Breath for fragrance,
who needs flowers?
With peace, patience, forgiving and self-command,
who needs the Ultimate Posture?
The whole world become oneself
who needs solitude,
O lord white as jasmine.
—Mahadeviakka, 12th century Virasaiva poet [translation by A.K. Ramanujan, in Speaking of Siva, 1973]
On a whim and with a secretly stolen hour, I found myself in the flower market aisles of Pondicherry’s “big market” (proper name: Goubert market), in search of Madurai malli–or the sambac jasmine from Madurai district.
The “madurai malli” or malli-poo from Madurai (malli=jasmine in Tamil) is a distinguished little flower with quite a history. The 9CE Chola era King Pari is said to have found a jasmine creeper flailing in the wind, and left his chariot for the little plant to use as a support. Its fragrance was said to be strong enough to indicate that the city of Madurai was drawing close.
There’s not a traveler to the South of India who hasn’t observed women wearing jasmine strands in their hair, or the ceremonial use of the flower in temple rituals. In these days of grower’s associations and exports and fragrance hunters for first world interests like Dior, we know other things about the flower: that nearly 10,000 tonnes of buds are produced from 1,200 hectacres in Madurai district alone; that the Madurai malli blooms at 6pm–which means it’s buds are fresher at early morning picking hours than other jasmine varieties; that its fragrance then lasts up to 36 hours, thanks to Madurai district’s distinctive red laterite soil which enhance the expression of α-terpineol, one of jasmine’s principal constituents.
Precisely because the little Madurai malli is so inimitable, it sets a bar which everyone tries to mimic–and then this jasmine must be distinguished from all others (for instance the Ramnad goondu malli, or the fat jasmines from Ramnad) to preserve its unique authenticity.
Lucky for us, we have Geographical Indications: defined in the WTO TRIPS Agreement, these are the signs or certifications used on products to indicate certain qualities, methods of production, local reputation, all given by geographical origin. So, these days, I can make all the sparkling wine I want–but I cannot call it “champagne” unless its produced with grapes and methods traditionally used in the production of Champagne. Similarly for Roquefort cheese, Vidalia onions, Malabar pepper, Tennessee Whiskey, Idaho potatoes, Darjeeling tea, Banarasi saris, Sacher Torte, and a host of made-and-grown products. The Madurai Malli was added to India’s GI list in January 2013.
The traders in the big market, however, offered that “Madurai Malli” is “just another name” for the jasmine variety they were selling at 150-200 ruppees a kilo, depending on who was asking. Of course. They had every reason to want to obscure origin to secure as-good prices for their buds-of-unconfirmed-origin.
I was there with a camera, in jeans, and a “bob cut” hairdo, no less–for all these reasons, recognizable only as a tourist, much as all mallis were purportedly Madurai-origin. This father asked me to take a photo of him with his son.
Akshay begrudgingly followed the instructions of older boys in his shop to be photographed. “It’s fine if you give me a copy,” he said. “Otherwise what are you going to do with these pictures of me?” I’ve promised to return with a print.
A tubaned betel leaf seller held fast to his conviction that I couldn’t possibly be from Pondicherry. “You look like you came from somewhere else, like Sophia Loren,” he insisted. I told him I loved him, and would come back to see him daily to prove that I was, indeed, from here now.
[Yes, I know, those are flies on the betel leaf stacks–nothing from the big market must be consumed without successive rounds of washing.]
Amidst the “malli, malli, malli!” calls of bustling early morning trading and the curious appraisals of strangers, I realized two things. The first, I realized anew: we live in a placeless world where so many moving and relocating people carry with them the need to reproduce in new lands what they cannot carry with them from the old ones. My baby Meyer lemon plants, slowly getting used to the laterite earth of Auroville, is a case in point.
And, second, that GI tagging is a contemporary form of cartography. Each new tag defines geographical territories of production and processes, to the benefit of some and the exclusion of others. Farmers in Ramanathapuram claim that they’re also producers of the Madurai Malli, and should be accorded GI rights because “the plants raised in Mandapam and Thangachimadam regions and “Madurai Malli” cultivated by farmers in Madurai, Theni and Dindigul districts had a ‘mother and child’ like relationship.”
