“The Satsuma Plant”: A Moving Short Story

We launch our new feature today: FO° Books. This Sunday, we feature a moving story excerpted from the recently published book, The Blue Women (HarperCollins India), by an outstanding Indian author. The story is about a young university professor’s fragile psyche as she attempts to come to terms with her troubled past.
Orange tree with ripe fruits. Tangerine. Branch of fresh ripe oranges with leaves in sun beams. Satsuma tree picture. Citrus

Orange tree with ripe fruits. Tangerine. Branch of fresh ripe oranges with leaves in sun beams. Satsuma tree picture. Citrus © Khorzhevska /

April 02, 2023 12:06 EDT

The Satsuma plant was a gift.

One afternoon a peon had walked into Meena’s office, his arms wrapped around a large potted plant. He had lowered the planter carefully in the corner under the window on the far side from her desk. Dusting his hands, he had handed her a note.

‘I saw this Satsuma orange plant at the nursery yesterday and remembered you,’ it read. ‘I was told the plant needs open space to grow into a tree but could certainly thrive and bear fruit in the right kind of pot. I liked the idea of gifting this plant from faraway Japan to you for, though you’ve never spoken much about your time in Japan, I have a feeling it must have been memorable. I hope this plant will help release those memories and make room for new ones. Isn’t there something promising and springlike about orange trees?’

Meena had curled her mouth. The Satsuma would never come into fruit here, in these long, interminable summers, the earth cracked with dry heat, the sky seared white. The Satsuma orange was a child of the cold – the colder the weather, the sweeter the fruit. She had torn up the note and dropped its fragments into the dustbin, resolving to kill any false sense of intimacy that he might have acquired. It shouldn’t be difficult to remind him that he was just a colleague with whom she had taught a seminar and talked about the quality of papers turned in by students over cups of bad coffee. She had avoided him thereafter, spending her free time in her own office and bringing tea from home instead of going to the cafeteria.

But it wasn’t possible to avoid the plant crouched in a corner of her office. She watered it occasionally, but did not care for it in any other way – never turning or refreshing the soil, and allowing the dry leaves to accumulate in the planter. The bottle of organic liquid fertilizer which he had thoughtfully sent along with the plant, gathered dust, as did the unopened bag of potting soil. But the plant, sturdy and leaf-laden, had remained stoically green, though fruitless. Its citrusy smell penetrated everywhere. It wafted into the corridor through the open door, causing passing students to stop and breathe deeply. The fragrance made them forget the test that hadn’t gone well, the lover who hadn’t called in days, the world that wasn’t waiting for them outside the university. The breeze sometimes carried the smell upwards to the dean’s offices. On such days, the dean quoted Faiz’s poetry and told everyone that economics was guesswork dressed up with numbers, and that he wished someone had told him so thirty years ago when he enrolled for an economics course just because the model boy in his neighbourhood had done so.

When Meena returned to her office after long days of teaching classes and departmental meetings, the fragrance of the Satsuma plant waited for her like a trap. It made her grab her bag and flee to her small flat at the other end of the campus. Every night she tried to wash the smell out of her hair, her skin, her memory, but it returned in her dreams. The barren Satsuma plant bore fruit in her dreams, trembling under their weight. When she tried to pluck a fruit, she realized they were made of metal, covered in a corrosive paint. They burned holes in the ground as they fell from her scalded fingers, steam rose from the holes, nothing could be seen except the mountains that towered like beasts of stone rearing their angry heads high. She emerged from the steam to find herself in the fruit-filled aisles of a large supermarket.

‘Look, such lovely oranges!’ someone said in her voice.

‘Not oranges, these are mikan, the honey citrus. They become sweeter the colder the weather gets! You’ll only find them here in Japan, Meenu-chan.’

