The Orchid Woman

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Europeana

The Orchid Woman. That’s what they call her in the news one day. 

“Why orchids?” her twelve-year-old daughter asks, pointing at the words on the TV screen. “Don’t you get tired of making them again and again? They’re everywhere.”

“But everyone in the world loves them!” her ten-year-old son shouted excitedly. “You embroider them, you make 3D models out of paper, you paint them on canvases…”

“You embroider them, you make 3D models out of paper, you paint them on canvases,” counted her ten-year-old son on his chubby fingers. “And everyone in the world loves them!”

“Tell us Ma!” her daughter prods again. “Why orchids?”

Roja smiles.

The orchids were a gift from Aunt Mullai who had returned from the city for the holidays. Roja knew of jasmines, roses, hibiscuses–she thought she knew every wildflower. But she had never heard of an orchid before and decided anything with such a name would be beautiful. Vaani, her elder sister, disagreed.

“Is it an aar-kid?” she asked for the fifth time that day. “I think they’re dangerous for kids like us. It’s in the name!”

“Do you really think Aunt Mullai would gift us something dangerous?” Roja asked, gathering her skirt and walking faster over the muddy floors.

“She said it was for father,” Vaani Akka said with a sigh. “Not us.”

“Well,” said Roja, pretending to think. “Do you think Aunt Mullai would gift Father something dangerous?”

“No but-” 

“That’s it then. Let’s go see the flowers, Akka.”

“What if it’s dangerous and-”

“Ah my lovely little girls!” greeted Aunt Mullai, placing a kiss on both of their cheeks. Vaani Akka was forced to shut up and Roja was thankful. Aunt continued speaking, but Roja didn’t bother to hear a word because her eyes had landed on the flowers. 

The orchids had flat petals in a shape she didn’t know how to name. It was not a circle, it was not an oval. It was not a square or rectangle because grandfather mentioned that flowers don’t come in those shapes.

There were layers of petals just like the paintings of flowers on the temple walls. Three petals first, two on top and then three tiny ones in the centre. They had two colours in them–purple and white–as though a child had painted the insides and forgot to outline the edges. 

“Oh it’s so pretty!” exclaimed Vaani Akka, pushing past Aunt Mullai to take a closer look.

She crouched on the ground, careful not to let her skirt touch the dirty soil. Roja couldn’t care less and dropped on her knees in front of the orchids. She drifted her fingers across the petals and over the leaf where a sticky liquid met her skin. She moved closer and took a long sniff of the flower’s fragrance and—

“Achoo!” she sneezed. 

Aunt Mullai and Vaani Akka burst out laughing. Roja could only sneeze in annoyance and it amused them further.

“I hate this flower,” she said when the sneezing was slowly subsiding. She rubbed her nose with a large frown. “I don’t like it one bit.”

By the evening, her fingers had rashes where she had accidentally touched the sticky sap from the leaves. Grandfather applied turmeric paste over her skin to reduce the burning and itching. This ache was lesser than the heaviness she felt in her chest everytime she thought about how she was forbidden from nearing the flowers. 

Mother couldn’t understand how Roja was worried over something as silly as a flower. Father only patted her head before asking her to go study. Vaani Akka was too busy gushing about the orchids to everyone else like a parrot on loop to even listen to her fretting.

The next evening, Roja watched her friends and siblings play around the orchid patch. She knew they weren’t dancing around the flowers in circles just to trouble her. It didn’t stop her from wondering how nice it would’ve been if Vaani Akka was the one with the allergy. Initially, it was she who had hated the flowers, who thought they were dangerous. It would only make sense for the flower to be angry at such accusations and blight her skin. 

Trying to forget about the orchids, she sat on the floor amidst the wildflowers on the unpruned side of the garden waiting for her friends to return. She plucked blue flowers, then white and then yellow. She bunched them together in a thin bouquet and was tying them with a long piece of grass when she realised someone was near. 

She tore her eyes away from the bunch in her hand to see her grandfather walking closer, decked in his white shirt and veshti. He sat next to her, not caring about dirtying his clothes.

“This is our soil,” he had told her many years back. “It can never be dirty.”

“If you can’t have the orchids, make some on your own,” he said now, pulling out a long thread of grass. 

“You mean I should find other orchid flowers I’m not allergic to?” she asked, dropping the flowers to turn to him. Hope blossomed within her heart at the thought of being able to touch and play around those flowers. 

“No,” Grandfather said, looking afar at the children playing. “You’re allergic to all orchids.”

Roja felt her heart plummet to her stomach. Fresh tears prickled at the back of her eye and she tried pushing them away. Maybe if she could start looking at them as just flowers, she’d be able to dull the pain. Maybe she could find other flowers instead. But where would she find flowers with all these layers of petals, with colours as though they were painted by her own hands, with a—

“You could make your own orchids,” Grandfather said, and that was the beginning of it all.