The tree was right in front of the house where I lived in Newton, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. It was a shady tree with green leaves and branches of a pale brown colour and stood right before the porch. The leaves rang a familiar bell but I could not really put my finger on it; nor did I recognize it until the day I saw the tree in full bloom.
Back in 2015-16, I was working at three different universities during my period of Optional Training that foreign students can do in the US after graduation. I had just completed my PhD and was gaining work experience. At this time, I had moved from Illinois to Massachusetts and found a home in a big three-storeyed Victorian building in Newton. Of course, it was not possible for a mere graduate student or an adjunct lecturer to live in a Victorian house in a posh neighbourhood. What had happened was that this was a co-op of eight people who shared this house that had bedrooms on the second and third floors. Each of them had one room. Kitchen, dining space, drawing room, and bathrooms were shared and so was the basement. Only old Arthur, who was the originator of the plan, lived on the ground floor in two rooms. It was a nice and spacious house and a close friend of mine lived there. As I had moved to the east-coast from the Midwest, a piece of luck fell my way. At that time, one of the housemates had chosen to move away and they were looking for a compatible housemate. I had been to that house before as a visitor to my old friend and they all liked me just as much as I liked them.
Apart from some very nice and friendly human beings, the other attraction of the place was Uli, a gorgeous, fluffy Maine Coon cat with a bushy tail. She belonged to Douglas Kierdoff, the housemate whom I was replacing. But since he was going to England, he was leaving Uli with the others for the time being. I was so thrilled about having Uli in the house that I offered to become her caretaker. So, we became good friends and spent many afternoons dozing on the couch of the sitting room from where we could watch the street and the people passing by. During the autumnal months, we would also watch the withering leaves falling on the porch, on the veranda and beyond. I would ask Uli, “Would you like to go outside, Uli?” She knew it was forbidden and hence would scowl at me and then nod off to sleep.
I had moved into Harmony House in the late summer of 2015. The tree was still displaying only green leaves and I assumed it to be just another tree. There was a pear tree that stood laden with fruits just beside it and I wondered what this one would sprout. It did not occur to me once that it could be some kind of flower. I admired the lavender buds, and the purple and white pansies that grew by the steps—result of Elizabeth’s care. Elizabeth was another housemate who shared the top-floor with me and Nausheen. The shady tree just stood there without bearing either fruits or flowers but it had a balmy presence and it exuded peace, or so it seemed to me. And thus days and months passed by till it was almost summer again.
One Thursday afternoon, I was coming back from work and was feeling kind of weary and down. In those days, I was often depressed. Even though America was tolerably good to me, I had these bouts of depression. I missed the hustle and bustle of Dhaka. I missed the dusky trees and familiar roads I was used to frequenting. As I trudged along a pavement, I looked at workers in a nearby house. They were building some kind of a structure. At this point, I suddenly realized that our Harmony House had disappeared. Or, it was not there where it was supposed to be. I looked around in dismay and heard a familiar voice calling out to me, “Say, Sohana, have you forgotten your way?”
I pivoted 90 degrees to my left and saw Arthur sitting comfortably in his easy chair on the porch with his pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth. I looked up. No wonder I did not recognize the house. The tree was full of pinkish blossoms. When did it happen? Why did I not see these before? Then I recalled that I had gotten out through the back door early that morning and ended up in the street behind the house. The flowers were bright pink on the outside and reddish on the inside with a golden stigma coming out of it. The shape was familiar even if the colour was not. I blurted out, “Good Lord, it’s not hibiscus, is it?” Our very own joba?
Arthur put away his pipe and said testily, “Hee-bis-cuss? Sohana, that’s too ordinary a name for such a majestic flower. This is what we call the ‘Rose of Sharon.’ Meet Sharon, Sohana.” The old man grinned impishly.
I stared at the blooming flowers that were swaying in the light breeze. No wonder the leaves seemed familiar. Suddenly, on that afternoon in a suburb of Boston, I returned to an afternoon of my childhood in Banani. Our building stood at the entrance of what is now known as Road 11 in Banani. A nearby bush sprouted bright red flowers and many of my afternoons were spent in sucking out the drops of honey from the blossoms. I could not do it here of course as I was a grown-up and my old housemate would be intrigued. Instead, I reached up and touched the petals of one flower that was hanging just above my head and whispered, “You may have changed colour, or name, but I recognize you all right. Hello, old friend.”
Suddenly, that house in Newton felt like my childhood home that was gone now. And I knew that I would always recall this place with fondness.
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English and Humanities, ULAB.