September 24, 2010

The Green Thumb

I’m not one of those people who have green thumbs, so when my husband gave me the plant, I was baffled by the strange choice of benefaction. I can understand flowers, who are both immediately appealing to the senses and can be put into a vase and ignored, till they die and need to be thrown out. We had been married five years now and not once had I shown the slightest interest in gardening of any kind. 

“It’ll be good for you” he said when I expressed my reluctance to take responsibility for it. I realized then that he was compensating. I had had a miscarriage the year before and we had been trying for more children since but, without success. “Do you think that some strange looking plant will make up for the empty second room in our apartment?” I asked him, trying to understand the logic behind his move. 

Oblivious to how he had just humiliated me, “Perhaps if you’re good with this plant, we can turn that room into a nursery for plants darling, it’s gets great sun light, why not make the best of it?” he replied. I was furious and in my rage, I ignored the plant.
For a long while, almost a week I think, the plant just sat there in our living room, in it’s earthen pot. Occupying space in my life but not filling up any gaps. I didn’t want to let it and my husband simply didn’t understand that rather than a present, he was handing me an everyday reminder of my humiliation. “it feels like you’re  mocking me,” I told to him. “A woman unable to bear children taking care of vegetation instead!” He tried to convince me different, but I wasn’t going to listen. “You could just as well get me a cat and make me the neighborhood cat lady!” I fumed, “At the very least, you know I like cats, what do I care about this plant?!”
He told me I was being dramatic and perhaps I was, but my feelings of ignominy were familiar and the plant, an alien. I refused to water it and ordered him to let it die as well. It didn’t make up for losing the baby, I explained to him. In fact, it made me feel like there was no hope. I didn’t need this runners’ up medal, I was still in the race. My husband is sometimes a kind man, he empathized or, more likely, simply, allowed me my self pity. Either way, I know he didn’t water the plant and we went about the week, waiting for it to wilt, like someone watches an old relative on life support. 

It made me think of my first ultra sound, when I saw my baby for the first time. I remember marking down days in the calender, waiting for it to be born. This was just the opposite, but I guess, the same spectrum. Life and Death are two heads of the same coin aren’t they?
After a week or so, I began to notice something strange. The plant was as healthy as ever. Its leaves were green bright green, they even looked brightly polished, as if someone was giving them a regular washing everyday. I inspected the soil and it got even stranger - the soil was dry and cracked, there was no way that it had been fed any water recently.  “How is this possible plant?” I found myself asking it. 

I suppose I knew its secret was safe, not like it was going to give me any answers. Perhaps it was a desert plant and had hidden stores of water I concluded. I watched for another week, I watched both my husband and the plant. I tried to ascertain if he was sneaking it contraband liquids behind my back, but it didn’t seem so. God Bless his soul, the man was obedient. The plant was being fed by no one. Yet, week two, there it was, greener than ever, healthy as a new born. 
Week three, I began to have nightmares about the plant in our living room. I would dream that it was supernatural and had powers that could at times, bring me great fertility and I had eleven babies. Other times I would dream that the plant grew arms and legs and came at me to take revenge for starving it like I was now. Not that it looked starved. It actually grew healthier and bigger in the three weeks that it had been in my home on my self approved diet. “How are you doing so well plant?” I asked it again. It was impossible, but it was true. 
After a while, it became evident to me that the plant had no intention of making an exit from our lives and I gave up ignoring its presence. I didn’t say anything to my husband about the strange behavior, or my dreams. I didn’t tell him that occasionally I went to our living room and asked the plant its secret. He had already been through enough, handling me after I lost the baby and I didn’t want to give him more reasons to worry about me. 

By now, the plant seemed like it had always been a part of our lives, like some uncle who came for a week and stayed with you till he was fat and old. By week three, I began to get curious, so I asked my husband what kind of plant it was and where he got it from.
It turns out he knew less about plants than me even. He had no idea what it was and he said a researcher in the laboratory of where he worked gave it to him as a present. He said  it was for you, that it might cheer you up. It bothered me that a researcher in a lab somewhere knew that I was depressed. It bothered me more not to know anything about this strange green thing that was sharing my space with me. 

