Archive for July 20, 2015


read in july 2015

He improved his manners. He overheard one
officer tell another, “As much of a contrivance
as the aristocracy has always been, it
still constitutes the best check against mobs
of the uneducated and the unreflecting.” He
watched how the officers repeatedly bestowed
honor upon any native who resembled
a nobleman (or, at least, who resembled
some English idea of a nobleman).
On every island they visited, the Resolution’s
officers would single out any brown-skinned
man who had a finer headpiece than the others,
or who wore more tattoos, or who carried
a bigger spear, or who had more wives,
or who was borne upon a litter by other men,
or who—in the absence of any of these luxuries—
was simply taller than the other men.
The Englishmen would treat that person
with respect. This would be the man with
whom they would negotiate, and upon whom
they would bestow gifts, and who, sometimes,
they would pronounce “the king.” He
concluded that wherever English gentlemen
went in the world, they were always looking
for a king.
They gave up once more on the Northwest
Passage. They sailed to Macao. He saw fleets
of Chinese junks, and again encountered representatives
of the Dutch East India Company,
who seemed to be everywhere in their
simple black clothes and humble clogs. It appeared
to him that everywhere in the world,
somebody owed money to a Dutchman. In
China, Henry found out about a war with
France, and a revolution in America. It was
the first he had heard of it. In Manila, he saw
a Spanish galleon, loaded, it was said, with
two million pounds’ worth of silver treasure.
He traded his snowshoes for a Spanish naval
jacket. He fell ill from the flux—they all
did—but he survived it. He arrived in
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Sumatra, and then in Java, where, once
more, he saw the Dutch making money. He
took note of it.

But Banks was talking forward, as though
all were decided. “I’m funding a Peruvian
botanical expedition, and it departs Wednesday
next. You’ll be led by Mr. Ross Niven.
He’s a tough old Scot—perhaps too old, if I
may be candid—but he’s as hardy as anyone
you’ll ever meet. He knows his trees and, I
daresay, he knows his South America. I
prefer a Scotsman to an Englishman for this
sort of work, you know. They are more coldminded
and constant, more fit to pursue
their object with relentless ardor, which is
what you want in your man abroad. Your
salary, Henry, is forty pounds a year, and
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although it is not the sort of salary upon
which a young man can fatten his life, the
position is an honorable one, which carries
along with it the gratitude of the British Empire.
As you are still a bachelor, I am certain
you can make do. The more frugally you live
now, Henry, the richer a man you will
someday become.”

There was a florid scratching of pens,
and then Banks was lazily waving the letter
in the air to dry, saying, “Your task, Henry, is
the cinchona tree. You may know of it as the
fever tree. It is the source of Jesuit’s bark.
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Learn all you can about it. It’s a fascinating
tree and I’d like to see it more deeply studied.
Make no enemies, Henry. Protect yourself
from thieves, idiots, and miscreants.
Take plentiful notes, and be sure to inform
me in what sort of soil you find your specimens—
sandy, loamy, boggy—so we can try to
cultivate them here at Kew. Be tight with
your money. Think like a Scot, boy! The less
you indulge yourself now, the more you can
indulge yourself in the future, when you have
made your fortune. Resist drunkenness, idleness,
women, and melancholy; you can enjoy
all those pleasures later in life, when you are
a useless old man like me. Be attentive. Better
if you don’t let anyone know that you are
a man of botany. Protect your plants from
goats, dogs, cats, pigeons, poultry, insects,
mold, sailors, saltwater . . .”

Ever the orchardman’s son, Henry quickly
realized that most of the cinchona trees were
in poor condition, sick and overharvested.
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There were a few trees with trunks as thick
as his own midsection, but none any bigger.
He began to pack the trees with moss,
wherever the bark had been removed, to allow
them to heal. He trained the cascarilleros
to cut the bark in vertical strips, rather
than killing the tree by horizontally banding
it. He severely coppiced other sick trees, to
allow for new growth. When he became sick
himself, he kept on working. When he could
not walk from illness or infection, he had his
Indians tie him to his mule, like a captive, so
he could visit his trees every day.
He stayed up in Loxa for four miserable
years, barefoot and cold, sleeping in a hut
with barefoot and cold Indians, who burned
manure for heat. He continued to nurse the
cinchona groves, which legally belonged to
the Spanish Royal Pharmacy, but which
Henry had silently claimed for his own. He
was far enough back in the mountains that
no Spaniard ever interfered with him, and
after a time the Indians weren’t bothered by
him, either. He gleaned that the cinchona
trees with the darkest bark seemed to produce
a more potent medicine than the other
varieties, and that the newest growth produced
the most powerful bark. Heavy pruning,
therefore, was advisable. He identified
and named seven new species of cinchona,
but most of them he considered useless. He
focused his attention on what he called cinchona
roja—the red tree, the richest. He
grafted the roja onto the root stock of more
sturdy and disease-resistant varieties of cinchona
in order to produce a higher yield.

