Laburnum Road : Sign of Times

 | May 19,2011 12:00 pm IST

It is Delhi and it is the middle of May. Day temperatures touch 43 and even 44 – centigrade of course; only Americans still cling to Fahrenheit.

By a freak stroke of luck the block of flats where I live is along an internal road lined with Laburnum trees.


The Vaishakh storms of Spring have come and gone after shaking off the dead leaves, branches, and stuff from all trees, as is their central function for the coming season. Laburnum is blooming, bright and yellow under the hot sun. I stand and watch as if inside a celestial tunnel of flowers, the beautiful and unbearable explosion of yellow colours along the whole length of the road, like – as I have noted earlier – a daytime wedding of some older-generation god.


Lucky, because in some ancient townscaping-manual of PWD, or the Municipality, some well-meaning bureaucrat would have added an appendix of “Approved Species” and included Laburnum in it. Bureaucrats have their uses, and Delhi has had its fair share of them, ever since Tughlaq.


Called “amaltas” in hindi – or is it “palash”? I always mix up the two – these trees and flowers have long been celebrated in hindi prose and poetry; at the moment I can think of the relatively more urban writers like Mohan Rakesh , Dushyant Kumar , Nirmal Verma ( other than his Prague-period stories). Its faint pleasant smell slowly fills up your head , as if with some willful fumes, if you stand for long under the trees , as I do – stoking deep and abandoned memories. Smells are evolutionally-speaking the deepest, oldest, and perhaps the first of the ways of our sensing the world, after all.


Memories of that girl in the college-bus on whom you had your first crush and with whom you could never muster enough courage to exchange a word; of the time when you were still growing up with Browning, Tennyson and Wordsworth well before the spell of Eliot and Auden; of the time when with the recklessness of youth now unthinkable you allowed some tongue-tied potential girlfriend, some lines of Camus or Lennon, some italics and attitudes of bearded professors to become markers and signposts of the vast tracts of a future life you were mapping out in your surging mind.


Perhaps in the bus she had this Laburnum smell, or as is most likely you imagined it all. The smell is old-fashioned , even vaguely medicinal if you allow yourself to think along those lines. Perhaps she used a then popular summertime “vanishing cream” called Afghan Snow, borrowed from her mother. It used to come in deep blue glass bottles and the bottles had a crude persian picture of a snowclad hill. It was for summer. In winter it was Ponds C of course.


And , well, yes, the Ayurveda chaps do say that amaltas has medicinal value and application. What doesn`t ? The smell, again, is like the cough-syrups your mother made you take when you had a bad cold. Probably those syrups had but little therapeutic function beyond that of anchoring your mothers` care for your distress. I will be rebuked for saying this, but perhaps most of the Ayurveda is not much more than that. After all, having started on sound scientific principles, Ayurveda degenerated since the Gupta Age by importing into itself much, er, spiritual stuff.


Walking under the hot, yellow, fragrant canopy I see hanging from the trees the odd- looking long, hard, suasage-like seed pods. A bit jarring , not the usual picture- postcard beauty. Laburnum seeds are not with the flowers as most seeds usually are, but are held separately in these hanging, swaying, long, coffee-black twisted sticks. These are brittle. Hit one against your palm , and it breaks easily as it is designed to, and spills hundreds of shining , black, Laburnum seeds. All this hints at some older evolutionary branch of trees` species; speaks of an epoch when pollination through insects would have been perhaps easier and assured – so that the lure of the flowers could be delinked from germination of the seeds. But, very far indeed from being a naturalist, perhaps I am just talking through my hat.


But why did I think of Camus , who after their spat Sartre, coming from the sterner school of the Iron in the Soul, dubbed as a “classical Lyricist”? Camus had sadness and beauty, while Sartre had only sadness. Now past the spells and hexes of girlfriends, poets, professors, life`s many faces, I think I understand the spat – both sides of it. When I see the gleaming yellow school-buses of the “international schools” passing through my Laburnum road, air-conditioned, shielding the valueable children inside from the smells of Laburnum, and all else.