Since he had no answers for me and the researcher had since, left my husband’s company, I decided to embark upon my own fact finding spree. I took an image of the plant, by now it was at least two feet high with triangle neon green leaves. I could tell that it had plans to flower soon enough, but it was not possible to see what the yield would be. I took the picture to every botanical garden in the city. There were only two, so after that I hit the nurseries and after that, I turned to the libraries. No one knew what the plant was. One botanist told me to bring it in so that he could record it, he said he had never seen the species before. I left his office and never came back. His curiosity was so objective and cold that it made me want to protect the plant from his probing.
I myself was curious now. A plant that no one knew, in my living room, surviving seemingly without water. Who knew. The researcher had to know, so I begged my husband to trace him and let me speak with him. I reasoned that I could not be expected to take care of the plant if I did not know anything about it. Also, if something were to happen to it now or under my care, if I did something wrong, I would be devastated. He was a kind man, like I said, so he did his best to trace the researcher down. Again, with no success. The man had moved bag and baggage to the beaches of India and did not wish to be found. Finding someone is like saving someone, you can’t do it without their co-operation. So the origins of the plant remained a mystery. Still, a plant is a plant is a plant, reasoned my husband and told me to care for it, like I would any other plant.
Therein lay the problem didn’t it? I had ignored it and allowed it to flourish on it’s own for the first few weeks, and flourish it did. Had it died then, I would have cared a little but not really. I had not invested anything into it and expected nothing from it. The only thing that would happen is that the touch of color in my living room would be somewhat diminished, Nothing a few throw away cushions and a decent painting couldn’t have fixed. Now, I cared about it. I wanted it to live and I wanted to nourish it, but i didn’t know how. What should i do , I wondered.
I spoke to several friends, who had green thumbs. I went to them for advice, I let them come over and see the plant. They were all in awe. They had never seen such life before and none of them believed me when I said I had not watered it since it had entered my home. What a bad host I must seem like!
Everyone had a different take on the origins of the plant. Some said that the wide leaves indicated that it wasn’t a desert plant like me and my husband suspected and that it did indeed require water. Perhaps I got lucky this time around but I shouldn’t take these risks with such rare and exotics plants. After all, no one knew where it came from and whether there were any others like it. I must water it everyday, twice a day at least, I was told, though it felt more like I was being chastised. 

There were still others who said that I should simply let the plant be and that it would indicate to me when it required feeding. Such people are also the same people who think that children should not be punished for pushing their dinners under the table or that welfare and unemployment benefits are the cornerstones of a truly enlightened society. These people more often than not, are also against the death penalty, they consider it, along with war, to be a kind of residue from the time when we had no choice but to be barbaric. It’s usually hard to listen to these people, certainly most people don’t, My husband calls these friends of mine various names, bums, hippies, flower children, he says all these words, even the last one - which actually sounds beautiful to me - as if with a bitter taste in his mouth. Like the words are sour lemons. 
He told me not to listen to them, not that I was going to anyway. People with concrete advice, people who tell you what to do and how to do it, right down to the letter. Those are the people that others want to listen to. If Moses had gone to God for advice and God had told him, “To do as his heart desires”, there may have been no parting of the Red Sea. Moses may simply have run away with the beautiful young slave that he loved and they may have produced beautiful slave babies somewhere far away from the eyes of the Egyptians. There would be no ten commandments. No one would have told millions what to do. Almost unacceptable, that is. My point being, it’s easier to be spoon fed, to be told what to do, easier to follow instructions than to create your own recipe. So I followed directions. 
I took down a lot of notes from the friends who were willing to give. There was no shortage, let me tell you. Everyone has an opinion, especially when there is no way to verify them. I began to water the plant, twice a day, large quantities of water. “You’ll do really well now won’t you plant?” I’d say to it while turning the soil, “Now it’s you and me, we’re in this together and we have all the instructions on how to take care of you.” I was convinced, now that I had started to care for it, pay attention to its life, want it to live, the plant wouldn’t let me down. After all, it had survived my indifference, how could it not flourish with my love? Still, it always seemed like the plant was just at the edge of spitting out a beautiful flower for all to see, but it didn’t happened. 
One day, a group of friends brought over a botanist. He was a well respected man in his field. Immediately, there was something about him that I did not like. Perhaps it was his air of self approved superiority or perhaps it was the fact that he kept comparing my plant to other plants he had seen along his lifetime of plant hunting. “It’s leaves are like that of a Mulas tree, yet the color resembles Ambrosia trifida and the smell. well it smells like the Rudbeckia hirta.” This is what he had said. I admit that if he had simply said apple, weed and daisy to me instead, I may have been able to reconsider my dislike. Now I couldn’t.
Still he was the expert, so he left me with a great many things to help the flower bloom. He gave me the names of some fertilizer, some plant proteins, various other things he told me about. When he left, one of the friends who was a hippy or a bum or a flower child like my husband would spit out, stayed back. When it was just him and me, he asked me “Why are you so interested in keeping the plant alive now? I thought you didn’t care...”  I was taken aback by the question, not in the least because out loud it just sounds terrible doesn’t it? Not wanting to care for a living thing? Not wanting to nourish a gift that has been given to you? 

