Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
- Funeral Blues (IX) by W. H. Auden.
In my Solitude you haunt me
With memories that never die -
- Louis Armstrong/Duke Ellington
Far from hip and happening north Goa
There are people, I’m told, who talk to their plants. Some even play music for them, and classical is supposed to be especially popular. Sounds crazy. But there's a theory that plants feel pain and pleasure, just like us. And because soothing sounds make them happy, they thrive.
I’ve never been much of a talker. I’m better at listening.
When the yellow hibiscus folds its petals to die at the end of each day, in sign language it’s saying: ‘Goodbye cruel world’. And when the white hibiscus opens its petals wide and glows in the moonlight, isn’t it mocking me for going to sleep when the night is so beautiful?
Sometimes it feels like that.
But flowers give out secret signals through their fragrances as well. And fragrance is more mysterious. Not the light scent of flowers like the rose, but the dark, hypnotic fragrances exuded by certain small flowers like the raat ki rani. When I planted the creeper, my village neighbours shook their heads warningly and told me that snakes loved the smell. I laughed. Snakes can’t smell, I told them.
It took me some time to understand that certain insects are attracted by the powerful fragrance, and that frogs come to eat the insects, and snakes to eat the frogs.
I got the signal wrong. I thought the fragrance was telling me to breathe deeply. What it was actually signalling was: Watch out for snakes!
This year the monsoons continued right through October. As a result the flowers are all late. The few that struggled into existence soon began to rot away. ‘Too much water, we're choking,’ they signalled frantically.
Global warming, I told them sadly.
I think I heard them sigh.
‘Sun is shining, but it’s raining in my heart,’ – goes the song. Corny, and yet how much more evocative than to blandly state: It’s a sunny day but I’m feeling sad.
Our language is richer, as is our imagination, as a result of this mingling of nature with our own moods and feelings:
"I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,/Insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,/Going on down, into the moist guts of the earth. . ."
Even while man conquered the wilderness and found shelter from it, he continued to use the language of the wilderness, and cities came to be called concrete jungles - as though somewhere deep down he was bitter about the beauty he had left and of the ugliness he had created.Nowadays environmentalists weep for the damage we are inflicting on the earth. There may be something in what they say. But I think what is sadder is how much more artificial and ugly things are becoming for the sake of convenience. Nowadays the fragrance of flowers is bottled. Nowadays milk comes in tetra packs, peas come frozen, meat is tinned. We grow expensive plastic flowers in rooms lit by fluorescent lights. We wear synthetic fabrics. Children’s toys are made of plastic, not wood.
We’d be dead without progress and all the goodies it brings us. But perhaps we don’t have to go all the way and discard everything that is natural and more beautiful. If we do, perhaps a day will come when we have nothing but the words themselves rooted in nature.
I wonder if Mr Ambani has a garden?
I read somewhere that he lives in an apartment in the sky, in a swanky penthouse in south Bombay. And it's the most expensive apartment in the world.
I wonder if this swanky apartment has a garden.
It probably does. On the terrace of his house he probably has a landscaped garden designed by some incredibly expensive landscape/penthouse artist. Probably a little Japanese affair with a little rockery, and an electric waterfall that goes into action at the touch of button, causing little fairy lights to come on. Like Richard Cory, Mr Ambani probably sits there in the evenings with his lovely wife and children – when he has the time – and tells himself how lucky he is.
This is how I imagine Mr Ambani’s garden to be.
Poor Mr Ambani. Poor lil' rich Mr Ambani.
This is what I think when I survey my own little garden. Do you – dear city dweller – know what it is to have a little garden? I never did when I lived in the city. I didn’t think of such things. When I lived in my several different little barsatis in Delhi, I never even bothered to have potted plants. Too much of a hassle. Only once I experienced something that came close. The tenants before me had completely enclosed the terrace in bamboo and left some pots filled with green. The sunlight filtered through. I bought myself a little table and I’d eat my meals on this lovely terraced garden.
But now, now I have a real garden! It’s not in the front of the house, like most gardens. In fact, anyone passing by would think: ‘What a sorry house. No garden.’ Little do they know. My garden is on one side of the house, overlooked by a long (not so long, actually) veranda. I often sit there, dreaming. Sometimes I half close my eyes and look at it. This, I think, is how the Impressionists must have viewed reality. I see a blur of colour. Pink, purple, blue (yes, blue flowers!), yellow, red and, of course, green – countless shades of green. I don’t have a gardener (only Babuli, aka the village idiot, who sometimes clears the weeds). I’m not a keen gardener myself. Too lazy. But somehow, putting a plant here, a plant there, the garden has grown – and grown pretty lush. Last night I was amazed to see one yellow hibiscus awake and open (this morning it was dead, or perhaps still asleep). Its chrome yellow petals were peeled back and the stamen was sticking out – like a tongue. It was incredibly erotic, actually (now I have the word erotic on my blog, in addition to the word sex, and all the perverts searching Google are going to find my posts and be incredibly disappointed because all I allude to is the activity in the garden.) Every now and then I think I should sell the cottage (time to move on), but it’s always the thought of the garden that holds me back.
