The following is excerpted from a short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021).
I have only one plant in my house. A frangipani in a battered pot, red as red-brick, but made of plastic. It sits in the corner of my small apartment overlooking the Arabian Sea, which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds—salty froth strips away the already peeling paint, exposing rivulets of rust and green mould that run deep, deeper than the walls themselves.
The champa’s twining branches snake out from the thick stem in opposing directions. Arms flung out asking why, or arms broken at the elbow cringing in pain. It was a gift from my father. I say ‘gift’, but what I mean is, he begged me on his deathbed to take care of it. I stood in the doorway, watching the movers pack away clothes and possessions he would no longer need, holding this too-heavy pot awkwardly between slippery palms. The branches of the champa flung themselves around my neck like a bawling child. The leaves tickled my nose, and I bumped it into the wall crushing my finger blue and breaking a fragment of the pot that the cleaners probably swept away along with the belongings of my father that nobody wanted.
My father had green thumbs, but I have brown ones. I barely kept the champa alive. I would forget about it for days on end, until the branches would curl like arthritic fingers and the little green leaves that beamed at the knuckles of the branches would wither. Then I would stumble across the floor with an aluminum degchi, filled with water and flecks of tea leaves that had burned themselves permanently into the bottom of the pan, and pour a deluge into the pot. The mud would sputter in surprise before gulping down the relished meal. And then, the leaves would turn green again in gratitude. But there would never be any flowers.
Flowers only bloomed on Mother. She was back in our old bungalow, the one Father had to sell when he no longer had the money to care for it. She sat in the garden, right outside the big window in the lounge, white flowers with yellow bellies twirling off her branches and drifting onto the grass. Whenever I missed her, all I had to do was pick up a flower, bury my nose deep within its golden centre and sniff. And then I would hear her voice, chiding as she braided my oiled hair, my head tucked between her knees.
I think that’s why Father kept this champa all these years. It wasn’t Mother, but it reminded him of her. I remember him watching the new owners of the house I had grown up in, strutting through the empty rooms, frowning at the place where graphite lines marked my years in inches. Father and I heard them debating which walls they would tear down, which ceilings would have skylights, which memories they would erase. I remember thinking, why buy our house if you don’t want to live in it?
They hated the overgrown champa that was my mother.
“This tree looks appalling out here! Totally obstructs the view to the garden,” the owner’s wife sniffed.
“Stop being so anal! I’ve already told the gardener, he’s fetching an axe to get rid of it,” her husband snapped.
“Oooo can we turn the stump into a picnic table?” Their young daughter danced in glee at the thought of dissecting my mother.
Father began to tremble beside me.
“Don’t worry,” I placed my hand on his shoulder, “They’ll cut it horizontally, the roots will still be there.”
The roots of the champa ran deep like gripping fingers buried in soil. They were entangled in the very guts of Father’s garden. These people would never be able to uproot it. The gardener returned with the axe and swung it at the base of the tree. Plack! Plack! A knife slapping a body. Would the tree bleed? I wondered, as Father bawled beside me.
I didn’t know of our botanical heritage until I visited the attic. Not even when Mother gifted me a rug-making kit, with needles, furry wool, and an instruction manual that went over my head. Not even when Dadi, my grandmother, slapped the watermelon seeds out my mouth. Watermelon is a cumbersome fruit. The seeds are small and plenty which leaves you with the difficult choice of either relishing a mouthful of seeds or spending your meal spitting into a dish. I had chosen the former—the seeds were edible and crunchy—when Dadi’s callused palm landed on my blameless cheek. The seeds flew out like projectile spiders.
“Don’t eat these or a tree will grow in your stomach!”
That night, I pulled the covers to my chin and thought, fearfully, of a malicious tree gripping my bowels, pushing its vines through my throat and eye sockets. The next morning, my bones hurt. I was too young for the Panadol I asked for, but Amma sat me down on the window seat in the lounge where we had an unobstructed view of the garden. She unfurled her palm and in her palmar flexion creases—vertical, like mine, with many offshoots of spidery lines disappearing into her fingers like branches—sat two watermelon seeds.
“These are not the seeds you have to be wary of,” she stroked my hair as parents are wont to do when they are compensating for the explanation they are about to withhold.
“Seeds grow inside everyone, Chandana,” she said, “You and I, we’re just lucky we can choose the type of seed we will germinate.”
A few days later, she brought me a box with instructions on how to make a fluffy rug. Keep my hands busy, she said, keep my mind off the seeds that life blew my way. I thought she was being metaphorical.
Kehkashan Khalid is a Pakistani artist and writer, exploring surreal and speculative elements deriving from her subcontinental roots and Middle Eastern experiences. She founded an award-winning project, The Untold Edition, to bring together emerging artists from all disciplines. In 2019, she graduated with distinction from a master’s in fine arts programme at the University of the Arts London, and her thesis work was acquired by the UAL Art Collection. She has been published in Rowayat and 100 Words of Solitude, and recently won the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. Kehkashan lives with her husband and three young children in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Born in Hyderabad, Sindh, Lahore-based Waseem Ahmed’s art vocabulary is rich in metaphors and analogies. Here, animals, letters from the Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu alphabets and silhouettes of imposing figures from Western classical mythology make up an eclectic trove of images. In addition, references to nature’s bounty weave through his compositions like steadfast reminders of the wonders that society is bound to lose if we do not change the status quo. To this end, Ahmed fuses notions of fragility and violence, chaos and calm. It is up to the viewer to determine whether these are scenes of hope emerging or of an inevitable doom-in-progress. Ahmed attended the National College of Arts, Lahore, receiving his bachelor’s in fine arts with honours from the Department of Miniature Painting. He has exhibited extensively in Pakistan and abroad, including a solo exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, Berlin. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin, The British Museum, London, Virginia Whiles Archives, UK, The Stern Collection, New York, The Jindal Collection, India, Anupam Poddar Devi Art Foundation, India, and the D. Daskalopoulos Collection, Switzerland, among others. He was a finalist for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize three years in a row.