The Tribes on My Frontier

Sitting by the window, in one of the windiest cities of India, I quietly appreciate my good fortune. Here I am, almost thirty years of age and already-tiring joints, and I get to spend my time sitting in the open wind while on the job. How many of my compadres are so lucky?

The rains have been arriving over the last few weeks, and not very quietly either. Human life has been hit hard on both the east and the west coasts. However, once you lift your eyes from the muddied eddies and look at the yellow buds sprouting on the young, waving twigs, your world begins to find perspective.

The non-human world is ravaged by human disasters every hour, every day. To us, it might be Amphan and Nisarga, but to them, it’s just Tuesday and Wednesday.

Outside my window sits four green denizens of our urban neighbourhood: Amar, Akbar, Nameless and Anthony. With the onset of rains, they have begun to flower.

Anthony bore a yellow blossom even when he came in to be my roommate. He was about four and a half feet, standing very unsteady (which is how I knew his name), and when he set himself in a corner of the window box, I was probably more relieved than he was. He produced a few more flowers over the next few days, waving in the sun, trying to draw in pretty ladies. I did not stick around to see if he succeeded.

Amar was the quiet one. He kept low and kept growing. There weren’t any signs of flowers yet, but knowing the kind of plant he was, I knew it was only a matter of time before the show starts.

The most tragic things befell Akbar. Firstly, he had to change pots soon after he was brought in. This turned out to be good, though, since his new pot is going to house him for years. Then, three of his buds broke off. We still don’t understand how that happened.

Nameless came in the last. We knew he was going to start some fireworks, and soon enough, he did. I’d seen that the buds had come up; then one day, there was a small cluster of fragrant white flowers.

About a week back, Amar started to show his first hints of little, green flower buds. Exactly two days back, I woke up in the morning and saw a lone white flower waiting among the leaves. ‘That’s how it starts,’ I muttered to myself, and went to fetch my camera.

Three hours later, I went to check on it again, and white flower was gone. Now the flower was blushing pink. The pigment was spreading from the base of the petals to the periphery, and the transformation was sensational. Poets have written lines on young girls growing into maidens. This is not unlike that. But, as I was to discover, there was more to it than mere ‘growing into maidenhood.’

The next day, the flower was red.

I sent pictures of the transformation to my friend, and he asked, ‘What plant is it?’ I told him the name, but that’s the real story.

This climbing plant is widely known in Bengal as Madhabilata. Not just Bengal, even here in distant Maharashtra, they use this name for it, even at the nurseries. But as I started digging, I found that a search for ‘Madhabilata’ in the botanical archives yields quite a different plant.

As it happens, the name Madhabilata belongs to Hiptage benghalensis, another flowering liana that appears in songs and ditties we grew up hearing. The fact that it is a native of Bengal reflects in its scientific name in Latin. The genus name itself comes from the Greek hiptamai, which alludes to the winged fruits that this plant produces. – Now, the flower of the Hiptage is very different from what I have here by my window. My companions are white-pink-and-red; hiptage flowers are white-cream-and-yellow. – So who is this that I have here with me?

I decided to follow the ‘madhabilata’ trail, and before long, a name turned up on my screen – Combretum indicum, also known as the Rangoon creeper. Sometimes it is also called the Chinese honeysuckle, but that name, again, applies to yet another species. It’d be both safe and sane to boycott that.

I saw, with a mix of delight and intrigue, that my green neighbour was actually a Combretum indicum. Like the Hiptage, it is also a liana – that is, a vine with a woody stem. It also climbs up the limbs of another, sturdier plant – usually a tree – as it grows older, inspiring romantic metaphors in many poetic compositions of its native land. But speaking of native – what about madhabilata? Do we have two different flowering vines in Bengal – one a benghalensis and another an indicum – the two of them sharing a common Bangla name?

And out of nowhere came the rescue – from who else but Rabindranath Tagore.

The story goes that this flower did not originally have a natural Bangla name. Rabindranath gave it the name madhumanjarilata, and immortalized it in his writings. Though the poet himself saw it the other way around: he said that it was the flower which would be a memento of his, carrying the name given by him.

There is another name it goes by, a name well-loved in many Bengali homes thanks to the evergreen favourite by Sandhya MukhopadhyayMadhumaloti. Is there anyone who does not remember the song every time they hear the name uttered? – Rabindranath had named the shrub, but it won widespread popularity because of that song, and the song carried a different name.

Before it was known as Combretum, madhumaloti used to bear a different scientific name – Quisqualis indica. In fact, when John Ivor Murray, the Scottish scientist and adventurer, had sent samples of the plant to the Museum of Economic Botany in Edinburgh, he had tagged them Quisqualis, adding notes on how it is used by the Chinese for its medicinal properties. Today, a vestige of this name is borne by the chemicals quisqualic acid and quisqualamine, which have popular applications in neuroscience. Quisqualic acid occurs naturally in the seeds of madhumaloti and its relatives.

And that trick about the petals changing colours? Well, as it turns out, different insects have different visual ranges of picking up colours. This flower moves from white to pink to red just to try and appeal to as wide a range of pollinators as possible. (There’s a whole assortment of lewd jokes that begs to be made here, but let’s not go full Deadpool just yet.)

Pretty interesting people I have here on my frontier, eh?

That was all about Amar. Would be a shame if we departed without saying something about Akbar, Nameless, and Anthony. At least I should give you their identifications, or the story would be incomplete.

Well, old Anthony is an Allamanda. I couldn’t give you the species, because I do not yet know, but I can tell you that it is named after a guy who was pen-friends with Carl Linneaus himself (and his uncle, who shared the same name, was pen-friends with none other than Benjamin Franklin.) Both Frédéric-Louis Allamand and his uncle Jean-Nicolas-Sébastien Allamand were renowned naturalists with extremely cool names that deserved to be immortalized as the name of a genus.

And Akbar, the one who is the biggest one of them all, has the biggest home, and is yet to bloom into his first flower? And when he does bloom, let me tell you, it is going to be a riot, because the grand Akbar is a Gardenia jasminoides, – better known to us all as the gandhoraaj.

Yet another native of my own Bengal… and to think I am far from home in Pune.

Which brings me to my last neighbour, Nameless.

You know he bears clusters of fragrant, white flowers, my dear reader… haven’t you guessed his name yet?

I’ll tell you. There’s a reason he keeps himself Nameless. He’s a Jasminum nitidum, you see, he does not need to be named…

3 thoughts on “The Tribes on My Frontier

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