Tag Archives: hibiscus

The Venus Flytrap: The Scent of Hibiscus


Hibiscadelphus wilderianus grew on the slopes of Maui up until a century ago, before it was declared extinct. Now, a biotechnology company, Ginkgo Bioworks, claims to have resurrected the flower’s scent through genetic reconstruction. They recently debuted a perfume, which they described as piney and earthy.

But in truth, most hibiscus flowers have no fragrance. If at all, it’s just a wisp of one, possibly partly imagined, and we know it more from clear reddish teas and blended into herbs and chemicals in haircare than from the plant itself. That redolence, light as it is, is not in the blossom. The blood-bright ones placed at Kali’s feet are silent in the realm of scent.

So what is the fragrance that these biotechnologists have developed? How much of it is the power of suggestion, what the words “Hawaiian mountain hibiscus” conjure? When they tell us their new perfume line will return to us something lost, do we believe them?

I was on a video call with a faraway friend the other night as she dressed for a date, and when she sprayed perfume on herself, I was sure I could smell it. “Is it citrusy?” I asked. It was. It was not a signature scent; I cannot explain how the fragrance burst around me at the sound of the spritz. One night more than a decade ago, I was weeping in bed missing my recently deceased grandmother when the scent of paan filled the room. She had loved chewing areca nuts and betel leaf, and the smell of this was something I associated with her. Someone will tell me I was hallucinating, someone else will tell me my heart imploded into aroma. You can guess who among those someones I would call kindred.

Our olfactory sense is as emotional as our tactile sense. We think it’s the one we can live without, the one we’d give up if we had to choose one, but we’d lose more than just reactions of pleasure or disgust. We’d also lose one of the keys to our inner selves, influencing both our ability to reach into our memories and to express the way they make us feel. Sometimes the past circles back to us unseen.

The Hawaiian mountain hibiscus was known to botanists based on a single sample, dated to 1910, with it being presumed extinct only a couple of years later. Perhaps those early botanists used the word “discovery” in some description of their encounter and study of it, but if so, it would only have been in the way the Americas or certain spices were “discovered”. It it was endemic to Maui long before this. Centuries of people held its petals in their palms. Millennia of creature paws scampered by its bushes, or dipped proboscises into the nectar at its heart. The flower had other names, possibly held a place in ritual or courtship or adornment. Those who claim to have revived its scent have still not told us what its colour was. What its secrets were. They aren’t poets, after all. Yet they speak its songlike name, and look how we respond – how we rise, or implode.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 31st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness


There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.



An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.