Saturday, 19 May 2012


Diwan Sahib said it reminded him of a curious, very old man at the Nawab of Surajgarh’s court, who had been there since the Nawab’s father’s time, and who wore brown clothes and a green pugree and had a face as cavernous as a starving man’s. He walked long hours in the forest and came back with cloth bags full of plants that he disappeared with into his laboratory, which was a quack’s den filled with glass flasks and Bunsen burners and test tubes and vernier callipers, and where, in the instant when the door opened a crack as he slid in, the smells that trickled out were of a kind that existed only in hallucinations and nightmares, so that when he shut the door you wondered if you had imagined them. It was rumoured that he manufactured poisons in that
den, and the rumour was strengthened by the inexplicable decline or death from time to time of people at the court who had fallen foul of the Nawab. The Nawab had claimed that the man made medicine, Diwan Sahib said, but the line between medicines and poisons is finely drawn, and this very foxglove, so poisonous and so beautiful, in the correct quantity, produced digitalis, which was medicine for troubles of the heart. “Not devastated hearts,” he had said laughing, “like yours
or mine, Maya, for that there is no medicine but death, which too the
foxglove can provide.”

From The Folded Earth

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


Have been looking around the hillside and am struck by the number of sinister plants there are, some of them also beautiful. The other day I spotted a strange phallic object that had snaked out of bare earth. Took photographs, looked it up, and found it is called the Voodoo Lily, apparently a favoured house plant in some parts of the world because the corm flowers minus any soil -- put it on your window sill and there's the flower, in a few days. I wouldn't allow it anywhere near my house though. It's single petal falls in a revolting leathery fold on to the ground and is spotted, like snakeskin. The mile-long stamen looks like a sting. To attract flies, which are its main pollinators, the lily gives off a foul stink, like that of carrion. And after the flower falls off it develops a red corn like seed -- I know of a child in the neighbourhood who almost died because she ate a tiny bit of that cob, attracted by its pretty colour.

After the flower falls off, the plant develops a pretty necklace of leaves. But grazing animals, being wiser than humans in some things, know it's not a salad plant and give it a wide berth.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012


The first few pages of a book by Frank Smythe mentions the town where I live: "On June 1st I arrived at Ranikhet from Naini Tal where I had stayed with Sir Harry Haig..." This town, in the Himalayan foothills, is so inconsequential that it doesn't feature on most maps and when you are far away from it you begin to wonder if it does exist. Yet here it was. As a printed word, the place gained solidity and consequence because the year was 1937, and Smythe was about to begin the expedition that would lead to a book whose title changed the name of a Himalayan valley.

ValleyofFlowers_.jpgMy copy of the The Valley of Flowers is an inherited one, annotated in the margins by its previous reader. The notes have little to do with Smythe's poetic, contemplative prose, or his thoughts on solitude, freedom, nature, humankind. "Remember to take napkins for cleaning dishes etc", says a scribble next to a paragraph about the expedition cook wiping dishes on his filthy shirt. Closely underlined is a passage that lists reasons for climbing accidents. Mosquito nets and ration lists are marked up, as are places where swathes of primulas and gentians had been sighted.

The annotations were made by a woman who was half-English, half-Indian, and in the photograph that stood on her husband Amit's shelf she looked like Ingrid Bergman in a sari. A mist of tragedy wreathed this photograph. Soon after their wedding doctors told her she had a savage cancer that would kill her in a matter of months. She and Amit, both advertising people in Calcutta, decided they would spend those last months alone with each other, in Ranikhet. Here she lived another eighteen years and their days included picnics, walking trips into the neighbouring hills, and quantities of gin and cigarettes.

I met Amit long after she died, when I began visiting Ranikhet. Once the visits felt too brief, however long they were, my husband and I found a cottage there to live in. Amit was then about seventy, a spindly, grey-bearded, thatch-haired man in glasses. He had lost interest in walking and sat all day in his veranda. The veranda was fronted by a meadow on which, alongside flamboyant yellow day lilies, grew spinach sometimes, sometimes radish or corn. Amit smoked roll-up cigarettes that looked grey and damp, but they kept him occupied, as did passing children who wanted cricket scores off his radio. He could no longer bring himself to read new books so he reread his old ones. His world began roughly with Evelyn Waugh and came to an end with Somerset Maugham. Eventually, when he thought - or hoped - that he was on the brink of death, he told me, with the air of having found a good home for a lost dog, that I could have his books, as well as the day lilies.

Read the rest of the article HERE.