‘Herbarium’ by Sonia Rafeeq, is a debut novel which has won the DC Literature Award in 2016. It depicts the relation between life and nature- like the amniotic fluid of a mother’s womb- through the story of a little boy who suddenly loses his mother. The child has grown up in Dubai and his mother, who loved the earth and mud, trees and insects, has always struggled to create an island of green on her Dubai flat’s balcony. Tipu’s Ummadu, is an earth woman: the one who breathes in and out the simplicity and depths of Mother Earth herself. But she is lost one day.
The child comes to his maternal home and discovers what is nature. From a life of playing with tablets and video games, he gets into a world where a ‘chicken’ in KFC is actually a haughty rooster who pecks around worms in the sand. There is a grand Peepul tree- splendid in its canopy and width- reigning gracefully within a snake grove. And the child sees through wonder struck eyes a wriggling white worm which emerges from within a mango seed, as the ripe flesh is cut into pieces. Apparently, it has eaten up all the food meant for a baby mango sapling, in its greedy feasting adventures!
I am at page 63 of a 231 page novel. And it has been simply delicious till now! I could not resist writing a paen!
Extraordinary observations connecting human emotions with nature!
We have a phrase in Malayalam: Tottavady pole- like a Touch-Me- Not plant! It is used to describe very sensitive nature in human beings. Men and Women and Children, who cannot withstand any unexpected disturbances in life. It is a phrase which cautions – not to be like the touch me not plant which folds and shrinks up in terror when touched at random!
Tipu happens to glimpse a school senior- a teenager- jump to his death from the flat because he has lost top marks in two subjects at school. He sees his mother- enraged and upset- to see that wasted life.
She mutters: ‘Why do children turn into Touch Me Not plants ?’
Trying to translate a stunning paragraph.
The notes left behind by Fatima, turned her into a stranger to Asif. He could not fathom her: he had not known her. Inside her had been an island which he could never reach. It was inaccessible by ships or aeroplanes. He was in a sojourn to reach that island by deciphering her notes….
One of Fatima’s Notes:
This cot too had been part of a tree at some point of time. A tree that was green and vital: its roots sunk deep into earth. Ah… trees, such enchanting symbols! They lay dead- in multiple formations- in our bed rooms and sitting rooms, carrying their own biers. If one casts a glance at the kitchen, one can notice a bigger cemetery. If you open the refrigerator, you can see solid evidences of ruthless killing obscenely gloating at you: in the form of fish and goat and rooster. Then the dead seeds stocked in the bottles of the kitchen racks might shock- beans, mustard, pulses. There are more dead bodies in crushed forms too. A real graveyard. And I am the keeper of the graves.
Strong recommendation to pick up this green book. The author is a postgraduate in plant pathology and worked as an Agricultural Officer before shifting to Dubai.
Her dedication reads ( In translation)
To the earth that no longer emits fragrance,
To the dead trees,
To the rivers which have sunk deep,
And to children:
Who carry the gift of God’s imagination
To rebuild, re-create everything.