Immortality through Nature in Temsula Ao’s “Laburnum for My Head” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
Padma Shree Temsula Ao, poet and fictionist from Northeast India, in her latest collection of short stories entitled Laburnum for My Head, examines various aspects of human condition in interpersonal relationships. In the title story of the collection, she examines how Lentina’s longing to be buried beside a laburnum tree with its buttery yellow blossoms, instead of a headstone, is fulfilled. Her longing to be buried in the lap of nature draws attention to our innate desire to be immortalised through nature.
It is a traditional practice in Christian graveyards, to erect “headstones” known also as memorial stones, gravestones or tombstones, made of granite, marble or other materials. These are erected vertically above the ground to keep the sacred memory of the departed soul. They also symbolize wealth and prominence of a person in society. Such stones are marked with epitaphs in praise of the deceased or quotations from religious texts, such as “requiescant in pace.” William Shakespeare‘s inscription reads:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosèd here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones (“Headstone.” http://www.answers.com).
Such traditional style of cemetery known as monumental cemetery, are being replaced by lawn cemetery; and in recent times by natural cemetery or eco-cemetery or green cemetery. In the natural cemetery an area is set aside for natural burials among eco-conscious people to become part of the natural environment. This is with the idea of one decaying into nature to be one with her. Hence, in natural cemeteries there is no conventional grave markings such as headstones, instead, a tree or a bush is planted to commemorate the faithful departed (“Cemetery.” http://en.wikipedia.org).
Plants are used to mark rites of passage both in human and in the annual cycle. Blooming shrubs and trees are planted as they live longer, and remind one of the deceased. Planting favourite plants of a deceased person at his/her grave becomes an unforgettable reminder of that person when it blooms, leading to nostalgic memories for many generations. Besides, planting a living memory is a continual healing process as well as a symbolic of eternal life.
The `Indian Laburnum` is one of the most widespread and popular trees of India. Most of the tree’s names suggest the meaning of something that is `stick-like`. The reason behind such a name is probably because its pods look like sticks. It is considered one of the loveliest flowering trees of India, with its baggy flowers rich in streaming gold. The pods of the tree appear in abundance in the months of March and May (“Indian Laburnum.”http://www.indianetzone.com).
Lentina’s love for plants and flowers, instead of a headstone at her grave is her ecofeminist way of becoming part of nature. The fictionist, draws attention to “green thinking,” (Bate xvii) which is most relevant today in the context of alarming global warming and depletion of nature’s bounty. Human civilization has always been in the business of altering the land, whether through deforestation or urbanization or mining or enclosure or even the artificial reimposition of ‘nature’ through landscaping” (171).
When the Indian laburnum bush blossoms every May in the new cemetery, the onlookers observe it with great surprise, considering it to be accidental. But the story of the flowering tree brings to focus how Lentina planned to be buried with a laburnum tree for her head. The story shows how “nature has a way of upstaging even the hardest rock and granite edifices fabricated by man” (Ao 1).
Every year the community members come together to clean around the headstones in the village graveyard. They notice the spectacular Laburnum bush instead of the headstone at the corner of the graveyard, reminding them of Lentina who “had admired these yellow flowers for what she thought was their femininity….The way laburnum flowers hung their heads earthward appealed to her because she attributed humility to the gesture” (2).
The story begins when Lentina decided to grow a few laburnum trees in the corners of her compound. Though she got a few saplings and planted them, the gardener pulled them off while weeding. Some of the other saplings were eaten by stray cows. Remaining few that sprouted were killed when DDT was sprayed. It was a devastating experience for Lentina to encounter such strange circumstances in which all the laburnum saplings died. She took it as a bad omen, however, whenever she saw the blossomed laburnum elsewhere, she began to develop an urge to have them closer to her home. It became such an obsession that “her husband and children were convinced that she was developing an unhealthy fetish for laburnum and began to talk openly about this in close family gatherings” (3). She was deeply hurt when they showed their indifference to nature’s beauty which she always dreamed of. And her dream of having a full grown laburnum tree in her garden, continue to remain an obsession.
