This essay on roses was published in the second volume of The Aleph Review (2018) and evokes a particularly Pakistani flavour binding roses to both marriage and death. I chose this excerpt from her piece because it encapsulates a part of our culture, but is also a deeply personal writing on grief and the author's childhood memories, making it singularly her own.
— Madeeha Maqbool (Digital Guest Editor)
God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.
Babcia (my Polish grandmother) died on the last day of July. She was buried in Miani Sahib in Lahore. Her grave was strewn with myriads of roses, as if she was laid to rest under a coverlet of petals. I was not there, but can imagine the scent of the roses rising from the earth, concentrated by the summer heat. The remaining rose petals, not used at the graveyard, were brought home and floated in crystal bowls full of water; their fragrance soft and heady in a house full of family and friends gathered together to mourn and celebrate her life.
I associate roses with marriages and funerals. Floral jewellery of roses, marigolds and jasmine are a feature of Pakistani weddings. I particularly love sweet-scented gajras of ruby-pink roses and jasmine strung on thick thread. Brides often have roses tucked into hair swept into a tight bun, and rose petals are showered on the bridal party as they arrive at the ceremony. But rose petals are also sold by weight outside graveyards, to be scattered at burials. These ways of using roses illustrate the layers of meaning associated with them; they are as much symbols of love and beauty as of transience and loss.
A rose blooms in chapters, coaxed by spring and early summer. Its prologue is a tight-fisted bud, hidden by a calyx of green. At its height it is open faced and generously layered, holding its head high until time, like age, curls the edges of its petals and fades its beauty. The flowers blossom in a diverse palette, from muted ivory and blue-mauve to custard and dazzling apricot, fuchsia and scarlet, or striped roses with exotic names: Tiger Black, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro. As varied as their colour is their scent, which ranges from subtle notes like honey or floral tea to the intensely fragrant otto of roses distilled from the Rosa Damascena, popularly known as the Damask rose. The Persian legend of the rose and nightingale suggests that all roses were white until coloured with the blood of the nightingale. The bird was so enamoured of the rose that in leaning close to its beloved, it was pricked by a thorn.
The nightingale with drops of his heart’s blood
Had nourished the red rose, then came a wind,
And catching at the boughs in envious mood,
A hundred thorns about his heart entwined…
Shams al-Din Hafiz Shirazi
Mama taught me how to dry roses by securing them with a string and hanging them upside down in a dry, shaded place. This works best with long stemmed ones in bright tones, as drying subdues the colour. They should be put to dry when they are halfway to full bloom so that they retain their shape. You can tell when they are fully dry when the petals become like parchment. Treating them to a fine coat of lacquer seals them and gives them support, much like starch does to fine cotton. I have a vase of dried ones on my bookshelf, maroon flushed with custard and pale pink buds from a bouquet I bought after Babcia died. For me they are like a sepia-tinted photograph that tells the story of the moment it captured.
I realise now that drying roses was our first foray into preserving. Gulkand came next.
Mehrunnisa Yusuf is of Pakistani-Polish heritage. She has a background in human rights and works for the higher education sector at the University of London in the United Kingdom. In her leisure time, she authors a food/memoir blog inspired by her heritage and travels. Her recipes are prefaced by personal essays of cooking and eating at her family table. You can read more of her work at comeconella.blogspot.com
The featured artwork is by the Karachi-based visual artist Rabia Farooqui and was published in the second volume courtesy of Studio O in Lahore. Rabia received her BFA from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, majoring in miniature painting.