Even if I start with the Bard’s cliched line repeated endlessly, while a rose by any other name might swell as sweet, a concrete and glass building called rose will smell nothing like a flower.
And yet all around our growing cities, we build large monstrosities, testaments to human greed and acquisitiveness, all symbols of human yearning and name them after flowers. Reminders of what was destroyed to build these large tower blocks? The more expensive this big city building, the more likely it is to be called Magnolia or Camellia. And the less likely it is to be called Champa or Chameli. And if the flats within cost over several crore the building is not going to be called Shri Krishna Vilas and if by some whacky chance it is, the name will be shortened to SKV.
Catch any proud Indian, who spouts eloquent on India’s glorious past while dismisses everyone who is not an ancient Hindu as an invader, living in Shri Krishna Vilas. SKV it is, and that’s why WhatsApp exists to allow you to speak of your invented cultural hegemony.
It is better on the whole as an avowed patriot to live in Magnolia, which your staff call Mongolia, while your son studies at Brown and your daughter at Smith.
How important is it for builders to plant the flowers after which they name their buildings?
I was going to write, close to zero. But that is not the fault of the builders. I have just spent a couple of days in a dry, hot northern city. I went past Tulip and Daffodil Lanes, apart from those Camellia and Magnolia buildings, and several Regencies and Windsors and Belvederes.
Several of these flowers are not native to India and do not easily grow in hot tropical and even sub-tropical areas. Some of them flower for a short season in winter. That is if you live in North India. Delhi’s traffic roundabouts are resplendent with petunias, pansies, dianthus and phlox in winter. In cities like Mumbai, well. I do remember some politician’s daughter was impressed with the prettiness of the flower baskets hung on lamp posts in various European cities. Several hundreds and thousands of rupees were spent on hanging baskets, full of colourful petunias, to be hung along Mumbai’s iconic Marine Drive. They looked lovely for a couple of weeks. But come March and they died and dried. O dear. Why not jasmine or hibiscus but don’t ask silly questions.
I imagine the residents of Windsor Manor angrily WhatsApping to fellow patriots about how colonialism vestiges must end in India and thank god the current dispensation was Indianising and Sanskritising everything from the Armed Forces to the Central Vista.
Then I imagine them calling the vegetable wallah within their gated castle walls where the portcullis is always shut to keep the Indian masses out: “Bhaiyya, avocado, asparagus and bok choi send kar dena and those Muscat grapes nahi forget karna. Thank you.”
Then back to WhatsApp for more patriotism.
And messaging the children at Woodstock or Winchester or Wigan and Leigh.
I meanwhile am humming that Joni Mitchell song to myself about Paradise and parking lots…
So are we the hypocrites, those of us who live in Imperial Heights and Trafalgar Square, as we daintily step over piles of Swachch Bharat garbage? Is it the builders and neighbours who take us for a ride with these names? Or do they have our measure, because they know we will pay more for faux Georgian lamp posts and London pavements within our gated colonies and a whole lot of Rajasthani royal jharokhas and chhhatris added willy-nilly to a building’s façade, as long as it’s not called Govind Das Mansions?
In this I must add a disclaimer. Buildings in Mumbai are often named after builders and thus for years I have lived and worked in a few places called “Jolly”; some had “Maker” attached. These names had nothing to do with happiness or divinity. Just Messrs Jolly and Maker, who built together all over Nariman Point and sometimes apart in other areas of the city. Mumbai names are also somewhat whimsical. And thus an old friend is perpetually amused by a series of art deco buildings on Marine Drive all named “Something Nice Mahal”, where the last is Kewal Mahal, which could be taken to mean “only”, as if they ran out of ideas.
In Dehradun where I now live everything is imperial, filled with manors and so on. We have a long season of camellias and magnolias in gardens, so we don’t need buildings as reminders. But people in this hill town do apparently crave the sea, so there are many Pacifics. No Atlantic or Indian Oceans nor any Arabian Seas. We aim far afield. We are also full of osterias. Every new eaterie is now an osteria. The rest are Maggi points. Spanking new bhojanalayas are hard to find.
Sometimes though the name could be a giant mistake. Like the other day a young man was telling about Dehradun’s latest hotspot, where all the young people of the town meet to dance and drink. Open till 3 am and whatnot. I asked the name. There was loud music playing and I heard “Slut Rani”. I was really impressed. A bit shocked, although I know women want to reclaim the word “slut”. And impressed at the boldness.
I mentioned this to someone else, with swag at my local knowledge. Only to be laughed out of the room. The place was called Sly Granny, a chain of such places.
Ah well. You choose. Indian culture or culture vultures?