Meanwhile, her husband developed a strange disease and died in his sleep. Being a prominent citizen of the village, he was given a solemn funeral. But, when it was time for the final rites, she surprised everyone by accompanying the mortal remains to the grave, breaking all traditions. As though, led by some inner impulse, she followed the male members to the gravesite. No one could stop Lentina from her strange behaviour. After the rites were over, she stayed on in the midst of the headstones in the graveyard. Her musings were on man’s attempt to defy death by erecting stone monuments, as though trying to bring the dead back to life. Experiencing an epiphany in her life, she “decided that she did not want any such attempt at immortality when her time came, and at that thought she experienced an epiphanic sensation: why not have a laburnum tree planted on her grave, one which would live on over her remains instead of a silly headstone?” (4). The epiphanic experience she had is similar to that of Stephen’s consciousness in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen’s behaviour gives insight into the development of a literary genius. In his aesthetic quest to be an artist, he abandons everything that he held dear – his family, religion and culture. Similarly Lentina, does away with all social norms, to grow a laburnum in her quest for immortality. It is her ecophilosophy that runs as a central motif in the story, drawing our attention to the moral relation between man and nature.
Her idea of immortality through nature made her so excited with a new revelation. But, the question remained, who could be her confidant in executing her “deep-seated longing for the yellow wonders” (5). She thought of her old driver Mapu, being a widower, could be best suited to guard her secret. The following day she took him for a ride to the graveyard and confided her desire to have a laburnum at her head than a headstone. Her frequent visit to her husband’s grave side was never seen with suspicion, though her intention was different. She wanted to chalk out a place where she would be buried, without attracting objections from any one. “Lentina marched to the extreme corners of the ground, as if looking for a lost treasure” (5). Mapu found her strange as her folks had said that she was going out of her mind. But she articulated clearly: “This is my spot, I want to be buried here when my time comes” (6). He tried to remonstrate with her saying that her place was already earmarked beside her husband. But she was determined to break the tradition, instructing Mapu to remain silent about it.
That night went sleepless as Lentina made her plans how to get the plot ready with a laburnum tree grow up where she would be buried. Meanwhile, Mapu made arrangement with his son-in-law to reserve a most insignificant plot for her in the cemetery, concealing her identity in the application form. Suddenly and idea flashed across her mind to search for a plot of land adjacent to the cemetery. As she pondered over the plan, providentially, a certain Khalong, son of her husband’s friend came to pay his respects learning about her husband’s sudden demise. He began to say that he was going through a bad financial situation and wanted to sell his land adjoining the cemetery. Lentina surprised him when she desired to purchase the land. On his part, he felt quite embarrassed as she planned to buy such an unsuitable land. She spoke to a stunned Khalong, “…let me assure you that it is not merely out of my concern for you that I am doing this. I have a selfish motive. For quite some time now I have been looking for a suitable plot where I want to be buried…I do not wish to be buried among the ridiculous stone monuments of the big cemetery. I need a place where there will be nothing but beautiful trees over my grave” (9). She also made him promise that he wouldn’t disclose her plan to anyone.
The transaction was made the following day when Lentina became the owner of that plot. Her sons came to know only when a fence was being constructed around the plot. They showed their displeasure for having been kept in the dark with her crazy plans and threatened to walk out of her home. They felt insulted for having done everything trusting only her servants. She was quick in giving a fitting response, blurting out how her two daughters-in-law had a bitter altercation over the funeral expenses of her husband. Both of them questioned why money ought to be wasted on a grandiose headstone for the old man merely to keep up pretensions. She spoke out in disgust: “Why are you all worked up about such a trivial matter? After all, I have not spent anyone else’s money…you need not worry about any headstone for me. I want none” (11).
As the news of Lentina’s plan became public, it was inevitable that the Town Committee would make an issue about the ownership of her plot to be used for her grave. On her part, she had already prepared the documents required, with the assistance of a nephew who worked in the District Court. In the document she stated that the plot would be donated to the Town Committee and would be managed according to her terms and conditions: “The new plot of land could be dedicated as the new cemetery and would be available to all on fulfilling the condition that only flowering trees and not headstones would be erected on the gravesites. Lentina, as the Donor, should be the first to choose a plot for herself. Plots would be designated by Numbers only and records of names… would be maintained in the Committee Register” (12). The expert committee team approved of the plan, though the Chairman tried to make some excuses. When the legal transfer of the plot was done in the presence of her family members, she pointed out the corner of the plot for her tomb.