The orange spheres, piled impossibly high in the wooden fruit barrows all around, began to topple like marigolds. She escaped through a doorway into a large kitchen. The sharp, fresh smell of peeled oranges enveloped her. ‘These are found all over the world. I have seen Satsuma orange orchards in California. The “only in Japan” is hokum. People here think everything from seasons to flowers only happen in Japan. Open your mouth.’ The fingers lingered inside her mouth, the orange tasting sweet, oh so sweet, too sweet.

A very sad voice whispered, ‘How could you, Meenu-chan?’

The oranges burst, a bright stream of juice flooded everything, everything drowned in the brilliant rising stream, until she awoke gasping, struggling to breathe.

A few weeks later, he knocked at her office door. Meena had just finished her office hours, poured and drunk the last dregs of tea from the teapot, and was enjoying the first moments of quiet ease in her day.

‘Good afternoon. You are impossible to find these days. If I was of a suspicious mind, I’d think you were avoiding me.’ He was laughing but his eyes regarded her searchingly. ‘I see the plant has added about a hundred per cent to the aesthetics of your office, though I don’t remember being thanked for it!’

Meena looked at him evenly. ‘You’d like to take it back?’

His head jerked up in surprise. ‘Ouch, that wasn’t nice.’

Meena stretched her lips in a smile. ‘Yes, it wasn’t,’ she agreed. ‘I can’t be nice for long.’

He stood at the door looking down at her. ‘I don’t understand. What has happened? I thought we were friends, we had such a good time together…’

‘We led a seminar and graded papers together.’

‘Was that all? Is that how you remember it?’

The smile remained on Meena’s lips like the straight edge of a knife. ‘I don’t remember it at all,’ she replied.

He turned on his heel and left.

Later that day, Meena wrote to the dean: ‘I am not sure that it would be useful to hold another joint seminar on Women in Indian and Japanese Classics next term. It is too important a topic to just pick up in occasional seminars, and I think the seminar last term served its purpose of creating interest and awareness. Instead, I’d like to think along the lines of designing an independent course module on the topic.’

Meena’s mobile rang the minute she entered her office, as if the caller knew she had just finished teaching her last class and was free to face fate. It was her younger sister. She sounded strangely muffled. There was a hum of voices in the background.

‘Ma passed away…’ her voice faltered. ‘The funeral is tomorrow morning. Ma didn’t want us to inform you, but Didi and I … You didn’t get to see Papa either, and now Ma, too, is gone…’ Her throat filled up.

‘I’ll be there by the morning.’

Back in her apartment, Meena packed a bag. She had learned of her father’s death from the newspaper. There was an obituary and a notice of a prayer meeting. ‘The renowned scholar and professor emeritus passed away at his home peacefully,’ it read. ‘He will be greatly missed by his students, colleagues, and all the cats in the university he fed and cared for. Classes at the university are suspended in his honour. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.’

Two daughters. Meena had sat frozen, the newspaper falling from her numb hands on to her lap. Two daughters. They had remembered to erase her from the family even at such a time. She had called her elder sister.

‘Meenu, Papa left so suddenly…’ She had wept quietly. ‘Ma was adamant, I couldn’t do anything … I can’t talk now … The whole city’s here for the prayer meeting…’

She had learned later that her father had died in his favourite spot in the garden, under the fine-leaved gooseberry tree. He had been watching the sunset as usual, and the servant who had come to call him in had found him dead, his unseeing eyes still trained at the horizon, a cat curled in his lap. Meena didn’t know whether he had thought of her before he died, or had regretted that the only time he had spoken to her in the last ten years was to tell her not to call her younger sister again. She did not know whether he remembered her as a child, playing beside him as he sat reading under the gooseberry tree, shaking it to send showers of green leaves and green marbled fruits on him. She didn’t know anything and now, would never know.

After the funeral, Meena stood apart from everyone as relatives embraced her sisters, patted their husbands on the back. ‘They are orphans now, the poor girls,’ they cried. ‘Now you are their everything – father, mother, husband, keeper. The poor orphaned girls … How will they carry this mountain of grief for the rest of their lives?’ Some of them glanced at her. ‘You should mend your ways now that your makers are no more,’ they observed acidly. ‘You gave them so much pain while they lived, they never ate a morsel nor drank a mouthful without the thought of you turning it bitter for them.’ Meena remained silent, her eyes fixed on the rose and marigold petals which had fallen from her mother’s bier and lay scattered everywhere.

