That’s the colour of my thumb.
When I was something less than ten years old, for some strange reason I remember trying to plant something in the garden of the house we were then living in, in Chandigarh. It must have been some strange reason, because my parents were not particularly gardening-inclined. My mother vaguely taught my sister and me to do some weeding, but the garden we had was so vast that our sporadic efforts has not the slightest impact on it. But one summer, we did plant something. I don’t, of course, recall what it was – probably some kind of flower – or how it fared. But I do know that we tried.
In the same garden, around the same age, I also tried to plant a loquat tree. That was probably the first time the colour of my thumb began to reveal itself. I don’t know whether loquat is a hardy tree or a fussy one – I have neither seen the tree nor ever eaten the fruit since we moved out of that house back in ’84 – but my effort to grow it bore no fruit, literally or otherwise.
In 1984, we moved out of the house with the garden and spent the next six years or so in an apartment. We weren’t a potted plants kind of family, so the next time we had an opportunity to grow anything was in a smaller house Panchkula, where salvia bloomed blood red in the front lawn and portulaca opened and closed in the porch. I was never much interested in flowers, though. My maternal grandmother’s house in Chandigarh had a beautifully manicured back lawn with flowers planted artistically in various places. An army of gardeners made sure sweetpeas appeared and were removed at the appropriate time of year; pansies, petunias, snap dragons, salvia, and various other colourful adornments also appeared regularly each year. An ice cream creeper (or is it a vanilla creeper – I never could remember – something with pretty pink flowers, at any rate) grew in an orderly profusion of colour in strategic places.
But my own taste ran to rambling wild rose bushes and untamed bougainvillea. Since we had the wild rose already, I decided to grow a bougainvillea – boug for convenience. I don’t remember actually planting the sprig – though I think I did – but I do remember watching with maternal pride as it grew and took over our gatepost and spread along the adjacent wall. There was a gardener who attempted to tame it periodically, but it grew too fast for his shears to keep pace, and I was happy about that. This was my one experiment with the plant kingdom that did not end in death, desolation, and despair. I was sorry to leave that boug behind when we eventually moved out.
We moved to a ground floor house in Delhi, where the front lawn had rose bushes, a jacaranda tree, and a red hibiscus tree next to a guava tree; and the back lawn had neem, drumstick, a massive mango, and a small curry-patta tree. Somehow, from somewhere, without really realizing it, a tomato plant appeared next to the rose bushes and we got one or two tomatoes from it. I don’t know what happened to it after that. I watched the curry-patta and the tomato plants grow with some satisfaction and thrilled in plucking the mangos from the huge tree before the birds and thunderstorms got to them and wrapping them in newspaper to wait for them to ripen, but that was the sum and substance of my involvement with the garden in those years. I lived there from the age of 18 to 24 and I had much more important things to think about in those days.
I got married in the front lawn of that house – and it was the most simple and wonderful wedding ceremony my Spartan soul could have dreamt of. Then I moved to various apartments in Bangalore and didn’t attempt to grow anything for years. There was a short-lived attempt to grow a boug in a pot; and Amit’s father kindly gifted us some flowers in various pots; and during our stint of a few short months in the US we were given a Poinsettia to look after (I think it was a Christmas gift) but all these attempts were doomed to failure. Even the Poinsettia, a hardy plant that thrives in the indoor, artificially lit environment of shopping malls in the US, looked greenish-yellow and sickly (it should look bright red) under my care.
You wouldn’t think taking care of plants was a very difficult business. There are basically two ways to kill a plant – too much water; or too little water. I discovered a third – me. Regardless of whether I watered a plant or not; regardless of whether I talked to it, looked at it, deliberately ignored it, fed it tea leaves, put it in the sun, put it in the shade, or just forgot all about it – all the plants under my care suffered a similar fate. They stopped growing, their leaves fell off, sometimes they were reduced to a single twig, the twig went from green to brown, then there were no further signs of life.
Soon after Amit got his compost project going, he decided to start a kitchen garden. The way he saw it, it made sense. You grow your own veggies, put the waste in the compost pot, put the compost in the kitchen garden, eliminating both household waste and the need to go to the market. I, of course, saw it as a whole lot of work and declared that I would have nothing whatsoever to do with this new crazy initiative. Despite that, he went right ahead and now we have 88 (I think) square feet of our terrace given over to greens of various hues, shapes, and sizes. Radish and beetroot have been harvested; lettuce is appearing at a pace much faster than it can be consumed; some coriander has gone yellow; methi has been harvested and consumed in a slightly desperate attempt to finish it before it dried up, and spinach now seems to be headed the same way; cabbage is still waiting to make an appearance; one of six cauliflowers has appeared and looks lovely; green beans and tomatoes have begun to appear; a baby carrot was pulled out and found to be nice, though still too small; and bottle gourd and green chillies have completely failed.
Amit does all the work – watering, fussing over, harvesting, spraying with organic pesticide and all that. I go up to visit the plants once a week or so, usually on Saturday or Sunday morning with a cup of coffee after taking the kids for tennis. It’s not a bad way to spend a lazy hour on a weekend morning. It does bring a smile to my face to see all that greenery waving at me happily in the pleasant sunshine. But that’s as far as my attachment to the project goes. I don’t even make any commitment to eating the veggies. I took one bite of beetroot and decided that just because it was growing on my terrace didn’t make it one of the few veggies I’d actually eat. And lettuce is all very well in a burger or sandwich, but since I’m gluten free now, there’s practically no way to allow it in my diet.
Then, for a whole six days, the better half went out of town leaving me to water the plants. There is a drip irrigation system installed, so it is only a matter of turning on a tap and turning it off 20 minutes later. But Amit was very worried. My impeccable record at burning rice bears testimony to my ability to turn something on and forget about it altogether. My tendency to treat light switches the same way was also not very reassuring. It was only a matter of time before I turn the water on to water the plants and forget to turn it off, he said. Not only would it drown the plants, it would also empty all the water from our overhead tank. We would have water flooding our terrace and flowing down the steps. It would be a complete disaster.
All of that was worrying enough, but even if I did manage to turn the tap on (and off) punctually every day for six whole days, there was still the other little problem – the problem of my black thumb. Could it possibly turn a light shade of green before Amit returned to look after his precious plants?
So far, it’s turned out ok. I didn’t drown anybody on our terrace and I didn’t neglect them either. I’m not sure whether they were happy under my care, but at least nobody’s died – yet. I even harvested one cauliflower, which had reached the end of its growth cycle and was looking ready to start its decay cycle. The rest of the plants are pretty much as they were a week ago, still alive, still green. And their master is back tomorrow – with a big sigh of relief from everybody.
Now I’d better go and turn off that tap, before I forget.