November 05, 2009

The Devil’s Fragrance

Returning late one night last month I stepped out of the rickshaw and into the familiar glaze of sodium vapour lights. Skipping puddles on the road I made for the invisible footpath to shelter from the light drizzle under trees that merged into dark outlines of brooding leaves, beyond the seeming warmth of sodium.

I was not carrying an umbrella having delighted in the sunshine of preceding days. And just when it seemed that rains had given way to an Indian summer on the eve of a Bombay winter, they struck with a vengeance in that first week of October last month.

They washed the streets clean, cleared up the dust on the roadside and lent the air a tingling nip that was at once a pleasure to stroll in and a delight to feel on the neck in the breeze rustling the trees.

While there was work to wind up and packing to do, I was cheerful to the promise of October for, the first week would soon give way to Diwali. It also meant a long journey along the Konkan Coast, watching passing panoramas of old hills shepherding streams and rivers gently along while farm hands prepared to harvest paddy in the fields while twilight trickled over darkening contours, turning that midway moment into burnished gold of rural idyll.

Then on the eve of Diwali the demoniac throes of the drummer boys at Narkasur nights would beckon, the crescendo rising up to meet the evil promise of a demon before he would be reduced to ashes to wild cheers of crowds gathered to witness the ritual triumph of good over evil.

So when I stepped out of the rickshaw I had little on my mind save thoughts of winding up tasks before it was time to board the long distance train heading down the coast.

I was already imagining the train curving along contours of mountainous terrain while valleys opened up beneath me as I stood at the door letting the Konkan breeze wash over my face when I was brought up short on inhaling deeply of the night air as I made my way under the trees. Behind me the rickshaw had sputtered to life and was returning after dropping me off.

I instantly broke my stride, paused and inhaled again. Then I stopped. This was heady.

There was fragrance in the air, deep, heavy fragrance. A fragrance that meandered, and strengthened as much by stillness as by moistness in the air it hung like an invisible affirmation of a happy evening out.

Horns sounded behind me. It was then that I noticed a swathe of pale orange carpeting the street, covering cars parked to the side of the road in a layer of pale yellow.

A few had settled along the length of a pair of wipers resting against the windscreen. On closer examination they turned out to be flowers, small in size and individually mildly fragrant while collectively they intoxicated the night street about them.

While I stood there before bending down to scoop up a handful, more flowers fell, in slow motion. They meditated as they descended; exhaling their fragrance, adding to the hundreds, no, thousands that now carpeted the road.

A heavy wind had rattled the windows the night before and continued through the day.

I looked up. The first time I had chosen to make sense of a tree I must have passed by umpteen times, here and elsewhere. But not once had I wondered as to its existence except for taking its shade, and that of the other trees in the neighbourhood, for granted.

More flowers descended from the branches above, twirling as they fell to the earth. The branches were heavy with flowers, and the flowers heavy with fragrance, and the neighbourhood heavy with atmosphere.

That night I looked them up and realized they belonged to the Indian Devil tree (Alstonia scholaris), an Indian flowering tree native to the tropics and one of the 40-odd species of the Alstonia native to a wide geography.

The next morning I stepped out to the sight of more flowers covering the road. In the distance I could’ve mistaken them for snow if it was not Bombay and not the first week of October.

The flowers were white, five petals to each flower.

Elsewhere in the city the Indian Devil Tree was in bloom, lending the morning fragrance to school children on their way to school. The tree itself was not very big, close to twenty feet tall. Sweepers swept the roads, bunching the flowers by the side of the road.

Office goers hailed rickshaws while workers moved to clear fallen branches of an Indian Devil Tree that had failed to withstand the winds of the night before.

The flowers having graced the roads, and the fragrance the air, the early October morning had turned intoxicating. As I inhaled the morning freshness the fragrance lent the air a sharp nip as I drew it into my lungs. I could only guess as to its name. Devils purportedly intoxicate to overpower.

I was inclined to believe.

And I had little doubt that long after the tree had shed the last of its blooms, barely days after its first, the roads would carry fragrance from the fallen flowers and wandering feet would bring the intoxication home.


Anjuli said...

I certainly wish I could was there to smell the wonderful fragrance!! The pictures were beautiful (as usual) and lent well to the narrative.

It is so wonderful when unexpected winds come and stir up fragrances and new atmospheres.

bobbie said...

What a lovely post. I feel as if I share the beauty and intoxication with you.

Grannymar said...

I want to walk barefoot among the petals.

Anonymous said...

I have been waiting for a long time to read those words about my favourite devil fragance. I can only smell it, feel it, memorize it, miss it in cooling wind with honey sunshine sky wherever i am at the end of autumn but i can never keep it last (at least for a year until the next bloom) by writing down what i felt about this fragrance...

I ask many people where i live do they feel the (heavy but sweet) fragrance which flying around them at that moment? The answers were always no. Perhaps chilli tastes and the heavy spices smells from kitchen destroyed their smell's ability. Yes, it is reality they might answer me. Sometimes i asked my self am i the only one at the place i stay feel this fragrance, is that real or am i still dreaming about Hanoi (the place where this fragrance is almost the symbol of the city, where many poems, songs, stories tell about this fragrance, where many couples swear their love under its shade, where i grew up...)?