Henry had no idea what the man was talking
about, but he stayed silent. He had
learned in the past four years to speak only
when he knew that which he was speaking
about. Moreover, he had learned that silence
can sometimes relax a listener into thinking
that one might be intelligent.

To be fair to Henry, his head was not entirely
lucid. He had been alone for many
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years in a remote forest, and a young man in
the forest can become a dangerously unfettered
thinker. Henry had discussed this
topic with Banks so many times already in
his mind that he was impatient now with the
actual conversation. In Henry’s imagination,
everything was already arranged and already
successful.

When Banks began to laugh, Henry’s
stomach collapsed upon itself and folded into
a small, hard cube. His throat narrowed as
though he were, at last, noosed. He shut his
eyes and saw murder. He was capable of
murder. He envisioned murder and carefully
considered the consequences of murder. He
had a long while to ponder murder, while
Banks laughed and laughed.
No, Henry decided. Not murder.
When he opened his eyes, Banks was still
laughing, and Henry was a transformed human
being. Whatever youth had remained in
him as of that morning, it was now kicked
out dead. From that point forward, his life
would be not about who he could become,
but about what he could acquire. He would
never be a gentleman. So be it. Sod gentlemen.
Sod them all.

What’s more, Alma was clever like him.
Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary, she
was—tireless and uncomplaining. Never took
ill. Stubborn. From the moment the girl
learned to speak, she could not put an argument
to rest. If her millstone of a mother had
not steadfastly ground the impudence out of
her, she might have turned out to be frankly
rude. As it was, she was merely forceful. She
wanted to understand the world, and she
made a habit of chasing down information to
its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations
were at stake in every instance. She demanded
to know why a pony was not a baby
horse. She demanded to know why sparks
were born when she drew her hand across
her sheets on a hot summer’s night. She not
only demanded to know whether
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mushrooms were plants or animals, but
also—when given the answer—demanded to
know why this was certain.
Alma had been born to the correct parents
for these sorts of restless inquiries; as long as
her questions were respectfully expressed,
they would be answered. Both Henry and Beatrix
Whittaker, equally intolerant of dullness,
encouraged a spirit of investigation in
their daughter. Even Alma’s mushroom
question was granted a serious answer (from
Beatrix in this case, who quoted the esteemed
Swedish botanical taxonomist Carl
Linnaeus on how to distinguish minerals
from plants, and plants from animals:
“Stones grow. Plants grow and live. Animals
grow, live, and feel”). Beatrix did not believe
a four-year-old child was too young to be discussing
Linnaeus. Indeed, Beatrix had commenced
Alma’s formal education nearly as
soon as the child could hold herself upright.
If other people’s toddlers could be taught to

lisp prayers and catechisms as soon as they
could speak, then, Beatrix believed, her child
could certainly be taught anything.
As a result, Alma knew her numbers before
the age of four—in English, Dutch,
French, and Latin. The study of Latin was
particularly stressed, because Beatrix believed
that no one who was ignorant of Latin
could ever write a proper sentence in either
English or French. There was an early dabbling
in Greek, as well, although with somewhat
less urgency. (Not even Beatrix believed
a child should pursue Greek before the
age of five.) Beatrix tutored her intelligent
daughter herself, and with satisfaction. A
parent is inexcusable who does not personally
teach her child to think. Beatrix also
happened to believe that mankind’s intellectual
faculties had been steadily deteriorating
since the second century anno Domini, so
she enjoyed the sensation of running a

