Sisterhood of Flower Letters

While recently re-reading Vikram Seth’s magnum opus, A Suitable Boy, a letter exchange between the novel’s heroine, Lata and her best friend, Malati made me pause and smile. In the letter, Malati writes about a note Lata sent her, which including a pressed narcissi; the flower makes Malati recall the time they both visited a zoo and the irreverent, rebellious Malati plucked three narcissi in front of a sign explicitly forbidding plucking flowers. “I think it was unconsciously a seal to our friendship,” she writes, “I am glad I can share my joys and sorrows with this wonderful, affectionate person is so faraway from me and yet so close.”

This vignette reminded me of the flower letters I have exchanged with my women friends over the last few years, a friend parceling me rose petals or virtual notes over social media containing flower photos. Thanks to the latter, I have been honored to glimpse flowers blooming in intimate personal gardens, peeking above walls, luxuriantly massed in flower markets or just adorning one’s home. It made me realise and appreciate how flowers evoke so many emotions in multiple contexts, their resonance migrating beyond that of their beauty.

Flowers and femininity may appear to be reductively synonymous with one another – and yet I feel there is much more to that relationship. The purpose of flowers is to reproduce a plant species, preserving it for generations and yet, while doing so, they simultaneously narrate incredible stories of color, texture, and scent. Whenever I see a group of flowers blooming, whether upon on a tree or inside a garden, I imagine women gathered together, sharing and listening to each other’s stories, forging a precious sisterhood. 

My flower appreciation came late in life, given that growing up in Oman I met more plastic flowers than real ones. It was after moving to countries with seasons that I found myself drawn towards flowers because there were so many to observe and appreciate: daffodils heralding spring, cherry and apple blossom enveloping trees, and perfumed summer roses. In university, a friend came over with a bunch of red-striped yellow tulips when I was ill; it was the first time I appreciated the curative power of flowers, deriving as much joy from their appearance as watching their cheerful presence illuminate the air. And so, over the years, while I have often bought flowers for myself a la Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I am especially touched to receive flower gifts from friends.

When I first got on Instagram and began documenting the world around me, I was upon the threshold of winter and spring, trees’ skeletal winter branches giving over to white, pink, pale mauve, and buttery yellow cloaks. The cold, stoic earth began reciting flower poetry, both from flowers emerging through the soil and carpeted below the trees. And in midst of it all, my phone became a digital herbarium, preserving the flowers forever in its pixel pages.

In Victorian times, florioragaphy or the language of flowers became popular, the senders communicating cryptic messages through specific flowers; the Japanese form is called Hanakotoba. As I posted more and more flowers on my Instagram, I too began communicating through my personal dialect of floriography, bougainvillea being one of the flowers. After leaving Oman, I started associating bougainvillea with the place and by extension, home – and obsessively photographed the flowers wherever I encountered them. Over time, as bougainvillea increasingly started to populate my feed, the flowers, which initially appeared to be shrines to nostalgia instead became emblems denoting an unique kind of bougainvillea sisterhood. Originally from Brazil, the plant had migrated to other parts of the world, infusing its new homes with its brilliant, flamboyant beauty. I in turn received photos, videos, and references from my online sisters wherever they encountered it and was grateful to receive this largesse.

However, I began to truly appreciate this precious sisterhood of flowers when the pandemic entered in our midst and we were isolated from one another for months. The only opportunity to go out involved nature and I found my solace in observing the seasons, specifically by the flowers which marked their arrival and departure. I cherished both the presence of these flowers and letters from fellow flower-loving sisters, both met and unmet, during those long, uncertain, bewildering months, collectively witnessing flowers in bloom bringing and binding us together during the most alien of times.

When I got covid two years ago and had to be admitted to hospital for few days, I recall hobbling out of my bed to glimpse the trees below me: the copper pod and gulmohur, adorned in their annual floral finery of yellow and red. These flowers infused me with hope and courage when I most and desperately needed them, their existence reminding me that I would be with them soon once I recovered. It was during those fragile moments that I dreamed this dream: of women sitting beneath trees and creating poetry, a safe space forged below the sheltering, compassionate canopy of trees, where we would unburden, contemplate, and exchange stories, healing ourselves and others.

Returning to A Suitable Boy, there is a scene where Lata and Malati wander into a jacaranda grove on their university campus, which is traditionally open to only women; they may go there to study but instead end up exchanging confidences, the grove a silent witness to their companionship. Several years ago, while struggling through a period of great anxiety, I recall seeing the tree in bloom in a Delhi garden for the first time: a dreamy, evocative mauve cloud. That experience was the start of a powerful healing journey. I have subsequently seen it dot the streets of Bangalore, mauve cathedrals of hope. One day, I hope to gather women inside the embrace of a jacaranda grove, the flowers drizzling down upon us, unspoken thoughts transforming into those that heal and provide succour. Until it happens, I will keep dreaming of the day.

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