“Jasminus melanus was unbeautiful. It is not an individual opinion, but an established fact, just as the sun rises in the east or the moon goes round the earth. There was something disturbing about that disoriented the mind, scratched the senses as though with fingernails. It was a coal-black rebel in a genus of romantically snow-white blossoms, an aberrant piece in an otherwise congruent jigsaw puzzle.
1. The plain little head had five tapered petals fused at awkward angles, as if tousled by a gust of wind.
2. The prickly green stalk, instead of standing erect like that of a proper flower, bent ungracefully, like a disturbing question mark.
3. Furthermore, melanus stank with the vomitty pungency of a putrid corpse.
In a world that enshrines Beauty, floral, human, cosmic, in sublime works of art and literature, melanus inspired no poem, blossomed in no painting.
Pia Parekh’s hand trembled as she wrote. She suddenly wanted to pen an ode to the dying melanus to whose conservation she had vainly devoted forty years. She slouched on her desk wearily, cupping her chin in the palm of her hand, and watched the last plant of the melanus species as it – what was that phrase? – gently faded away into oblivion. She could have screamed that death was not peaceful; it was hideous, repulsive, cruel. Yet she was determined to put herself through the harrowing self-torment, to sit through the all-night vigil, watching helplessly as the world’s last melanus plant withered with the first rays of the dawning sun.
“Why did you choose the melanus?”
It was an innocuous question, asked by a schoolgirl at a long-forgotten seminar, but it would have required a lifetime to answer it. Pia had been a schoolgirl herself when she first visited the Kashmir Valley, seen melanus – and known at once the mission of he life. Love at first sight. It had been as simple – and as inexplicable – as that.
Pia’s obsession with melanus gradually acquired a fervour that was almost erotic in its intensity. They certainly made a fabulous duo, Pia and melanus. They had made each other famous. Pia discovered that melanus, when put under the microscope, revealed a fascinating structure of cell and tissue, sepal and whorl. This unique microcosm, Pia had written, enabled melanus to survive intact since the Jurassic Age. Perhaps it is to Flora what Jane Eyre is to literature: the triumph of the plain thing, against overwhelming odds.
In the later stages of her career Pia flattered herself that melanus and she had become soul mates, that they had somehow become each other, each fusing into the other, so that it was no longer possible to think of one without bringing the other to mind, to view Pia’s face without noting that her dark, unremarkable features had become oddly angular, acquiring the contours of tapering petals fused at the nose…
Pia woke, shivering. Am I too late? No, not yet. The melanus plant was still there, but her trained eye detected signs of fading.
Where did I go wrong? She had done everything an individual could do to halt the ruthless juggernaut of extinction: written books that were critically acclaimed and commercially ignored, organized seminars and exhibitions, founded a Black Jasmine Society, even filed a futile lawsuit. All that came of it were a handful of awards and a chair at an obscure Norwegian university. In India, Land of Black Jasmine and Pia Parekh, her efforts had gone unnoticed. Conservation in India meant Tiger, Elephant, Rhinoceros. Somewhere in this exotic, larger-than-life tableau, a small flower was lost forever.
If we do not take steps to protect the Kashmir Valley from further encroachments and clear the existing pollution, melanus will become yet another victim of the loss of habitat. You might ask: why protect the melanus when there are other, richer species? I reply: though melanus has little intrinsic value, it is folly to evaluate a species according to its commercial worth. We do not have the right to refashion the world according to our wants and conveniences. Every species is an integral strand of Spencer’s web of life; we cannot tamper with the web without tearing ourselves apart in the process… The rest had been lost amid a storm of applause. Ironically, it was then, in that hall filled with eminent naturalists, that Pia Parekh had first realised that the going would only get tougher; that she would probably lose the one-woman fight to protect melanus.
The tears now flowed, fast and free. What to do after melanus was gone? How to live? How to … it was unfair, unfair, unfair…
“Gently now,” someone said.
Pia opened her eyes to find her colleagues rousing her. At once her gaze flew to the now withered stalk of the plant. “Has she gone?” she asked superfluously. Melanus is dead; long live Melanus.
How strange that the sun would choose to rise at that moment, painting everything – the interior of the office, the withered stalk, Pia’s worn face – a deep rose. Pia drew a deep breath. The sun. The symbol of Life, Death, Regeneration.
“I’m fine,” she replied to their anxious queries, her voice calm, “Just needed a cup of black coffee.”