What is the colour of summer?
It is an off-white sky, blinding in its brilliance, forcing a tear to the eye. It is the colour of the Taj Mahal glinting in the sunlight, too bright to look at. It is the quickening blue-grey colour of a shadow, deepening as the sun rises. It is the colour of silver water in a wetland, as the sun glitters over it. It is the colourless shimmer of a mirage on the scorching tarmac of India’s highways.
And, the colour of summer is yellow.
The yellow sunshine meets yellow-brown dust, which come together in a yellow Amaltas flower. Amaltas, the Indian laburnum tree, can grow in the hottest reaches of India, flourishing in a dry, crackling heat which makes other plants curl up and wither to dust. North India is in a heatwave. The temperature has touched 50 degree C in Churu and 46 degree C in Delhi. While we cower from the heat, the Amaltas flowers embraces the sunshine. It is like the days of hot loo and sunshine are stored in the leaves of the tree. As if the heat gushes through the tree in rivers, culminating in the flower.
The Amaltas loves the sun. It needs the sun. The flower is a testament to the fact that the sun is shining; and how heat must not just be tolerated, but also accepted.
I grew up in Delhi; and summers meant meeting a grandfather who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The university is on the Aravalli hill range. Between the picturesque campus lanes, fringed by trees and red brick buildings, rise the ancient rocks of the Aravallis, curving like the spine of a giant fossil. And: there is Amaltas everywhere. You can’t escape the cheer of the yellow petals, hanging like chandeliers in an inverted pyramid cluster from the tree, and then falling and covering the ground. You see the yellow chains, you walk through the yellow benediction, and you wonder why the nursery rhyme ever said that yellow is a dirty fellow.
This year has been different. The Amaltas started blooming when the country was in lockdown. Early summer is always a difficult time. The heat settles in quickly, and refuses to leave, as if it’s always been there. There isn’t much to do except feel uncomfortably hot. The mornings and evenings lose their April freshness. There is the drudgery of May, and the blaze of June. The Amaltas softens this blow. This year, the year of Covid, catastrophe, and cyclone, I was locked in when the Amaltas first opened its flowers. And just as the lockdown eased a bit, Amphan, the major cyclone, came to West Bengal and Odisha.
The great metropolitan city of Kolkata was smashed through by Amphan. People died. Electricity lines snapped. Floods pooled the ground, turning the earth into a lagoon. And, trees fell. The city seemed to be mourning its lost trees like it was an open wound—article after article, and post after post, appeared in memory of more than 5,000 trees that had been felled by the cyclone. Author Sumana Roy wrote how plant lives matter, and we should remember our trees.
Common to many posts were the references to fallen Amaltas. Some people wrote how “their” Amaltas trees had their roots ripped out by the cyclone. Others said how they watched as the howling wind tore Amaltas blossoms off their branches, robbing the tree of its jewels and fertility.
It was as if during the unspeakably fast winds of the cyclone—winds of over 250 kilometre per hour—people had paused the images in front of them to notice each little detail of their trees. And it was as if the Amaltas had flowered – and then been un-flowered—to ensure they were noticed, documented, and remembered.
In Delhi, parts of the lockdown have lifted, and the Amaltas is still holding up its yellow jewels. As I drive through the city, I see Amaltas nodding at red lights. The canopy of the tree—aflush only with flowers, and no leaves—merges with other trees. In some places, the Amaltas seems to have become one with a Peepal tree; the latter looking like a giant, spreading ficus tree with yellow flowers–both trees becoming a single consciousness. In other places, the Amaltas blazes next to a red-blossomed Gulmohar tree, the two looking like molten flames in a leaping fire.
There aren’t many things to look forward to in times of Covid and curfew. The Amaltas tree though, shrugs its shoulders and turns its face to the sun. It carries on, though it is shaken by cyclones and fed with indifference. It turns its face to the heat; unfazed, and with utter panache.
It strikes me then that yellow is not just the colour of summer, but also the colour of resistance.
This first appeared in Slow.