‘Ma had to bear the brunt of everything,’ her elder sister said as they spread beddings on the floor in the front room where a large photograph of her mother stood on a low marble table, a wilting rose garland and another of sandalwood beads adorning it. ‘You heard everyone yourself this morning … Ma had to listen to them every day. The things they would say to Ma at every family gathering – Meena has brought such shame upon you, how will you marry the younger one off now? What will become of your good name? Everyone knows the learned professor, how difficult it must be for him to face people with this shame … You can’t imagine how they tormented her.’

‘She could have refused to see them, just as she refused to see me all these years,’ Meena said in a brittle voice.

Her sister shook her head as she poured oil in the large diya burning before their mother’s photo, the lamp that was to burn undimmed for a period of thirteen days until her soul left this realm. ‘How hard you are, Meenu … But you were always this way, never really caring for anyone, always doing what you wanted. You never thought from Ma-Papa’s side, never asked them to forgive you for all the trouble you caused here.’ Meena’s chest swelled; she felt suffocated but remained silent. ‘I could never understand why you were always so stubborn,’ her sister said. ‘Keep an eye on the diya until I come back.’

Meena sat on the bare floor, her back against the wall, gazing at her mother’s photograph. The eyes in the photo were glancing away from her, the lips were folded upon each other. Her full cheeks did not have even a hint of the dimple that appeared when she smiled, the pretty dimple which always gave Ma away when she was pretending to be angry.

‘She was in the hospital until the day before…’ Her younger sister came and sat down beside her. ‘We brought her home yesterday because she didn’t want to stay in the hospital any longer and the doctors said there was nothing more … The cancer…’ She sniffed and wiped her raw-looking nose. ‘You won’t believe Meenu di, she was so thin her bangles would fall off, but her face was unchanged, her complexion was like kundan the day she died. You saw yourself how beautiful she looked, Meenu di…’ Tears brimmed in her eyes, so like their mother’s. Meena looked away, her dry eyes smarted as if she had walked through a sandstorm. She stroked her sister’s bowed head as she sobbed.

‘Where is Ma’s big green trunk?’ she asked more to distract her sister than from any real wish to see it.

‘Ma gave it away to the man who delivers milk and newspapers. She said she had no use for it, and it was rusting. You know, Meenu di, the first time Ma was admitted to the hospital, we opened it to air the sarees and things Ma had collected for you, and everything inside had been eaten by silverfish. Ma hadn’t opened it in years. You should have seen how Didi cried to see the silks and ojharias that Ma had bought for you turned to powder.’

Meena imagined a cloud of dust rise from the opened trunk – all that remained of the beautiful sarees embellished with gold and silver threads, with fine appliqué of golden tissue, with intricate beadwork and silk embroidery. She had never worn those sarees meant for her wedding, childbirth, the sixteen-day-long Teej festival celebrated in shravan. Her mother had allowed them to become the food of voracious insects, had not cared for them as she did for her own sarees which she aired every few months even during her illness. While those meant for Meena turned to dust, hers were layered with dried neem leaves for protection against bugs, sandalwood sachets tucked among their folds like always. The scent of dry leaves and sandalwood was the smell of festival days for Meena, of bustle and a busy hum, and Ma radiant in an elaborate saree.

Her sister wiped her cheeks and leaned against Meena’s shoulder. ‘We are sitting like this after so many years, Meenu di. I used to snuggle up to you all the time. You would complain that I was crowding you, but I would still stick to you and you’d push and say I was like a leech. Do you remember?’

