A Colorful Crime: What My Father Taught Me

I remember my two plants in Pune, India, that never came out of their owner-induced coma. The Gerbera only opened up its nursery-gifted buds and died right after I managed to sprinkle some water on its pink flowers and relished the clichéd shot of a greenhorn photographer. And the Monkey’s Puzzle, too small to trouble any of our forefathers, had its claws constantly turning brown one after the other, before the entire plant morphed into a sad puzzle of dead or wilted branches.

I must be a bad copy of my father, I thought.

Baba had a way with plants. Like a creative chef who also arranged his craft well, one season he would make concentric circles, and the other, rectangles (his most debatable design was a closed semicircle, like the shape of a ‘D’ which mother had some serious trouble digesting), painstakingly arranging the little saplings of seasonal flowers according to their size and colour.

Every winter, our backyard (not the front as one might guess) filled with marigold, rose, zinnia, dahlia, calendula, dianthus, petunia and many more. For us, the ability to regurgitate these exotic names in front of the class mates was as much a matter of pride as the partial ownership of the plants themselves.

We saw father toil in his modest garden, carefully preparing the soil, tossing it up with his self-cooked compost and fertilizers, making little holes in the amorphous grey mix to bury the seeds in. Squatting beside him under a lukewarm sun casting golden shafts of light as fat as the gaps between the teak leaves, watching him go about doing everything methodically was our easiest family activity! Of course, we too contributed. Either by occasionally watering the bed, or — if we had a passionate ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ race with the cousins — trampling all over it, even though the hardest slaps were reserved for rendering this service.

We loved his plants, but couldn’t hold it for too long! So we would break off a thin stem from a wild shrub and subject his plants to the same treatment that George Washington did to the cherry tree. We would swing the stem so fast that it neatly cut through the leaves, or even the tender shoots. The challenge was the neatness of the cut, and we strove to achieve perfection at the cost of swollen, broken skins.

My weird love for plants didn’t die entirely even under the suffocating weight of a software coolie’s job (as an engineering professor would lovingly call it). So I tried my hand at a little garden of my own in the dreary city-concrete of Pune and Ahmedabad, only managing to produce stunted, stooping plants dying a slow, painful death. Sometimes I baked them in the sun, and sometimes made a soup of their soil, never really figuring what these little bastards wanted.

Though I rebooted my efforts after coming to Bhubaneswar, a sweltering city in Eastern India, I quickly — and utterly depressingly — realized that the flat I had booked with so much hope for a better life has its face permanently turned away from the sun. Nothing grew, except for the damned mealy bug, a soft-bodied parasite, which proliferated with an unknown vengeance.

I started looking for plants that grew in the shade, and got repeatedly fooled by unscrupulous nursery men, one of whom once passed off nothing less than a cactus as a shade-lover. So I began with a borrowed money plant and a few others, learning the tricks by rotting and potting. Most died, some lived to spin an additional leaf. A few grew wildly. Some got crippled, and yet some others froze in their first leaves. It was a mixed result, though I was still sad that I had no flowers. All flowering plants craved for the sun and gave up.

My desperate attempt at ‘shade flowers’ took me finally to orchids, an entirely different ball game which I didn’t know then. I kept reading Youtube videos and kept buying them until I realized the hard way that none of the predominantly American lessons on Youtube applied to my city.

However, I didn’t give up, although dying orchids kept burning a rapidly expanding hole in my pocket.

My plants which started with just one, soon grew to ten, then to fifty, to a hundred and to over one hundred fifty now! So much so that kids who came to play in our house have made a competition out of counting the pots. Before I realized, I had everything in my comparatively small apartment that my father had in his outhouse. Shovels, fertilizers, sprays, organic manure, a bunch of insecticides, neem oil, little packets of compost, mustard cakes and much more. It’s a humble collection; there is no garden, but it makes me happy. While my parents think this is too much domestic responsibility for their troubled ‘double-kidded-son’, the wife, kind-hearted otherwise, now considers the entire house to have been taken over by this non-human species (and once went as far as calling their collective presence akin to that of a ‘souten’, a nomenclature Indian wives have historically reserved only for the most despised). Some well-wishers have wrongly blamed the obsession on the luxury of my being a teacher, and yet some others have found the occasional water dripping from my balcony an invasion of their privacy and security.

The plants, however, have only grown. They surreptitiously encroach upon many things; the kitchen sill, the utility slab, the corridor, the clothesline. Some are gifted, some are plucked from the roadside. Some collected by the son who, at best, has a sinusoidal love for them. Some are even ripped from the bark of a tree in a jungle. A few have now crossed the four walls of my house and found happy homes elsewhere. They have been carried in the train too, neatly packed and watered, by none other than my father, the man who taught me everything about plants.

‘They grow so well in your house,’ he tells me one day. ‘My leaves are not even half as green. Teach me what you do.’

I am suddenly speechless, reminded of the passion in his young days and his angry slaps. And now, he just hands out my biggest award and doesn’t even realize! Yes, he’s the man who gave me the lasting love through his genes. So much that I can’t stop acquiring more plants even if the house is overflowing with them.

Yes, I am guilty of the crime. More guilty than charged.

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