It’s funny how neoliberal logics are self-evident guarantors of rights, at least the way the papers tell the story. I can’t quite tell how the jasmine’s new GI identity will release farmers from “binding” systems–whereby they taking loans from merchants and pay them off with flowers–but there you have it.
If we can’t pin down citizenship any longer, and the problem of who comes from where is irretrievably complicated, we sure can pin down what comes from where as a measure of worth and value. From there we make our clubs and cliques and countries. Who belongs and who doesn’t? Who passes and who lies? It’s a whole new geo-identified world.
The women in the market pause for cool drinks, and I remember having read somewhere about jasmine syrups.
“How much are your mallis? I ask a man who is happy to pose for a photo, but pegs me for a pushover.
I thank him, and move on through baskets of chrysanthemums, marigolds, tuberoses, vaadaamalli or purple globe amaranths, piles of delicate orange kanakambaram or crossandras, roses, and packets of pink oleander.
I don’t argue with the man who charges Rs. 150 per kilo. He packs me 1/4 kg, and adds some wilting marigolds as a “bonus.” He pauses charmingly for a photograph, then turns others waiting. The pace of marketplace transactions is breakneck, but there’s always time for small talk and curiosity.
Once home, I think again of a fragrant infusion. I must wait until 6pm for my jasmines to bloom, and their scent to release. A half hour ahead, I prepare a simple syrup (1 cup water + 1 cup sugar–I use a local raw brown, a bit like demerara). Once the sugar dissolves, I pour my jasmines in, saving a small handful for garnishes. Close the lid tightly, and let the flowers infuse for a few hours.
Before going to bed, and knowing the heat of my town in June, I strain the wilted flowers out–and add a few more fresh blossoms to leave overnight. In the morning: strain again, bottle, and store, refrigerated.
Until I’m ready for my jasmine lychee cocktail, that is–which brazenly mixes strawberries from a different season, lychees from still elsewhere, rum carted over unspeakable distances, and the divine scent of the Madurai malli for a cocktail that is unmistakably from this particular mixed-up, geo-unidentified juncture, where I am.
I’m putting my feet up and reading A.K. Ramanujan on the “Death and the good citizen”:
“…they’ll cremate / me in Sanskrit and sandalwood, /have me sterilized /to a scatter, or ash. … My tissue will never graft /will never know newsprint / never grow in a culture, / or be mold and compost /for jasmine, eggplant /and the unearthly perfection /of municipal oranges.”
The full poem and cocktail recipe are below.
Jasmine Infused syrup and scented cocktail Recipe. [Click here for full-res version.]
"Death and the good citizen"
I know, you told me
your nightsoil, and all
your city’s goes still,
warm every morning
in a government
lorry, drippy (you said)
but punctual, by special
arrangement to the municipal
gardens to make the grass
grow tall for the cows
in the village, the rhino
in the zoo and the oranges
plump and glow, till
they are a peternatural
Good animal yet perfect
citizen, you, you are
biodegradable, you do
return to nature: you will
your body to the nearest
hospital, changing death into small
change and spare parts;
dismantling, not de-
composing like the rest
of us. Eyes in an eye bank
to blink someday for a stranger’s
brain, wait like mummy wheat
in the singular company of
single eyes, pickled
with your kind of temper
may even take, make connection
with alien veins, and continue
your struggle to be naturalized:
beat, and learn to miss a beat,
in a foreign body.
you know my tribe, incarnate
unbelievers in bodies,
they’ll speak proverbs, contest
my will, against such degradation.
Hide-bound, even worms cannot
have me: they’ll cremate
me in Sanskrit and sandalwood,
have me sterilized
to a scatter, or ash.
they’ll lay me out in a funeral
parlor, embalm me in pesticide,
bury me in a steel trap, lock
me so out of nature
till I’m oxidised by left-
over air, withered by my own vapors
into grin and bone.
My tissue will never graft
will never know newsprint
never grow in a culture,
or be mold and compost
for jasmine, eggplant
and the unearthly perfection
of municipal oranges.
–A.K. Ramanujan, 1981.