ON A THURSDAY MORNING in April, I walk into the Sunder Nursery Gardens in Delhi’s city center. These outings are a customary habit, instilled by my father when we were growing up. Our neighborhood was far from Delhi’s gardens and green spaces, tightly meshed into concrete. It lacked the bounty of hopping birds, mulberry-laden trees, and massive canopies of banyan trees. In springtime, we traveled to the city center for picnics with our cousins and friends. While my parents lay beneath trees, my sister and I watched parrots and roamed, wearing frangipani flowers in our hair.
Today it is too hot for me to linger on these memories. I walk past the old fifteenth-century monuments engraved with Persian script, along the geometric canal where birds dunk their heads to cool themselves. My pace quickens as I head toward the Gulistan, my favorite part of the garden. Gulistan translates to “garden of roses”; it uses the same suffix as Pakistan and Hindustan, lending it a largeness that escapes bageecha, the Urdu word for “garden.” To those that speak Hindi or Urdu, the word gulistan offers an imagination that defies all technical accuracy. It insinuates a “land of roses” or “world of roses”; its utterance fills the air with their color and scent.
I find a place near the rose patches and watch as a couple of students take photographs near a monument. The flowers are oversaturated in the summer light. I cannot spot the coral anymore, nor the red, nor the white. Most are wilted and burned, their heads hung low to the ground. I ask the gardener, “How are the roses faring?” He surveys them and walks to an edge of the patch to dig out mud. “Ab bahaar hi nahin aaya toh gulaab kahaan rahengey,” he tells me sadly. “Spring has left us. What will the roses do now that spring never arrived.”
BOTH SPRING AND FLOWERS occupy a vast space in the imagination of South Asian romance. Unlike Euro-centric cultures, where flowers are a token of affection, here they often stand in for bodies themselves— entire vessels of desire and intimacy. In Hindi cinema, flowers nestle comically together to signify a physical union. Within fourteenth- and fifteenth-century stories, lovers in waiting are often painted with arrays of roses at their feet.
As spring in Delhi is a short season, it exists in anticipation—in phrases like “Aap aaye, bahaar aayi—Now that you are here, spring has arrived,” a confession of love I grew up craving to hear. Romance is drawn outside the physical manifestations of our bodies: It lives in flower gardens, scented perfumes, and shared plates of food. It lives in stolen glances and poetry laden with pining and pain, set with the natural emblems of intimacy.
Today it is too hot for me to linger on these memories.
The Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz compares his beloved with the spring flowers in his poem “Suna Hai”: “Sunā hai us ke badan kī tarāsh aisī hai, ki phuul apnī qabāeñ katar ke dekhte haiñ,” he writes about the woman he loves; “I have heard that the beauty of her form is such that the flowers wilt in front of her.” Revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz writes about spring as a time of waiting for his beloved: “Chale bhī aao ki gulshan kā kārobār chale—Come now, so spring’s work can commence.” Where bodies are policed and desires forbidden and histories violent, metaphors are not just figures of speech. They are ways of life that carry great weight. Each lover’s confession carries within it the intricacies of the seasons, the elements, the presence of greenflies, bees, and insects that allows their flowers and landscapes to exist.
WHILE CLIMATE CHANGE EXISTS in the abstract policy language of the Global North, I have witnessed it in moments like these: in wilted roses and a defeated gardener, in mango farmers’ mourning when the rains arrive too late or too soon. I have seen it in my father’s sadness at not being able to time the arrival of fruit with his mental monthly calendar. Every fruit that disappears and every rose that wilts is a destruction of our collective thought, an assault on our dreams and folklore, the way we love, live, and feel.
As I explore the gardens farther, I see no roses, but I glimpse their coral in an ice cream sold near the gate when I exit. On a woman’s dupatta (scarf), I spot the roses’ “rani pink”—a deep hue embossed in India’s textiles, copied from bright, royal roses that once were everywhere. Perhaps in the future, no one will name colors after roses anymore. And perhaps, if I ever fell in love again, I won’t be able to find the words—Aap aaye, bahaar aayi, and draw my lover into metaphors set with bright flowers and dewy weather—if spring ceases to exist.
This piece is from Orion’s Winter 2023 issue, Romance in the Climate Crisis. Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of this issue.