Accompanied by her faithful servant, Lentina frequently visited the plot. One day she got the gardener to plant laburnum saplings. Within a few days, she became too weak and ill to visit her plot. Instead, she began to reminisce how the plot came into her possession very mysteriously and longed to be buried there, where laburnum tree would blossom. When she became too ill and bedridden, her sons began visiting her seeking advice on business matters, which had never ever happened before. There began to take place a strange emotional healing in the family. When Lentina suddenly made some recovery, Mapu observed one of the laburnum trees quickly wither, but another survived which produced few yellow blossoms. He was eager to bring the news to Lentina, but refrained from it lest it might cause sudden excitement in her. “He was both happy and afraid: happy because the long-cherished desire of his mistress to see a laburnum bloom had been fulfilled; afraid, because he instinctively knew that as soon as Lentina laid eyes on the blossoms next May, she would conclude that the right moment to leaved arrived… she would let everything slide and simply bow out of life, with a contented sigh” (16). Mapu was convinced that the force of nature had brought about a small miracle for the old woman and wished that by following summer the tree would grow bigger, full of bloom.
By new year, Lentina was very weak and fagged out. She used to be taken by a vehicle to visit her plot twice a week when it became warmer. By the following May, she wanted to visit her plot quite frequently being agitated over her dream and refused to eat when the trips were stopped. But the doctor was adamant that she had to stop all movements. When she got news that her laburnum had not flowered, while the other trees were in bloom, she was on the brink of despair. Then, one day, Mapu suddenly found the tree in full blossom with buttery-yellow flowers. He ran with joy to inform his mistress of the miraculous event. He stopped abruptly in front of the house to rehearse how to present the news cautiously, to avoid her getting over-excited. When he knocked to enter, he could hear a sharp command, “come in,… I’ve been waiting for you… I know what you are going to tell me; I felt it in my bones” (18). Entering her room, Mapu found her and the maid dressed as though for a big occasion. She asked for her walking stick and made off for the graveyard, springing with rapid paces. Then suddenly became very sombre in mood and admired the flowers for a long time. She ordered him to be driven up to the highest point in the park from where she could see the whole town. There they sat and shared tea and biscuits. Returning home that day, Lentina busied herself tidying her room all by herself, not letting the maid assist her. When it was done she asked for early dinner and retired to bed. The following morning, when the maid called her out for the usual bed tea, there was no response. Approaching her bedside, finding her mistress sleeping soundly, she went about drawing the curtains. On close observation she found her mistress very stiff with a pale face. Alarmed by the sight, she called all the family members, who surrounded her. Only Mapu remained outside, near a post, crying his heart out. Soon the house physician arrived and declared that Lentina was no more.
It was the end of an ordinary woman who cherished her dream of having a laburnum for her head, instead of the customary practice of erecting headstones. Her dream came true and the entire graveyard was filled no more with headstones, but blooming laburnum, hibiscus, gardenia, bottle-brush, camellia, and oleander at the various seasons of the year.
Lentina’s story is a call to establish closer links with the natural world as Bill McKibben rightly bemoans: “We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth manmade and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us” (McKibben 54). Lentina’s predicament is truly that of an ecophilosopher, turning back to the lap of nature after death.
The yearly flowering of laburnum is indicative of resurgence and new life. It is a sign of hope in the existence of life. Life is not ended but it is a passage to eternity. This mystery of life and death, flowering and withering in nature, gives great significance to Lentina’s yearning to be commemorated every year when her laburnum blooms. In the story the protagonist makes her dream of immortality come true through Laburnum blossoms, representing transience of life.
Ao, Temsula. Laburnum for My Head. New Delhi: Penguin, 2009.
Bate, Jonathan. “From ‘Red’ to ‘Green’ “. The Green Studies Reader. Laurence Coupe. Ed.
Reprint.London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. London: Penguin,1990.