The part of the year I like the most is the warm summer months of Chennai. My recollections of the best summers are my years at my mother’s house before my marriage. The days were marked with the different fragrances that filled around me. In the cool and bright mornings I was greeted by the smell of neem blossoms that formed a carpet on the yard before my mother’s house. The afternoons were filled with the heady smell of ripe mangoes that my mother sliced and served for lunch. In the evenings the flower seller placed on my palms a string of jasmine rolled carefully into a ball. My mother had banned my smelling the flowers before they were offered to the gods. “I will not hold the flowers close to my nose, but I cannot stop the fragrance from filling the room,” I said to her teasingly. After offering the flower to the gods, my mother gave me long strand of jasmine that I wore on my hair in such a manner that it fell on my shoulder. I held the ends of the jasmine strand close to my nose, as I stayed awake late in the nights reading books. And in the nights my pillow smelt of the flowers.
During early summer the neem trees put out blossoms. The gentle sea breeze that set in at late noon on summer days, tossed the neem leaves and the spray of blossoms fell on the ground forming a yellow–green carpet. The early evening air got filled with the smell of neem blossoms.
There were quite a few neem trees in my neighbourhood. This I got to know through smelling them out during my night walks through the dark streets. In the darkness of the night stirrings of blossoms in the breeze indicated that a neem tree was somewhere close by.
A neem sapling is not taken seriously when it sprouts out of the hard earth. The cotyledon sits as a crown on the sapling; two tender copper-green leaves sticking at the frail stem. Just a look at the shape of the leaves is enough to confirm that it is a neem sapling. The sapling can sprout in unbecoming places – in cracks, at the edges of pavements, under the garden seat – just about anywhere.
Generally one is not inclined to pull out these self-invited neem saplings. It is the others like the tamarind, the mango and the banyan that meet a different fate. Once spotted the banyan and tamarind saplings are pulled out. The banyans are famous for growing on cracks in building. Even when pulled out they are resilient, a new one is seen growing in the same site. It is a common sight to see house owners climbing on windows and sunshades to pour acid that is used for cleaning toilets into the cracks to kill the seeds of the banyan.
The tamarind tree is very rarely grown in gardens. They grow on roadsides and are believed to house ghosts. The mango sapling is replanted in a more convenient corner while it is the neem sapling that is allowed to stay, as it is felt inauspicious to yank it out. One shouldn’t pull it out on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, the elders warn. On the other days the sapling is forgotten and that is how it remains.
In my mother’s house, a neem sapling bearing dreams of growing into a large tree, sprouted close to the barbed fence separating my house and my neighbour’s. It was conveniently tucked in the corner of the garden, so it did not predominantly occupy our thoughts. My grandmother was more worried about the parijatham shrub that had pygmy flowers and she spent hours wondering why the lime tree growing right in the center of the yard did not become tall but spread its branches closer to the ground as its stem got stockier. She later resigned to the fate of the impotency of the lime tree, and culled the fragrant leaves to make a spiced podi that we mixed with hot rice and ate with fried appalam. Through all these ruminations and engagements with the lime and the parijatham the young and enthusiastic neem tree was rarely noticed.
The neem sapling grew into a handsome young tree. It wedged itself comfortably between the fence and spread its branches across both the gardens. Oblivious of the discomfort, the tree grew energetically, blotting out from our bedroom view of the road and the sky. The outer world was for us a frame of green. On a blazing hot afternoon, the green of the neem grew into us; the heat that went into our heads created soothing images of deep green seas.
One beautiful summer the tree put out blossoms. We first saw a fine layer of yellow dust on our garden seat, in the yard. Sprigs of pale yellow blossoms were hidden on the top reaches of the branches. The smell of the blossoms wrapped around us as soon as we stepped out of our house. That was the summer that we spent most of the time outdoors in the cool shade of the tree, in celebration of the blossoms. We did not want the tree to think that we loved it less. So we served tea to friends at the garden seat, we drank our fresh lime in mid mornings and cool lazzi in late evenings outdoors.
My grandmother did not allow the yard to be cleaned. The blossoms formed a prickly carpet. Then one day she spread a clean towel on the ground and placed small stones on the corner to hold the towel in place. The neem blossoms fell on the towel. At the end of the day she gathered the blossoms in a large plate. After she had gathered a substantial quantity, she put the plate out in the sun everyday to dry the neem blossoms. Once the blossoms had dried enough (this my grandmother tested by feeling the brittleness of the blossoms), she poured them in a glass jar. The glass jar occupied a prominent place in the wooden almirah where she stored her annuals like naarthangai, vadumangai, salted lime and vathals.
After that, vepambu rasam became a weekly ritual. Wednesdays became vepambu rasam day. I got up in the mornings to the smell of vepambu fried in ghee. I had a plate of hot vepambu rasam sadam before I left for school. My grandmother mixed my plate of rice very carefully, ladling out the rasam without the vepambu: “No vepambu, paati,” I ordered, “They look like black ants.”
My mother’s house has been sold away; the tree is still within me just as all the memories associated with my childhood and my mother’s house. The tree in my mother’s garden has spread its sense of being into all the neem trees that I see around me. I walk in my quiet neighbourhood for hours to smell the neem blossoms – my neem blossoms. The sweet smell stirs deep within me memories of a home that I have lost forever.