Meena placed her arm around her sister. ‘I remember.’ Her sister was four years younger to her, and Meena had found out about her marriage from a school friend she had run into at an airport. She had bought a pair of pearl and coral earrings as a wedding present for her but was at a loss about where to send them. In the end, she had sent the earrings to her elder sister. A few months later, her younger sister had called. She was in a hurry and spoke in a low voice. Meena could hear the sounds of bustle around her. ‘It has been mad here,’ she had said. ‘We are still doing the wedding rounds. Today there’s dinner at Bhua ji’s. I am wearing the earrings you sent, Meenu di. I’ll call you when no one’s around and we’ll talk.’ She hadn’t called back.

‘What happened to that Japanese girl, Meenu di? The one, you know, your … your girlfriend?’

‘She died,’ Meena said quietly.

‘Died? How? She was so young. Was she in an accident?’

Yes, she was, Meena wanted to say, Yuri was in an accident, and so was I. ‘No, she killed herself.’

‘What?’ Her sister sat up straight. ‘You mean suicide? My God. It must have been horrible for you, Di. You … you lived with her, no?’

‘Yes, but I wasn’t there that day.’

‘My God…’ she repeated, shuddering. ‘She seemed such a quiet person too. What happened? Where were you when she died?’

‘I … We had had some issues. I was at a friend’s place that day.’

‘What kind of issues? I thought you … loved her and wanted to be with her. You weren’t breaking up with her, were you?’

‘It wasn’t that simple. I … I wanted to tell Yuri about … about my friend … but things just got out of hand.’

‘Who is this friend? Are you still with her?’

Meena averted her eyes. ‘No, I am not with him any more.’

‘Him? Your friend was a man?’ She turned towards Meena. ‘But … you said you can’t marry Prakash because you … you liked that girl … I don’t understand … You did all this,’ she made a sweeping gesture with her arm, as if to include everything – their parents’ absence, the emptiness in the house, the distance between them, ‘all this to Ma-Papa, to us, to Prakash, for that girl, and then you cheated on her with a man? What’s wrong with you, Meenu di? What are you?’ Meena remained silent.

That night and every night she remained in her parents’ house, Meena dreamt the same dream. The neighbours next door were celebrating a festival noisily, blowing conch shells, setting off fireworks. She went up to her one true love and asked him to hold her. Her clothes fell away from her body that was made of sharp flint. It lacerated the arms of her true love. She could see her father and mother across the street, in a house which was like a conservatory, all glass and heat. Their backs were turned towards her. She hurriedly opened her mother’s trunk to take out some clothes and cover her nakedness, but someone had heaped coals in it. Smoke rose from the trunk, the pink lotuses painted on its lid wilted in the heat. A shock of small, flame-coloured oranges tumbled down from the Satsuma orange tree. They rolled everywhere. She stepped on a fruit, and the blood of the Satsuma orange stained her bare feet. She woke up trembling, sweat rolling down her face and neck, chills running up and down her limbs.

At the end of the thirteen days of rituals, she packed her bag. No one asked her to stay back.

Meena was working late, getting through the tasks that had piled up during her absence, when her phone rang. It was her elder sister. ‘I wanted to let you know about the will, Meenu. We didn’t get a chance to talk about it. Ma-Papa had drawn up a simple one; they didn’t leave anything for you.’ Meena picked up a pen and put it down again. She glanced at the document open on her laptop and adjusted the desk-lamp. ‘We don’t think it is right that you are left out this way, so we’ve decided to split the house, shares, jewellery that Ma left between the three of us,’ her sister continued. ‘Are you there, Meena?’

‘Yes, I am here, Didi,’ Meena said hoarsely and cleared her throat. ‘I don’t want anything.’

‘You’ve hurt Ma-Papa enough when they were alive, living with that girl and breaking the match they fixed for you. I won’t give you a cause to reproach them now that they are gone. A third belongs to you. If you don’t want it, give it away to charity, do whatever you want. I have emailed you a copy of the will and statement of assets that was in Ma’s safe and an agreement about the three-way division. I only had your old email address. Check it and message me if you haven’t got the documents. I have to go now, I have surgeries lined up early tomorrow morning.’