private Athenian lyceum in Philadelphia,
solely for her daughter’s benefit.
Hanneke de Groot, the head housekeeper,
felt that Alma’s young female brain was perhaps
overly taxed by so much study, but Beatrix
would hear none of it, for this is how
Beatrix herself had been educated, as had
every van Devender child—male and female—
since time immemorial. “Don’t be
simple, Hanneke,” Beatrix scolded. “At no
moment in history has a bright young girl
with plenty of food and a good constitution
perished from too much learning.”
Beatrix admired the useful over the vapid,
the edifying over the entertaining. She was
suspicious of anything one might call “an innocent
amusement,” and quite detested anything
foolish or vile. Foolish and vile things
included: public houses; rouged women;
election days (one could always expect
mobs); the eating of ice cream; the visiting of
ice cream houses; Anglicans (whom she felt

to be Catholics in disguise, and whose religion,
she submitted, stood at odds with both
morality and common sense); tea (good
Dutch women drank only coffee); people
who drove their sleighs in wintertime
without bells upon their horses (you couldn’t
hear them coming up behind you!); inexpensive
household help (a troublesome bargain);
people who paid their servants in rum
instead of money (thus contributing to public
drunkenness); people who came to you
with their troubles but then refused to listen
to sound advice; New Year’s Eve celebrations
(the new year will arrive one way or another,
regardless of all that bell-ringing); the aristocracy
(nobility should be based upon conduct,
not upon inheritance); and overpraised
children (good behavior should be expected,
not rewarded).
She embraced the motto Labor ipse Voluptas—
work is its own reward. She believed
there was an inherent dignity in remaining

aloof and indifferent to sensation; indeed,
she believed that indifference to sensation
was the very definition of dignity. Most of all,
Beatrix Whittaker believed in respectability
and morality—but if pushed to choose
between the two, she would probably have
chosen respectability.
All of this, she strove to teach her
daughter.

Alma learned that her father was impatient
with his workers, with his houseguests,
with his wife, with herself, and even with his
horses—but with plants, he never lost his
head. He was always charitable and forgiving
with plants. This made Alma sometimes long
to be a plant. She never spoke of this longing,
though, for it would have made her look like
a fool, and she had learned from Henry that
one must never look like a fool. “The world is
a fool who longs to be tricked,” he often said,
and he had borne it down upon his daughter
that there is a mighty gap between the idiots
and the clever, and one must come down on
the side of cleverness. To show a longing for
anything that one cannot have, for instance,
is not a clever position.

Alma always went to the woods fitted out
in the most sensible dress, armed with her
own personal collecting kit of glass vials, tiny
storage boxes, cotton wool, and writing tablets.
She went out in all weather, because delights
could be found in all weather. A late-
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April snowstorm one year brought the odd
sound of songbirds and sleighbells mingled
together, and this alone was worth leaving
the house for. She learned that walking carefully
in the mud to save one’s boots or the
hems of one’s skirts never rewarded one’s
search. She was never scolded for returning
home with muddied boots and hems, so long
as she came home with good specimens for
her private herbarium.
Soames the pony was Alma’s constant
companion on these forays—sometimes carrying
her through the forest, sometimes following
along behind her like a large, well-mannered
dog. In the summer, he wore
splendid silk tassels in his ears, to keep out
the flies. In the winter, he wore fur beneath
his saddle. Soames was the best botanical
collecting partner one could ever imagine,
and Alma talked to him all day long. He
would do absolutely anything for the girl,
except move quickly.

In her ninth summer, completely on her
own, Alma learned to tell time by the opening
and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in
the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard
petals always unfolded. At six o’clock, the
daisies and globeflowers opened. When the
clock struck seven, the dandelions would
bloom. At eight o’clock, it was the scarlet
pimpernel’s turn. Nine o’clock: chickweed.
Ten o’clock: meadow saffron. By eleven
o’clock, the process begins to reverse. At
noon, the goatsbeard closed. At one o’clock,
the chickweed closed. By three o’clock, the
dandelions had folded. If Alma was not back
to the house with her hands washed by five
o’clock—when the globeflower closed and the
evening primrose began to open—she would
find herself in trouble.

Things must
be kept track of—even things one could not
comprehend. Beatrix had instructed her that
she must always record her findings in drawings
as accurate as she could make them, categorized,
whenever possible, by the correct
taxonomy.
Alma enjoyed the act of sketching, but her
finished drawings often disappointed her.
She could not draw faces or animals (even

her butterflies looked truculent), though
eventually she found that she was not awful
at drawing plants. Her first successes were
some quite good renderings of umbels—
those hollow-stemmed, flat-flowered
members of the carrot family. Her umbels
were accurate, though she wished they were
more than accurate; she wished they were
beautiful. She said as much to her mother,
who corrected her: “Beauty is not required.
Beauty is accuracy’s distraction.”

