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Magnolias, life and loss in the time of Corona

Historians are trained to make sense of past disasters. But what about the devastations of the present, especially ones that hit close to the bone?

Representational image: The bright and bold white magnolias regularly broke my train of thought, made me look up.
Representational image: The bright and bold white magnolias regularly broke my train of thought, made me look up. (Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash )

I take long walks in my neighborhood, the historic woods of Ansley Park in the heart of midtown Atlanta. Next door to Piedmont Park Conservatory—greatly influenced by the 1912 plan of preeminent landscape architects, the Olmstead Brothers. Dense green most of the year, my neighborhood is littered with oaks, myrtle crepes, tulip trees—roses, pear blossoms, gingko, bamboo—and expansive, large-leafed magnolias. 

In the summer of 2020, the magnolias flowered luxuriantly. Corona was raging all over the world. There was a different tone to my walking. We had read about devastation in history books. As a professor of history, I had discussed famines and plagues of the ages before the scientific advances and medical developments of modern times. Such disasters were for most of us—back then, out there. 

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Now we faced devastation in our times. I didn’t know how to think the desolation that corona had hurled. What are the right words? There was no language for the millions dying, no words that could capture our new times. Our way of being was shut down. 

The bright and bold white magnolias regularly broke my train of thought, made me look up. It was not the first time that I had noted the lush flowers of my neighborhood. But something was radically different. There was a jungle of magnolias, not just a tree here, a tree there, on some more magnolias, or another fewer. It was a summer of flower-loaded magnolia trees. And the flowers stayed much longer; they didn’t quickly wilt. Dense trees with wide green leaves, some larger than a large hand, almost plastic in character. And white, white magnolias, usually eight petals with a rose-pink brittle centre. I had never stopped to count the petals. Lost in this forest in the neighborhood, I was alone—and together with the flowery lushness. 

And yet, the splendor of the magnolias felt eerie. Out of turn, wayward. Why such magnificent sprouting, such beauty amidst rampant bereavement? Death loomed large in the universe. And in my own life. 

Death, that was final. 

At the time, I was constantly thinking of my father. Two years earlier, he was hit on the road by a rash driver in Dehradun in northern India where my parents live. By the summer of 2020, he was declining rapidly. My mother was with him, masked, fragile herself as they went in and out of hospitals. 

In American cities, nothing, not even corona stopped Black boys (and girls) from being murdered. In India, the Modi government callously forced the migrant workers to march to their villages, to leave the cities they worked in seasonally and long-term. March without any support for their journey. On the contrary, multiplying the obstacles by imposing a strict country-wide lockdown at 4-hour notice. Thousands of labourers walked in long lines. A few belongings on their heads, sometimes two or three bottles of water and a small box of food, which they shared with co-walkers. They walked hundreds of miles in killing heat. Thousands perished. 

Images of Indian workers walking back home in deadly heat flashed through my mind as I walked in my neighborhood. One corona. A million consequences.

Another problem nagged me: Would I be able to go to Sweden to take up a fellowship I was offered at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies in Uppsala? Each time my thoughts became heavy, a magnolia would remind me of the pettiness of my problem. Reminders of death would float all over again. 

A blood clot had formed in my father’s skull. Laparoscopically, the doctors removed it. Father was a bag of bones. Not eating anymore. Was it close? Death, a word with such finality—irrevocability—was lodged in my mind. 

It was months later that I grasped how adjacent life is to death.

One corona. A million consequences.
One corona. A million consequences. (Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash)

I arrived in Uppsala in September and settled into the serenity of another historic garden. The Uppsala Botanical Garden, legendary botanist Linnaeus’ playground, the magnificent Orangery spreading across from the Royal Citadel. 

The night I boarded the plane for Sweden, my father was again taken into the hospital. My mother urged my sisters not to tell me. But how could they not?

A new life, a new rhythm began in Uppsala. I became immersed in new trees and flowers. I met Eric, one of the gardeners at the Linneanum. Dressed in his parrot green jacket, “Hello,” he said, in his strong German-inflected accent. Tall, handsome, broad-shouldered older man—hard to say how old, given his firm physique, a gift of working outdoors. 

Eric and I began what would be lively conversations for the next nine months. Very dense mint, very sweet lavender, the historic pear tree, the glorious Persian Oak – the finest patch of roses. “The trees have soft moss all over,” I said to him. “Yes, and if you look carefully, much of the moss is on the westerly side of tree-trunks,” he pointed out. “Why’s that?” “Oh, the rain from the west. The moss thrives even more.” 

Moss-birthing, generative trees, life. 

Fellowship with new Fellows, lunch meetings five days a week, weekly seminars in Thunberg Hall. We plan that we will go to see the Northern Lights in the winter. We read each other’s work. We plan a reading group for those among us studying world courts and monarchs. 

Back in Villa Therese, where I lived, I ring my mother each evening. My father was out of the hospital. Then he was back again. 

Soon, I began to work on my new biography. The book is about the itinerant 16th-century Mughal princess and historian, Princess Gulbadan, or Rosebody. An adventurous woman who spent her life journeying from one part of the world to another. As the pandemic made us settle in, I began to think of journeys and adventure—and death. The princess led a group of senior palace matriarchs to the Muslim Holy Land, journeying across the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Ostensibly a pilgrimage, there was so much more to that decision—and to their staying away for four years. 

I was working on a chapter: Princess Rose sets out on the voyage from Surat, the western port city of India to Jeddah in the Red Sea. On the way, in the dead of the night, a little boy falls from the ship, a fragment in a court document tells me. What did the people think about the sea and its animals back then? What did they say about the accident of a boy falling off the ship? What were their ships like, their sea animals, their fears? 