Meena sat in silence. Outside, the day drew to a close. The sky framed in her window turned from a soiled red to ashen, the edges of the horizon bleeding colour long after it drained from the rest of the sky.

‘Hey, I was just passing by and saw the light in your office. Just want to say I am so sorry to hear about your mother…’

Meena raised her head to look at him. Her cheeks glistened with tears.

‘Hey…’ He reached her in two strides. ‘Please don’t cry. I am so sorry, so sorry…’ All the unshed tears from the past weeks streamed silently from Meena’s eyes. ‘Hey, hey…’ He bent over her. ‘It’s okay, it’s okay…’ he spoke softly and, raising her from her chair, held her close. ‘These things … one’s never prepared for them, but it will get better, I promise it will.’ He tucked the strands of hair sticking to her face behind her ears and touched her forehead with his lips folding her closer and closer. Meena felt the tremor in his chest as his fingers stroked her face, slowly sliding down her neck. He kissed her on the temples, on her wet eyes, her soft mouth. She allowed his lips to linger, his fingers to trail further and further. ‘Meena…’ His hand caressed her back, tracing the long furrow down its length. ‘Meena … come home with me.’

Meena glanced at the Satsuma plant in the corner. Its unmoving leaves suffused the evening with their smell. She moved away from him. ‘I still have some things to finish here.’

‘Can’t they wait?’ He touched her fine hair.

‘No, I have to clear the backlog.’

‘Finish and call me then. I will wait. Okay?’

She nodded.

After wrapping up her work, Meena logged into her personal email. She hadn’t checked it for a while, and it was teeming with spam. Japan Rail was still sending her emails after all these years, as was a popular izakaya in Ginza, a clothes boutique in Shinjuku. Smiling wryly, she had begun to delete the emails when she saw one that bore the Kyoto University domain name. His email, sent a month ago.

I don’t know whether you still check this old email. Still, this is the only one I have, so write here I must.

It has been years, so many that I thought I was allowed to forget that one brief year, truncated by tragedy, that we had spent together. I returned to Kyoto this autumn. Autumn is a good time to forget, to let everything flare in brilliant colours one final time and then extinguish after the turbulence of spring and summer. I was certain I had shed my memories and thought it would be fitting to go back, to see this city again, untouched by our brief joy, our sudden pain, just as I saw it the first time. But I was wrong. Memories are not like leaves that fall in autumn, they are like shadows. Shadows wax and wane with the seasons, but they never leave. There’s no bidding goodbye to shadows. They walk with you. They walked with me through Kyoto, along the quiet-flowing Kamo and up Arashiyama.

I wonder where you are, whether you, too, are walking in the shadows or if you have been able to fix yourself in the unrelenting glare of the present. I ought to wish that you left the shadows behind, but I don’t want to. Meena, there is a comfort in shadows, a slow, lingering comfort that can hold you and soothe you. If you perchance read this email, know that I am back in Japan, in Kyoto, and will remain here, every day hoping that you’d emerge from the Admin block and follow me across the quad. That’s it. That’s all I am hoping for.

Meena read the email again and again until the words merged and turned into fluctuating lines across the screen, the kind that zigzag on hospital monitors. Finally, she rose and walked stiffly to the Satsuma plant. She tried to move the planter, but it was too heavy for her. Grabbing some old newspapers, she spread them on the floor. Then she began scooping out the potting soil with her bare hands while her phone rang again and again. Soon her hands were covered in peat moss and compost. Mud crusted under her nails, her clothes were stained with the brown mixture, but she kept digging until the roots of the Satsuma were visible. She seized the sturdy trunk of the plant and shook it loose. Dragging its leafy mass to the dustbin, she began stuffing the plant into it, breaking the long, glossy leaves and cracking the branches. The room welled with the overwhelming smell of the Satsuma plant being butchered.

‘I am sorry,’ she panted, forcing the plant into the metal dustbin. ‘I am sorry.’

[Excerpted from The Blue Women: Stories by Anukrti Upadhyay. Publisher: HarperCollins India.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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