Whenever Alma encountered the workers’
children in the woods, she was struck by fear
and horror. She had a method for surviving
these encounters, though: she would pretend
they were not occurring at all. She rode both
past and above the children on her stalwart
pony (who moved, as always, at the slow and
unconcerned pace of cold molasses). Alma
held her breath as she passed the children,
looking neither to her left nor to her right,
until she had cleared the intruders safely. If
she did not look at them, she did not have to
believe in them.

“What sort of name is Whittaker? I
find it so uncommon.”
“Midland England,” Henry had replied.
“Comes from the word Warwickshire.”
“Is Warwickshire your family seat?”
“There, and other places, besides. We
Whittakers tend to sit wherever we can find a
chair.”
“But does your father still own property in
Warwickshire, sir?”
“My father, madam, if he is still living,
owns two pigs and the privy pot under his
bed. I doubt very much he owns the bed.”
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The Whittakers were not invited back to
dine with the Binghams again. The Whittakers
did not much care. Beatrix disapproved
of the conversation and dress of fashionable
ladies, anyway, and Henry disliked
the tedious manners of fine drawing rooms.
Instead, Henry created his own society,
across the river from the city, high upon his
hill. Dinners at White Acre were not playing
fields of gossip, but exercises in intellectual
and commercial stimulation. If there was a
bold young man out there in the world somewhere
accomplishing interesting feats,
Henry wanted that young man summoned to
his dinner table. If there was a venerable
philosopher passing through Philadelphia, or
a well-regarded man of science, or a promising
new inventor, those men would be invited,
also. Women sometimes came to the
dinners, too, if they were the wives of respected
thinkers, or the translators of important
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books, or if they were interesting actresses
on tour in America.
Henry’s table was a bit much for some
people. The meals themselves were opulent—
oysters, beefsteak, pheasant—but it
was not altogether relaxing to dine at White
Acre. Guests could expect to be interrogated,
challenged, provoked. Known adversaries
were placed side by side. Precious beliefs
were pummeled in conversation that was
more athletic than polite. Certain notables
left White Acre feeling they had suffered the
most impressive indignations. Other
guests—more clever, perhaps, or thicker of
skin, or more desperate for patronage—left
White Acre with lucrative agreements, or beneficial
partnerships, or just the right letter
of introduction to an important man in
Brazil. The dining room at White Acre was a
perilous playing field, but a victory there
could establish a fellow’s career for life.

Astonishingly, at some point, a sputtering
torch was thrust into her hands. Alma did
not see who gave it to her. She had never before
been entrusted with fire. The torch spit
sparks and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning
into the air behind her as she bolted
across the cosmos—the only body in the
heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical
path.
Nobody stopped her.
She was a comet.
She did not know that she was not flying.

While Beatrix spoke, Alma stared. How
could anything be as pretty and disturbing as
Prudence’s face? If beauty were truly accuracy’s
distraction, as her mother had always
said, what did that make Prudence? Quite
possibly the least accurate and most distracting
object in the known world! Alma’s sense
of disquiet multiplied by the moment. She
was beginning to realize something dreadful
about herself, something that she had never
before been given reason to contemplate: she
herself was not a pretty thing. It was only by
awful comparison that she suddenly came to
perceive this. Where Prudence was dainty,
Alma was large. Where Prudence had hair
spun from golden-white silk, Alma’s hair was
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the color and texture of rust—and it grew,
most unflatteringly, in every direction except
downward. Prudence’s nose was a little blossom;
Alma’s was a growing yam. On it went,
from head to toe: a most miserable
accounting.

Chiaroscuro

Books by Sharmishtha Basu

Soft is the language of love
Softer is the voice of courage
Greater strength a being holds
Calmer is his outer self.

Fear flares up quick as fire
Cruelty is always loud
Weaker the core of a being
Greater are his outbursts.

2.08.09, Garia, Kolkata

https://www.createspace.com/5563480
https://www.amazon.com/dp/b0105j2jfe

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