Bhubaneswar, Jan. 6: If Naveen Patnaik invites Mamata Banerjee to a federal front dinner at his home, don’t be shocked in case a keen-eyed and well-informed Ajit fan among the guests blurts out: “Lily! Don’t be silly.”
The admirer of the yesteryear Bollywood villain could be referring to the Bengal chief minister’s documented allergy to flowers — a key detail considering her Odisha counterpart’s penchant for surrounding himself at home and office with pots full of his favourite bloom: the white lily.
Sources said the 67-year-old bachelor with a green thumb, who has written a book on herbal plants — The Garden of Life: An Introduction to the Healing Plants of India — has four vases filled with the Lilium candidum or Madonna lily at his residence.
His third-floor office in the state secretariat also sports the trumpet-shaped flowers, native to the Balkans and West Asia, in two big pots.
White lilies can keep fresh for 15 days but the chief minister insists on having them changed every three to four days. He can afford to do that, for his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) colleagues compete with one another to send him bouquets of this fragrant flower.
So do city florists, perhaps in gratitude because Naveen’s love of the long-stemmed white lily has raised its prices in Bhubaneswar, where it is imported mostly from Bangalore.
“His fascination for this flower has boosted our business. With campaigning on for the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections, BJD leaders are presenting him bouquets almost every day. We couldn’t have asked for more,” said a florist who regularly supplies white lilies to Naveen Nivas, the chief minister’s home.
Naveen has been receiving a mountain of bouquets while campaigning for party candidates, sources said, but his security takes only the white lilies inside the car.
“The other flowers are carelessly tossed atop his campaign vehicle,” a BJD leader said.
Another Bhubaneswar florist confirmed that white lily rates had soared because of bulk buying by BJD leaders during the New Year celebrations.
“Then came the BMC elections, and we are still making good money. The cost of a bouquet used to be around Rs 800 a few months ago but it has risen to Rs 1,200. Each of us must have sold around 30 to 40 white lily bouquets on New Year’s Day alone,” he said.
Mamata may share with Naveen a lily-white reputation for personal probity and have the grass-and-flower as her party symbol but, Trinamul sources say, she dislikes being garlanded and quickly passes on any bouquet she is handed.
Her pollen allergy extends to “all kinds of flowers”, say Trinamul leaders who, in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections, would often announce from campaign daises before her arrival that none should throw flowers at their leader.
An unease with white lilies can sometimes have political roots, too. The flower is considered a racist symbol in parts of the American South where activists of the so-called “White Lily Movement” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries attacked blacks, often placing a lily stem over their houses to identify targets.
Naveen would perhaps prefer to agree with the ancient Greeks and Romans who saw the flower as a symbol of purity.
Not that he neglects other plants. Despite his busy schedule as chief minister of one of India’s poorest states, Naveen takes personal care of the flowerbeds at his sprawling bungalow near the city airport.
Thanks to his efforts, a 1.25-acre wasteland near the Bindu Sagar pond in the Old Town area has been turned into a beautiful medicinal garden called Ekamra Vana which, within two years of its birth, has become a favourite Sunday destination for city folk.
Nearly 50 rare plant species mentioned in Naveen’s book have been grown in the park, which boasts around 240 varieties of herbs and derives its name from Ekamra Vana, which is how Bhubaneswar was once known.
It has no white lilies, though, because they are not medicinal plants.