. I do not remember the story further but it is certain that the story ended at a ‘good wins over evil’ line.
Now the recent movie ‘October’ mentions and revolves around a character named ‘Shiuli’. The female protagonist is named Shiuli after the white flower named shiuli in Bengali. This flower is called Jhara sephali in Odia, probably Parijat in Hindi and commonly known as the ‘tree of sorrow’ or the night-flowering jasmine. Like Rajanigandha, it too loses its charm in daytime. The flower starts blooming at the dusk.
This flower is a natural dyeing agent (Yellow colour) and it leaves its imprint in one’s mind forever. The film ‘October’ too shows that it leaves its colour or imprint even when one is out of sight. According to Hindu mythology, it is the only flower which can be offered to Gods even after falling on the ground.
The very silence of Shiuli which was perhaps louder than a thunder in the film ‘October’ was not noticed by the male protagonist. She therefore leaves her colour and smell, for him perhaps for the rest of his life. White may mean silence, peace, pure and ‘kora’, that is; blank. Shiuli’s falling from rooftop of her work place and taking her to coma symbolizing her silence is now combined with the blankness of her eyes.
She keeps on staring motionless, at her caretaker, who is mainly the male protagonist of the movie. She, like the Tagore’s poem, wanted to say “Pluck this little flower…lest it droops and drop into the dust”. She is gone now. Shiuli meets the same fate as her name. Shiuli flowers bloom in October. The flower blooms and falls on the ground before one even realizes and thinks of plucking it. It blooms at night. You wake up in the morning and see the flowers on the ground. The flowers could even convey that they wanted to be plucked and offered to the God. Words remain unsaid and one remains with the memories that haunt one every night.