My dad and I were thick friends.
While my mom would be the hard task master, ensuring that I did my homework on time, and that I didn’t slack at studies, dad ensured that I didn’t miss out on life’s lessons. He would tell me stories, he would buy me books, and oftentimes even allow me to borrow from his own collection. We used to go to book fairs together, listen to recorded Malayalam (our native language) kathaprasangams (stand-ups from the 60s and 70s) together and even attend several Malayalee Christian and Hindu festivities together. When in Kerala, he would take me to old churches with rich histories, talk to me about saints and angels and about the power of prayers. I inherited my love for nature too from him. He was a man of words, plants and animals. He had been born in the green and rainy God’s own Kerala while his job posted him in the desertic Sun’s own Rajasthan.
Unabated, he would still toil in the small patch of land – our front porch garden in his free time. That little space was his paradise. He had successfully planted bananas, a coconut tree, curry leaves, and a slew of medicinal plants like Tulsi, Panikoorka (Mexican Mint), aloe-veras to name a few. Outside the house, stood a mighty Neem tree that he had nursed into existence. We had all kind of flowers too – red, white, pink, yellow roses, marigolds, plumeria, hibiscuses, rukminis, Bougainville. They adorned the boundary wall in colourful pots of all sizes. Our garden used to house a lot of squirrels, doves, pigeons and sparrows. Mynas, parrots, rodents of various kinds, butterflies also used to pay occasional visits. His garden was like an oasis in the desert, a life sustaining eco-system which ultimately acted as a conversation starter with fellow neighbors, who would approach to borrow curry leaves for cooking a south Indian delicacy, Tulsi for coughs and colds, Neem leaves for treating chicken pox scars. I remember this one time, a girl had requested to get married to one of our banana trees, in order to do away with her “Maanglik” dosh. Though we were Christians, my dad had agreed to it, since he believed that one’s faith would definitely save oneself. The banana tree was soon chopped off, the poor tree bearing the brunt of her parent’s sincere, superstitious efforts to get her married.
There were a lot of simple rituals also that dad had built around his garden. One such practice was him plucking jasmines out of the arched creeper at our entrance gate for my mother to put in her hair. It was one of the exchanges that they followed throughout their lives. This simple gesture led them through their good days as a token of love and the bad days as an act of peace offering. I came to know later that my mum loved jasmines and so he had planted them to be able to give her a few every single day! Yeah, sweet, I agree!
However, for me gardening was just another activity where I got to spend time with dad. He would always say that nature had great lessons for the seekers, if only we could stop and look around. The activities that I would have to deliver at the garden varied according to the time that I had at my disposal in the morning. During holidays I got to water the plants, re-fill the bird feeder, and loosen up the soil of a few pots which were designated for me to tend to. Since he wasn’t convinced of my prowess with the trowel, I usually got to attend pots which had cacti planted in them. To hold my fancy, dad had bought a variety of cacti, some of which with strange leaves and even stranger flowers. While he would water the other pots up to their brims, the cacti hardly got any of the supply. They didn’t get the fertilizers too. Not able to take the favouritism, I would secretly water these pots. They were my responsibility, and I had to ensure they didn’t feel left out. Soon the cacti began to thrive. Much to my happiness, they grew plump, showing up new shoots! I was elated, ecstatic. Dad too, let me live up and even boast about my gardening skills to onlookers, till they lasted. He knew the fate that awaited the cacti, but wanted me to learn my lessons first hand.
Shortly, in a matter of few days, the cacti which looked healthy to me started to look bloated and swollen up. Some even got discoloured, turning yellow. The other few showed signs of rotting. I was devastated. I had watered them well, trowelled them at regular intervals and had even fed them fertilizers. Surely it was some pest that had attacked. I turned to the master farmer for advice. He just smiled. I smiled back perplexed.
“They are all special, and they all have different needs. As a good gardener, you need to understand that”, he explained in his usual calmness.
“When you watered them, they looked abundant on the surface, while their roots were rotting. And without healthy roots, no plant can survive. You have to take care of both – the visible and the invisible, the tangible, and the intangible, the flesh and the spirit!”
As a kid, I had understood this to be solely a lesson in gardening, but today, as a grown up, I realise that it is a universal law. “They are all special, they have all different needs!” It is a law that can be applied to friends, family, kids, clients – across all relationships in general! It’s a law that nature practices, unapologetically and impartially across all its progeny, in all its oneness. A lesson definitely worth pondering over for ourselves, our relationships and the situations that we surround ourselves with.