Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Where have all the flowers gone?

I would imagine that Indian florists are struggling to meet unprecedented demand for their wares in the wake of the film Lage Raho Munnabhai. If you haven’t heard of this movie because you’re deaf, dumb and blind and live under a small rock in the Thar Desert, it has given fresh currency to Gandhian principles of peaceful protest and conflict resolution, under the simplified but powerful rubric of ‘Gandhigiri’. A nation fed up with its own ways is showing budding interest in an alternative way of life.

The movie has got everyone recalibrating the way they deal with negativity. Untold millions are giving up time-honoured traditions of knee-jerk violence, and choosing to look on their sworn enemies as unwell people in need of tender loving care, as the celluloid Gandhi advises the protagonist to do. The Shiv Sena is sending roses to the Varanasi police force; students are sending get-well-soon emails to Arjun Singh, and it is rumoured that even Sushmita Sen sent a cactus to Aishwarya Rai.

I, too, want to send flowers to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, to let it know how badly I feel about whatever infirmity has led to the urban planning catastrophe that is Delhi, and to the devil’s choice between short-term individual livelihoods and collective long-term survival which we are being forced to make today. The poor dears have also been caught unawares by dengue fever, which has sneakily broken out at exactly the same time as it does every year. The MCD’s credibility is currently lower than the public platelet count. It definitely needs some love.

Saying it with flowers means finding the right blossoms, so I have composed a pithy bouquet of two very special flowers. The first is a Titan arum, or Amorphophallus titanum, (which roughly translates as ‘gigantic shapeless penis’ for reasons that a brief glimpse makes clear). Growing to a height of ten feet, it is the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence, or cluster of flowers. The other is the Titan’s very famous cousin, Rafflesia arnoldii, which has a diameter of one metre and a weight of eleven kilograms, and is the world’s largest single true flower. They are a sight to behold.

There’s just one small thing, which is that both flowers are characterised by an overpowering stench of decomposing flesh—in Sumatra they’re called ‘bunga bangkai’, or ‘corpse flower’. Everyone gags, and some people fall to the ground in a dead faint. I hope that this won’t detract from the message that I care.

Nobody said that Gandhigiri is easy, and indeed I’m finding it hard to turn over my new leaf, because these wonderful expressions of fellow-feeling grow only in the rainforests of Sumatra and Kalimantan, and are moody about coming into flower (they bloom unpredictably, and only for a week, so pollination is a bit of a hit and miss affair). People sometimes travel deep into the forest only to stare sadly at nothing; those who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, stand in queues, and pay good money.

If I do manage to make up my bouquet, it remains to be seen whether the Corporation appreciates how thrillingly rare these flowers are; and whether it twigs on to the underlying message of love and hope. If it uncharitably chooses to believe that it is being flipped a floral bird, or being told that it stinks, well, I’ll have to remember that it’s feeling a bit off-colour. Anyway, from what I understand of Gandhigiri, the point is to make the gesture even if—nay, especially if the recipient is ungrateful, so I’ll keep looking.

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