Commuters cut 'n' run, assaulted by scent (7,9)
Tonight I caught the fragrance of the night queen. I saw it budding, of course, but it was consigned to the backburner of awareness, because there were other things on my mind. So it took me by surprise. And took me into nostalgic longing for other days when the fragrance was a backdrop to life as a child and a teenager.
Night queen is a misnomer, of course. The botanical name for the shrub is cestrum nocturnum, and it is called raat ki rani in the north. But night queen was what my mother called it, and is how I think of it. There are other names for it too, Night-blooming Cestrum, Lady of the Night, Queen of the Night, Night-blooming jessamine, and Night-blooming Jasmine.
Our maid used to glower about it and say it was poisonous, would invite snakes (as if there were any to be found in a city, however much of a miniature jungle the plot next door was) and more.
It is a shrub indigenous to the West Indies. My gardening bible tells me that it is
a large, evergreen, subscandent shrub; branches glabrous, weak often yellowish with numerous lenticels. Leaves alternate, ovate, oblong, acute, entire glabrous up to10.4 cm long and 3.5 cm wide. Flowers creamy white and appear in axillary or terminal panicle, highly scented at night; corolla tube about 2 cm long gradually swollen and contracted at the mouth with 5 lobes, margin incurved.
It goes on to add that
it is a quick growing shrub, often planted in tropical garden. Numerous strongly scented flowers open at night almost all the year round and more profusely in the summer and rains. This hardy shrub is also suitable for screening and can be trained on a trellis and low walls.
When I took to bonsai, it was out of a sense of challenge. All my trees were grown from the seeds or started as seedlings. It was a homework project of my son that set it off. Beans and tamarind seeds, and practical lessons in germination ended as a small terrace garden of bonsai, a hobby that gave me a lot of pleasure.
But the night queen wasn't part of my bonsai garden. It was planted in the built-in trough for balcony gardens, chosen by some unknown but thoughtful gardener as an ideal shrub for a fourth floor balcony. I didn't realise what the shrub was until a year after we moved into the flat. It caught me by surprise then, too.
Cestrum nocturnum flowers through out the year, more profusely in the summer and rainy months, says my gardening bible, Tropical Garden Plants, by Bose and Chowdhury. Maybe it is the global warming, maybe my shrub doesn't know the rules, but it starts flowering in late December, and goes into resting period during late summer and the rains. Perhaps it took on the character of the residents of the flat, being out of step with the rest of the world.
All these are dry facts. The scent is past and remembered joy.
It is the innocence of childhood, the scent of late summer when the flowering of jasmine tapers off but the night queen carries on. It is memories of drifting off to sleep with the fragrance wafting in through the window, of uncomplicated life and ordinary nightmares.
The heady scent is intertwined with memories of sleeping on the terrace in summers; waking up in the middle of the night to note how the constellations wheel by, to see a meteor race across the sky in wonder; hearing the rustle of the tamarind and mango trees in the backyard and the neem in the front yard. It is the scent of childhood.
The scent is remembrance of the first time I held hands with a boy, the first time my heart thudded in my chest in excitement and thrill of a budding romance. It is the memory of a friend smiling and shaking her head. It is an image of my son breathing in great gulps of air to capture the scent. It is the scent of love, affection and longing.
It happens each year. It always catches me unawares, and always takes me back.