Yes, it sounds terrible, perhaps selfish but most of all, it sounds entitled. Like one has a choice about what to do with gifts that are given to you. Truth is, you don’t. You should simply accept whatever is given to you in life and do your best to make it beautiful. 
That’s what I had come to believe I told him and that is why I now want the plant to live. I had neglected it initially, that’s true. Taken it’s ever growing foliage for granted, but that was no more. I was ready to be good to it, take care of it. I was ready to give it more than the little space in my living room. It sounds cheesy and perhaps a bit much considering that it’s just a plant, but now I wanted to give it a bit of room in my life. It was empty after all and anyway, wouldn’t this be just the right thing to fill up those spaces?
My friend seemed dissatisfied with my answer. It was almost as if he thought I was lying. “If you want the plant to live and accept it for what it is, why wouldn’t you pay attention to it’s nature, how it’s behaved so far?” he asked, “Why would you try to listen to people who don’t know what it is and follow their paths.... after all, your plant, it’s not theirs and what do they know?”
He was correct, but then I reasoned, what did I know. I had never had a green thumb you know. I had never kept a plant before, my mother did not have a green thumb, neither my father. I had heard that plants actually died when my grand father came within their vicinity. No, I told him, I couldn’t risk his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach to life. I needed a plan, a schedule, I needed a routine with the plant. Something I could follow, without blame, reproach, without responsibility almost. 
I bought all the fertilizers and plant food that the doctor recommended to me. Each day I would water the plant, plant food mixed in and turn the soil every week like I was told. Every day to pass the time while I went through this extensive routine, I’d speak to the plant. I’d discuss my day, or my marriage. 

I shared with it the fear that my husband was having a secret affair. I shared with it the fear that my husband may not entirely understand me, or that we had married too young, more for fear of loneliness than for love. Married because it had seemed to be the correct thing to do, because it was our age, because it was how things are done. I told the plant about my unborn baby, how happy and how sad it made me to think about it. I asked the plant if it ever wanted to have babies of its own... I asked it, because I knew plants reproduce but can they have babies? 

The plant grew even bigger, until it was almost as tall as me. I took this as a sign of success, as a triumph of order over anarchy, of structure over creativity and I was elated. It’s a lot easier to believe that the world has roads ready made to follow than to think that every life has to pave its own way.
After a few weeks, when it was evident that the plant was not responding badly to the botanist’s suggestions, I invited my friend over for dinner. I wanted him to see the produce of my labour. I told him I had followed everything to the T and that the plant continued to be healthy, happy and well nourished. “But has it flowered?” he asked, only half smiling. I had to admit, sadly, it had not flowered yet.
“Perhaps we should try and experiment?” he suggested. I was immediately suspicious and told him that I didn’t want to experiment with a living creature. That’s just not right you know, I told him, subjecting a life to standards just for my pleasure or curiosity. “But,” he reasoned “No one knows of any other plant like yours, so you don’t know whether what the botanist and all the other people said is a hundred percent correct, now do you?” I nodded, you can’t always argue with reason, you can try but more often than not, it corners you up against it’s hard wall and there you are. “So in a way, it’s that also an experiment?”
I suppose he was correct, but it didn’t feel correct somehow. Perhaps it didn’t feel like an experiment because the botanist hadn’t said apples, he had said Mulas, perhaps it didn’t seem like an experiment because they were telling me what every plant they know responds to. My plant was after all, like my husband said, a plant. Hardly an experiment to try to make it grow in the same way as all the other plants. It was more like following the road already travelled. I told him this, I think it offended him a little, but he was a follower of the forgiveness philosophy and he did not take it much to heart.
He dropped the topic however, much to my relief and I continued to follow the advice of the confident sounding, all-knowing crowd. The conformists, the majority. 

These are the people who believe that the grading systems in schools is the only way to measure aptitude, these are the people who believe a philosophy degree means that you are wasting your life and becoming a bum, these are the people who took down Woodstock, LSD, Jimmy Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Bobby Kennedy, Joan of Arc, endorsed British Rule in India even though they themselves were not English. They come at different times, with different faces, but these are the people and everyone, no matter how well they know themselves, eventually follow these people and so did I.
After a few weeks, the botanist came back. This time he dropped by without any warning and when he arrived, I was sitting with the plant, telling it about my day. When he saw what I was doing, the botanist laughed. “You’re plant doesn’t care that the chocolate soufflĂ© didn’t rise, you know?” he said to me, only in half jest. The other half was made up of pure contempt. Perhaps at my naivety, perhaps because I was so lonely that I was talking to a plant, or perhaps simply because he felt superior to me who was, obviously slightly crazy. 

