Immortality through Nature in Temsula Ao’s “Laburnum for My Head” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb

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.

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Works Cited:

 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.

“Headstone.” http://www.answers.com/topic/headstone

“Indian Laburnum.”http://www.indianetzone.com/4/the_indian_laburnum.htm

McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. London: Penguin,1990.