The evening of 30 September. Just before setting out for dinner with a colleague, I rang my mother. She had just then brought my father home from the hospital. “He won’t eat, no matter what,” she said to me. “Let him rest,” I said. Let him go, is what I wanted to say. But could I? “He’s so happy, lying on his bed. He’s lying there like a king,” she said. 

After dinner, for some reason, reaching for my wallet, I took out my cell phone instead. Scores of missed calls. From my sisters, my nieces, my partner. I knew. My dad had passed. Only three hours earlier, my mother said “He’s so happy, lying on his bed. He’s lying there like a king.” 

I walked back numb. Nearing the Carolina Rediviva library, I called my partner. He wept and wept. Then my niece in Amsterdam. She wept and wept.

I had been talking with Outi, a co-fellow, about my father. I WhatsApp her. She tries to call back. We couldn’t connect. We kept trying each other. When I neared Villa Therese, she was standing across the road waiting for me. I fell into her arms. What am I supposed to do? I asked. 

It was very late in India. I couldn’t call my mother.

The next day, crack of dawn. I drink a strong coffee. I then dial my mother. She cries so hard, I can hear her fractured soul. I just listen. 

After I put the phone down, I ran into the shower. That’s when I first cried. 

The borders were shut. There was no chance I could get on a plane to India.

I should write, I thought as I stepped out of the shower. So I sat at my desk in my red gown, hair wet, and sat looking at pictures of medieval ships. A knock on the door. The Director of the Swedish Collegium.  “May I come in?” she asked politely. She has with her a plate of fruit and banana bread. We sit together for a long time. 

My partner’s residence permit for Sweden had not been cleared. In less than a week after my father passed away – amid the raging pandemic, he boarded a flight from Atlanta to Sweden. Americans were banned from entry into Europe. He came. To be with me. We sat together, we grieved together, and felt our loss together.

Gulbadan Begum was an adventurous woman, who spent her life journeying from one part of the world to another.
Gulbadan Begum was an adventurous woman, who spent her life journeying from one part of the world to another. (Creative Commons)

After a short visit to Atlanta in the winter when I returned to Uppsala, it was to a landscape I had never encountered.  The occasional snow in Atlanta felt powdery compared to the mountains of snow. There were firmer pandemic strictures, but with the hope that things would get back soon to something like what they were in the autumn: a regularity of fellow meetings, lunches, seminars. 

In that gritty Scandinavian winter, February 2021 became a month like no other in my life. Unprecedented. Isolated, completely alone and lonely, I saw no one. For days, spoke with no one in person. My grief came and went. Pockets of grief is how I described it to myself. Sometimes I just sat and cried. Sometimes I saw my father’s face in the sky. I feared calling my resilient, but deeply sad mother. I had no words for her pain. She and I were isolated just when we needed to be together to confront our shared loss.  

One day, looking out of my window at the bare tulip tree that faced my study, its trunk black in the winter, I felt an invitation, a magnetic pull. I put on my black down jacket, reaching down to my ankles and came out the door. I went straight to the city forest, navigating the heavy snow, almost in a trance. The only sound: slush, slush. Slowly the majesty of winter seeped in. 

I began to walk each day. Putting on my jacket, boots, keys in my hand, I would step out. Bare, black trees. Snow ruling the landscape. Several inches perched upon sturdy branches. Settled, quiet.  

Inside my apartment, I had in the initial weeks paced up and down. Following my daily walks, I began to settle into a new rhythm of words and sentences. In the wintry stillness, I began to see each word in its rich complexity, its layers, its underneath. Bright and stunning. Like the magnolias of my Atlanta neighborhood. And just like that, chapters began to unfold. 

My artist friend in New York Molly Crabapple and I had decided to write letters to each other when I came to Sweden. The letters continued, hers arriving with breathtaking art—two girls in dark climate somewhere, strong and stoic; an abuela, a grandma and her poise; and always an eye. An eye on the envelopes in which she sent letters; sometimes an eye on the cards on which she wrote. Molly was looking out for me, as—I felt—were the brave and adventurous women of the past and the present that she and I are fascinated by. 

Daily calls to Mom, calls to my partner, calls to my sisters. Separated loved ones. Somehow coping, bearing up. My nieces gain inches. I have more gray in my hair. Somewhere, someone has beautiful new wrinkles. I touch resilience-building in these daily rhythms.  

Inan repeatedly opens her home to me. Her home with a seven-year-old daughter, a caring partner. She and he, both Turkish scholars at risk, evicted from their country—offering solace and comfort and warmth to a co-fellow. 

A friend sends me beautiful blue lilies for Women’s Day. I put them in a vase and perch them upon the sill of my study window. The next morning, as I brew my coffee, I think of my father. Think of my grieving mother. I look at the window. All the lilies are drooping. I give them more water, head downstairs to the hot sauna. When I come back, nourished with the Scandinavian winter ritual, the lilies in the vase have risen, all twelve looking up.

A friend sends me beautiful blue lilies for Women’s Day. I put them in a vase and perch them upon the sill of my study window.
A friend sends me beautiful blue lilies for Women’s Day. I put them in a vase and perch them upon the sill of my study window. (Creative Commons)

I return to Atlanta in June 2021. 

The magnolias in Ansley Park are scant this year. 

I have not yet seen my mother. 

Georgia has turned blue politically. 

We’ll be going back to teaching in person in the Fall. 

I hope to get on a plane to India this winter.

I ask my Mom when she’d like to visit me in America. “For now,” she says, “I want to be here, near my garden.” Near her mango tree, her pots of sunflowers, morning and night basil called Rama and Shama, her marigolds, roses. 

There is always life alongside death. 

Acclaimed historian of South Asia, Ruby Lal is Professor at Emory University and author of several books and essays. For more visit:

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