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Portrait of a Garden

Transitioning from spring to autumn in fifteen hours flat, neatly avoiding the heat, what’s not to love? Isn’t this what the birds and the rich do – fly off to cooler pastures during summer? So why does she have butterflies?


Leaving an urban, constricted balcony garden for an expansive one is surely a profitable exchange. But she cannot shake off an image of the two gulmohurs opposite, branches arching across the road, dribbling leaves on her balcony. As the summer deepened, they would redden with blossoms. But they are now far behind.

By the time she lands, those gulmohurs are a hemisphere away. The distance is enormous – too much to process just now. The gulf between a Northern spring and a Southern autumn feels unbridgeable.

The new garden feels intimidating, too – a tropical, exuberant jungle. The driveway forks, skirts the house, and widens into a paved patio behind it, edged with mature coconut palms. The lawn begins where the patio ends on the western side. But it’s not quite grass, more a matted groundcover.

The yard has a profusion of vegetation – more palms, massed faux birds-of-paradise, towering allamandas, pinwheels, ferns in pots and stuffed into the border, periwinkles, pawpaw, bougainvillea, frangipanis, variegated crotons, and bear grasses and a single arching stem of a dendrobium orchid.

And then her heart leaps into her throat – there they are, beyond the border, reassuring, miraculous – two gulmohurs on either side. Not a sliver of red anywhere, but she would know that smoothness of bark, that exquisite lacy foliage anywhere.

Outside the garden, there are the highlands on the horizon. There’s the creek weaving slowly, sinuously pouring into the ocean. The same thick fringes of coconuts. The hillsides covered with breadfruit, peepal, frangipani. African tulips coloring the slopes. A thousand different grasses grow in the wild. The cultivated fields, too, are impossibly green with the sugarcane crop. The whole island’s an extension of the garden – profuse, verdant.

It rains every day initially, as if the monsoons, like the gulmohurs, have traveled with her. The sound of water on water, water on soil, water on leaves. The lissom rain pirouettes into a symphony. She is not particularly moved by rain, never the romantic rain-lover. Urban rains are an inconvenience – waterlogging, traffic disruptions, absenteeism, laundry issues.

But this is different. It is an all-out celebration, a musical of liquid beauty. Some primal, undeniable instinct drives her city-hardened self outside. She stands with her face raised to the skies, receiving the rain like a benison.

The rains finally stop by May. There are only two seasons this close to the Equator – Wet and Dry. The day temperatures in this Southern autumn are not any different from the summer, only the humidity has dropped a notch. More orchids come into bloom, the stems densely laden, bending gracefully with the weight.

The lawn of tangled, unknown groundcover breaks into a rash of minuscule, translucent, almost invisible blossoms. A mature palm drops its coconuts. Others bear clusters of tiny flowers or start off with berry-like incipient fruit. A few fronds wither, fall with a great rustling on the patio. And she realizes that Nature’s first and last green are both gold in an unobtrusive but piercing epiphany.

The pinwheels and periwinkles flower constantly; they bloom and fall daily. With its five-petaled splendor, the allamanda offers them less frequently but for longer. The indefatigable Ixora hedge puts out its dense red-orange-pink bunches every day; it is never devoid of flowers. But the gulmohurs remain stubbornly green.

Their high branches wave in gentle derision at her hankering, not a bud in sight. She asks the gardener – he points out that his job ends with the lawn and containers at the borders. She doesn’t speak his language; she can’t quite articulate her need even in her own. All she gets is the name – the gulmohur is sekoula in the local language. And the sekoula is not his responsibility.

The days pass. The trees left behind torment her – the shefali, carpeting the verge beneath it with blossoms, the amaltas with its blazing golden boughs, the jasmines giving way to the tuberose at the market florists’, the dahlias and chrysanthemums blooming thick and fast on her balcony, the banks of cheerful marigolds at Burrabazar. And, of course, the gulmohur. Sometimes, closing her eyes, she can almost taste the fragrances, feel them with her entire skin – the dawn breezes free of traffic fumes, wafting the scents of native flowers from the direction of the Lake.

Her festival season coincides with the Wet in the South – the cyclone season. In a burst of homesick enthusiasm, she puts up tealights around the garden for Diwali. But a shower douses the flames. She brings them indoors. Will she ever feel at home here?

A month later comes a weather warning. She stocks up – water, tinned goods, candles, power banks. The warning is downgraded, but the storm is ferocious nevertheless, the high winds battering the trees, torrential rain blanking out everything, frosting the glass doors an opaque, ominous white. She huddles inside, keeping the family close.

The power fails a few hours later. There is no network. Fortunately, the fuel pipelines work; she brews pots of strong tea on the hob – a comforting distraction. It rains incessantly; she listens with a mixture of nervousness and worshipful awe for this force of Nature, life-giving yet destructive.

It takes two days to stop. She ventures out tentatively. The yard is buried ankle-deep – in a strangely lush devastation, leaves and flowers stripped from trees, entire branches ripped. Her heart sinks at the damage.

Something is poking up in the far corner. She steps over a massive palm frond for a closer look. A branch has fallen from the nearest gulmohur and points an accusatory finger towards the skies. And instantly, her heart is soaring again, soaring home, thrilled with delighted disbelief. For finally, on the very tip of the branch are the tight, round flower buds.

Author: Nilanjana Bose
[Author; Chartered Institute of Marketing, UK; Mathematics]

Illustration: TDLM Design Team


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