Whatever the reason was, it made me feel small. Literally under his superior gaze, I felt like I could have fit in the palm of his hand, and that he would then almost certainly squish me like a bug. He wasn’t the kind of person who would open a window and let me out into garden. No, definitely not.
“A friend told me that plants like it better when you talk to them.” I told him. After all, it wasn’t just his advice that I could follow, though I didn’t say it with the largest degree of confidence. I regret that now. I should have said it like it was the gospel, because what he said after wards, sounded like it should have been part of that indeed.
“Plants are just plants, my dear. You’re being silly. It’s alive, but it doesn’t have language, it doesn’t have a direction, a purpose, it doesn’t understand anything you’re saying to it. It’s simply an inert but living creature. You’re wasting your time indulging it like this, talking to it... whoever believed such a thing!” 

His words stung and while they were hurting me so, I couldn’t help notice that he looked a bit like a squid or a jelly fish. All floppy around the edges. I didn’t think too much of it then, perhaps I only thought about jelly fish because it’s the same kind of stinging pain when one attacks you. It, like the botanist, perhaps doesn’t mean to but is simply protecting its territory. After all, if the whole world starts having an opinion about plants and how they should be treated, his speciality would be the norm wouldn’t it?
I feel like a coward now, but I didn’t argue with him. I let him tell me what to do, I listened without questioning and ignored my desire to talk to my plant. That I think was my greatest mistake. The truth was, no one had told me to talk to the plant, I had started doing so on my own accord. Till the very last day that I stopped, it had felt like the right thing to do. In fact, it was the only thing that I had done with the plant, that was my own. 
I shouldn’t have stopped. Or perhaps it didn’t make a difference, but it cannot be denied that a week after my silence began, my plant began to ail. Initially I did not make the connection, even now I suppose I can’t really say it was definitely the connection, but like the talking, it feels right.
I almost went crazy when the plant’s leaves began to fade. Their luminous green colour which used to almost glow in the dark, now became a deep dark green till it was almost black and then one by one, its thick foliage began to thin. I watched the plant night and day. I cried every time a leaf died. 

I told my husband one night that it felt as if a part of me died with every part of the plant. He didn’t say anything, he wiped away my tears but he did not bring me close into his arms. I was so distraught with grief for my vegetative ward that I did not notice the distance between my husband and myself. I busied myself in following the routine, I watered twice a day, I changed the fertilizer, the soil, I sprayed it with plant proteins. I did everything in the book. 
Eventually, despite everything, one day, the last leaf fell off the plant and on that day, my husband took me in his arms. I wasn’t crying though. I couldn’t cry. I was too confused. I wanted answers. I had done everything that they had asked me to.
I phoned the botanist and told him what had happened. I had expected sympathy, I had expected regret. I had expected too much. “Well madam, you obviously didn’t follow the instructions I gave you properly, otherwise it would not have died.” was all I got from him. “No!” I assured him, “I did everything you said, I watered it twice a day, I stopped talking to it, I used the plant how did this happen.” We argued for a long time, he refused to give me any release, he refused to believe that I had not digressed at any point. He had issued the standard instructions, they had not worked, hence they were not followed.

“It’s not possible madam, you have obviously left something out, it’s simply impossible that you followed the instructions I gave you and the plant died. They are basic, any plant would only have flourished.”  This was what he knew. 
“What if....” I told my husband later, “What if my friend was right?” 

He was confused, he did not know which friend I was talking about, so many had come over and so many had given their two cents contributions to the plant raising guide. “My friend who said we should just let it be, my friend who said the botanist was wrong, what if he was right...” I was obsessed now, I had to find some reason that the plant died and it couldn’t be because of me. “What if I just don’t have the green thumb?” I asked him. 
My husband looked up from the book he was reading and smiled, “Look darling, a plant is a plant is a plant, sometimes they live and bloom for a while, and sometimes they die, it happens, they’re all the same. There’s nothing that you could have done...”
He made me lie down next to him in the bed and cradled my confused body close to his. I wanted to feel comfort but I couldn’t, so I asked him “Is this how you comfort your girlfriend when she’s upset...?” He was taken aback but he did not try to deny it. 

Instead he said, “This is how I comforted my mother after my father died, I sat with her for ages after he was cremated and held her. She cried for a long time then, but I think my holding her made her feel better. Doesn’t it make you feel better?” he asked and I thought, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t because he thought ‘A woman is a woman is a woman....’

1 comment:

  1. How beautifully you have juxtaposed life vs life.Interesting transference of trauma and healing.Great perception of human nature.One of the better 'non published' works i have read in a while.My compliments Avantika