I wonder if Mr Ambani (who, according to Forbes, is one of the richest men in the world) has butterflies – huge butterflies in the most incredible colours – in his expensive penthouse garden. I wonder if he has caterpillars (the bad guys) eating his plants, and hundreds of fireflies (the good guys) giving him the feeling that he is in a tropical paradise. Maybe he’s imported them. Maybe he has robot fireflies and caterpillars who just look pretty instead of ravaging his garden. I wonder if he has real earth on the terrace of his penthouse garden, or only a readymade lawn. I wonder if the magpie robin sings for him (on a Sunday, a holiday). I wonder if he has woodpeckers banging away or the red whiskered bulbul courting his loved one passionately. I wonder if he has red ants in his garden or if squirrels run about, shrieking (when I lived in Delhi I had a doorbell that sounded exactly like a squirrel, only I didn’t realise it till I came here). I wonder if he has trees – a coconut, maybe. With money, anything is possible. Or so I’ve been told.
I know one thing for sure. There'll be no frogs in his garden, not even the odd snake. Lucky, lucky Mr Ambani. It's lovely the things money can buy.
I wonder why, of all animals, the pig is considered so greedy.
Of course, pigs are greedy alright. I’ve often observed the piglets around the cottages behind Palolem beach; dirty little things, their once pinkish skin covered in dried mud and worse filth. They have their snouts perpetually in a trough of food. Or they’ll be running around with their noses to the ground, constantly gobbling bits and pieces of unmentionable things.
But pigs are not the only creatures who go on eating, and who will eat just about anything: edible or not. Cows are as bad. And hens? All they do is peck all day long at the dirt, squawking all the while as if outraged by their own appetites.
And anyone who has had her garden demolished in minutes by a goat knows that the prize for greed should probably go to this insatiable creature. There are not too many goats in Goa. As the guy who sells chicken explained to me: ‘It’s very greedy, the goat. It will eat up all the plants.’ Close to where I live is a Muslim guy who butchers goats twice a week in his front yard. His goats are always tied up. And the poor things are taken to graze like dogs on a leash.
But observe, if you can, god’s little creatures. I watch them in the garden and am amazed at how they spend the entire day - from dawn to dusk - eating, generally each other. Big birds eat baby birds. Lizards will stalk a moth and pounce. Spiders will weave the most incredible web from tree to tree and sit in the centre, waiting for dinner to be served. A line of ants will be dragging some dead insect away, or even a bit of lizard shit. On a bad day there'll be a snake chasing a frog, or monkeys grabbing and stuffing their mouths with whatever they can steal.
My teak tree recently came into leaf (the branches were cut off during the rainy season). I was admiring the freshness of the green colour, but by afternoon the entire tree had been ravaged by little black and white caterpillars. All that was left were the skeleton leaves. And while the caterpillars were busy chomping away, little birds kept landing on the leaves and rubbing their beaks into them. They were eating the insects and the caterpillars who were eating the leaves.
The most astonishing of hungry creatures that I’ve seen at least, is the big red ant. During the monsoons, particularly, they are everywhere, busily bending leaves to create nests for themselves. First they drop some sticky whitish solution on the edges of all the leaves. Then they bend these leaves back and forth in the strangest way to create a nest the size of a football. I’ve seen this happen many a time. But the other day I observed them more closely in the mango tree. A line of ants had carried a dead wasp into the tree and were holding it on a leaf while the other ants were bending the leaves around the wasp. What’s the point of a home, I guess, if there’s no food to eat.
And if these creatures are not eating, they’re crapping or reproducing endlessly. To what purpose? God alone knows.
Recently my garden was thick with weeds and grass. So I invited some cows in to eat them.
The two cows were grazing just outside the gate. When I asked the boy who was overseeing them if they would eat my weeds instead – please, I added - he laughed and led them into the garden.
Predictably, perhaps, the two cows lunged for the nice flowering plants. I cried out, the boy shouted. The cows wouldn’t budge. Stolidly they chomped away at the round leaves of a small tree that in season has beautiful purple flowers. Finally one cow was led out of the garden in disgrace. The other, a rope round its neck, I coaxed into tasting some of the weeds. She nibbled at them delicately. To my relief, she seemed to like them.
I was thrilled. I began to make plans to go house to house, inviting the villagers to send their cows into my garden for a feast. I imagined disciplined cows nibbling away at the weeds, giving me the most beautiful weed-free garden ever. Never again would I have to depend on Babuli (aka the village idiot) to do the job badly. And then, just as I was wondering why nobody had ever thought to employ the cow in such a useful activity, the cow in my garden stopped eating.
Maybe she’ll like that, I told the boy, pointing at another clump of fresh weeds that had tiny purple flowers.
The cow turned to my hibiscus and began to eat it. I wanted, like AA Milne, to tell her: Weeds are flowers too, you know, once you get to know them.
But no. The cow was simply not interested in getting better acquainted with my weeds.
Later, while I was counting the number of good plants that Babuli had uprooted along with the weeds, I wondered what purpose a weed could possibly serve in nature’s grand pattern.
Weeds, I found, are not so much villains as simply plants whom no one loves. You call a plant a weed when it is growing where it is not wanted. Basically, a plant that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’m told that tobacco was once called the noxious weed. Some garden flowers, likewise, were born as common weeds till someone noticed how pretty they were and cultivated them for the garden (something like My Fair Lady, I imagine, only without all the song and dance). And cannabis, of course, is still called “the weed” though any die-hard smoker will tell you it ought to be "the crop". There are other good weeds, weeds that have healing properties. There are even some that are edible. In the monsoons I’ve noticed people here searching for these. One such weed has large heart-shaped leaves and is supposed to be very tasty.
The problem with most weeds is that you dare not be kind to them. Give them an inch and they'll soon want the whole garden.