Paata Shaala – The Lessons Learnt Under The Sky

I have to buy a couple of new plants for my garden. My rose bushes are not doing too well, the vethalai kodi (betel vine) wilted in the summer heat and the curry plant has contracted a strange disease, it puts out dull coloured berries that turn stone hard and there are fewer and fewer healthy looking leaves. So rose plants, vethalai creeper and a curry plant are a must buys. 

I burnt my heart the first year that I created my terrace garden by growing many hibiscus plants, I had the red hibiscus – single-petalled and the muti-petalled, pink and white hibiscus, several hybrid varieties that put out yellow, orange and lilac coloured flowers. They were a treat for butterflies and the bees, but my gardener and I had to wage a perennial war against the two formidable pests that commonly assail hibiscus plants – aphids and white flies. We combated these insects by hosing water, scraping them away from the stem, pinching away the infected leaves, and spraying insecticide as the last option. Though the plants put out many flowers, they succumbed gradually over a period of one year, to the insects that attacked again and again. I had ten varieties of hibiscus plants and not one survived at the end of the year.

I mourned for my hibiscus plants for over a year and sought solace in my jasmines and ixoras that proved to be quite hardy, there was not a colourless, fragranceless day the whole of last year. 

Now, a little over a year since the hibiscus debacle, I am emerging a confident gardener. Also, hardcore pragmatism towards gardening has rubbed off on me from my gardener. He has taught me the correct way to tend plants, protect them from pests, fight the pests that attack the plants and if they die, not to mourn. If he were to mourn for one year over every plant that died, he would have had to swap professions. 

Now, do not mistake my gardener to be unfeeling. He fiercely protects and tends plants till they die on their own.  He will stand by the dying plants, infuse energy and life into every fibre of their existence to make them live a day longer. 

I know that when I buy a new curry plant, the old one will stay, pathetically sticking its arms and berries out. The plant will be tended till the day it dies. Similarly my entire lack luster rose plants will get to stay, pruned and tended carefully week after week as long as they live. 

Also, when saplings of basil, sungu pushpam (Clittoria vine) and pasala keerai ( Indian spinach) germinate on their own in pots assigned to other plants, my gardener lets these little intruders stay on. An errant sungu pushpam creeper will cling its dainty tendril all over the thorny stems of the rose bush to merrily put out purple flowers. The rose bush gracefully looks on like a perfect host. And here my plant activist will indulge the camaraderie between the two plants. 

Since my gardener does not have the heart to move out a single plant I have half a dozen basil plants, many pasala kodi creepers, four pots of chrysanthemums, innumerable clittoria vines being buddy with temple tree, oleander and ixora plants. I wonder what to do with these multiple plants, should I gift them away? Receiving plants as gifts is too much a responsibility, can’t put plants away as you would the books that are gifted to you. I care too much for my friends to burden them with such a responsibility. So all the plants get to stay and my over crowded terrace turns a veritable haven for butterflies, dragon flies, honey bees, bumble bees, squirrels, pigeons and crows.  

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Mustard Blossoms

I am growing a mustard plant, when I sowed the seeds they germinated like a rash, many in number. But only one has survived and is doing well. The plant is on the verge of putting out flowers, and as I wait for the first blossom of yellow flowers I  visualize the golden hued mustard field where Kajol runs into Shah Rukh’s arms. And, I also long to cook sarson – ka – saag that I once ate with makai roti in Dhaaba Express.  I have not confessed this fetish to my gardener and he for sure is seeing something else in my mustard plant. He holds his hands at the level of his hips and says that the plant will grow as tall as that. I look at the farmer from Dindigal in my gardener and wonder if he has plans of harvesting mustard seeds from my lone plant! There is no way that he is going to allow me to cut the leaves to prepare sarson-ke-saag whose recipe I have spent a good part of Sunday searching on the net.

Pathways Of Blood

Whenever my mother started in this manner, “My mother’s father had seven siblings and my mother’s mother had seven siblings,” I fled from the place. Just a few days ago my uncle, my mother’s younger brother, said that when they were children every other day several first and second cousins of his mother with their families dropped in at their Pelathope residence in Mylapore. My grandmother had many half brothers whom she called as her brothers, cousins whom she called brothers; ironically she did not have a single straight brother or sister whom she shared her mother’s womb with. I thought being a single child makes life simple, but certainly not in the case of my grandmother as my mother and uncle had me understand!  

My uncle recalled how he and his siblings constantly asked my grandmother to help them understand how the uncles, aunts, cousins were related. At a simplistic level that the children naively initially mistook as the end all of cognition, she traced the straight forward and immediate way in which she was related to all the people who dropped in with their families; at a tormenting level she explained how the cousin’s/ uncle’s wife was related in other ways as well. No relationship ran a single way, there were crisscrosses – an aunt was related to an uncle even before marriage through a brother’s wife or a sister’s husband or an aunt’s sister-in-law. Or she teased her children’s  young and tender brains further by adding how the cousin’s wife was also her sister’s sister-in-law’s husband’s uncle’s daughter. 

To understand theses labyrinthine pathways of blood and relationships called for an alert mind that processed the data and assigned it to slots, the slots that were  permeable and punctured several times with conduits of alliances  to such an extent that these slots were defined not by its exclusiveness but by these jabs that rerouted blood pathways. 

I presume there was not a dull moment in the lives of my mother and her siblings with the constant influx of brothers (?!), aunts and uncles into their Mylapore home that served as a hub for all those people coming from Mayavaram, Edakudi, Kumbakonam, Karur  and several other places in Thanjavur jilla where an uncle was a mirajdar,  an aunt had been taken as a bride from or where a cousin had been married into.

The Deep Sea Of Memory

I can talk now, tell the story of my parents. I can write of the guilt I feel now of having been so absorbed in my own world that I never knew what my mother went through at the death of her parents, at the passing away of her younger brother and on losing another brother to schizophrenia. 

Looking back now, after nearly two decades, my mother then would have been as old as I am now. I pick my memory to reconstruct my mother’s life at that time.   I wade through the deep sea of childhood memories to cast light on the relationships in her life that mattered so much to her, at the losses that pained and paralysed her. 

Memories of my grandfather’s home concretize in my mind, the memories are that of a small and young girl. The memories of a twelve something girl is seen through the sensibility of the adult that I am now. This might be a step away from truth as my consciousness penetrates through a different time and this has made me in fact two different individuals – a child that saw and a woman that wants to immortalize her mother by fleshing her out in different relationships, in seeing her life crisscross several lives.

This exercise is also largely to exorcise the guilt I experience that I perceived my mother selfishly only in relation to me, in relation to my emotional wants and needs. The sun shone brightly on me, as a small and young girl,  through the  dappled leaves as I felt my mother’s care and love nourish me. But, the corner of my mind always registered her joys, her pains and her agonies. All this, I hope to establish by unearthing memories that I had not acknowledged before. 

So my exercise now is to hold the flashlight away from me, at all the people who were close to my mother, at my memory of the events that did not necessarily have to do with me, at the warm corners in my grandfather’s home where my mother grew and whose images I am certain she carried vividly till the day of her death.