Thanks for its flower pictures, for the stream of words and for the pure feeling you have transfered to the words...

It made my great autumn morning...

marja-leena said...

I wish there was a way to send the scent of these flowers over the internet, for I'd like to experience that lovely intoxication.

Granny J said...

Such a kindly devil of a tree! We have a high desert plant called cliff rose which gives the air a heady scent in late spring.

Niranjana said...

Do you know the origin of the name Devil tree--sounds like there might be a story in there?

Lynn said...

You made me feel as if I was there and could breathe in that intoxicating fragrance. Lovely and peaceful post.

Anil P said...

Anjuli: How true. When unexpected winds stir up possibilities a walk down the road turns into a journey of exploration, of self.

Thank you.

Bobbie: Thank you.

Grannymar: You're welcome to.

Lily: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Caught up with things on the mind many a walking soul becomes oblivious to life on the road. A pause to draw in the atmosphere and creating a breathing space for imagination can go a long way into bringing meaning to living.

It's wonderful to read of your memories. Thank you for sharing them.

Marja-leena: I wish too. Maybe the fragrances are available as essences. I'm not sure though.

Granny J: Very kindly, more so for the name. The fragrances must energise the deserts in spring time.

Niranjana: Thank you. There is.

For one, the Indian Devil tree is not considered to be auspicious, believed to be home to the devil, partly for the intoxicating fragrance of its flowers. Intoxication that is believed to do no good, as in entrapping or aiding entrapment.

Other trees are not considered auspiciousfor the taste of its fruits, e.g. sour, or bitter. So no surprise that leaves of the mango tree find wide applicability in Hindu festivals.

I find a close parallel with the temptation of the Yakshi on a lonely road, and the transformation of the Yakshi into the devil.

Lynn: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Amber Star said...

It seems the Devil Tree is part of the start of cooler weather. Here it is not so much a smell...other than the faintly remembered smell of burning leaves from my childhood, it is the changing color of the leaves that is the call of fall and colder weather.

Sarah Laurence said...

At least it isn’t snowing! That’s our weather now. I love how you stop to look at things others would miss, like blossoms on a windscreen.

Anil P said...

Amber Star: Winter blooms, yes. Though there's not much of a winter to speak of in Bombay, unlike say, up north of the country.

Along the coast as farmers prepare for the next crop, they'll burn the fields to clear the way for sowing.

Sarah Laurence: No snow here. If it does anytime then it'll because something is seriously wrong with the weather.

I meander mostly, hence the small things :-)

Thank you.

Mridula said...

Fragrant post!

radha said...

Once again a wonderful post. And it made me curious about the tree, I had never heard of it before. I chanced upon this site - since you are so much into nature, you might find it useful -
and this description -
Botanical name: Alstonia scholaris
Common name: Dita bark, Devil tree
This elegant evergreen tree is found in most parts of India. The generic name commemorates the distinguished botanist, Prof. C. Alston of Edinburgh, 1685-1760. The species name scholaris refers to the fact that the timber of this tree has traditionally been used to make wooden slates for school children. Its is commonly known as the Devil Tree, as it is considered to be the abode of the devil, in popular imagination. In October small, green yet fragrant flowers appear. All parts of the tree can be considered poisonous. It is a tall elegant tree with greyish rough bark. Branches are whorled, and so are the leaves, that is, several of them coming out of the same point. The tree is really elegant whether it is flowering or not. The slightly rounded, leathery, dark green leaves form whorls of 4-7. And a very regular branching gives the tree a beautiful shape. The wood is too soft for making anything - so it is usually used in making packing boxes, blackboards etc. Its bark, known as Dita Bark, is used in traditional medicine to treat dysentry and fever. On the Western Ghats, tribal people are reluctant to sit or pass under this tree, for the fear of the devil.

Fishbowl said...

Lovely, vivid writing as always. So enjoyable.

Anil P said...

Mridula: Thank you.

Radha: Thank you. Alstonia scholaris appears to have a sizeable distribution in India. However it does not seem to appear in the lists of Indian flowering trees usually drawn up. So I'm not sure as to its distribution density beyond where I live.

I've heard the tree to have medicinal uses, among them malaria.

Thank you for digging up more information.

Maybe it's a good tree to have in the neighbourhood, maybe the devils resident will keep neighbourhoods safe :-)

Fishbowl: Thank you :-)

dipali said...

I've linked my post on Alstonia to yours! Wonderful photographs and a nice write up.

Anil P said...

Dipali: Thank you. :)

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say thank you. I have been fevereshly looking for the name of this flowering tree. I tried googling it in so many ways putting in a combination of "white flowers", "bloom in october", 'delhi" and "fragrance". Thanks to your blog I finally know now that it is the Indian Devil Tree. I wait for October each year just so I can smell it in the air. :)

Anil P said...

Missy HuckFinn: You're welcome. The fragrance is quite something, more so in the evenings. It's a shame we cannot have it bloom all year round.

Raania Azam Khan Durrani said...

darpan said...

where did you find this tree?

Chriss said...

I love its smell..every year i wait for this tme to smell anyone know any perfume in its smell?