The Gardenia / Saudha Kasim

My mother sends me pictures of the buds. It’s early November and she texts me to say look, there are more now. At the end of this year, she’s decided to suddenly bud all over.

We have decided the plant is a girl, stubborn and deep-rooted, sitting between the bromillards partially under the shade of the best mango tree in the garden, separated from the chickoo. The hide-and-seek shade is perfect for her. The sunlight dapples on those leaves (bright green and large) and you can’t make out the buds forming until you’re really close, upsetting the fluorescent orange spider spinning a web and the black mosquitoes and other bugs with sharp stingers.

I am imagining all this by looking at the pictures on my phone. This is what it must be like to stand next to that shrub, and watch those tight buds unfold slowly.

*

It’s a good thing my mother chose not to put the gardenia next to the chickoo. Decades ago as a child I had stood under the heavy perfumed blooms of the gardenia in my grandfather’s garden and let them brush my short-short hair and I’d watch them every day of each May and June that we’d visit and think that they were the chickoo tree’s flowers and that in time the flowers would moult their petals and turn into sweet brown fruit.

This shrub – my grandfather’s – comes to me on hot afternoons when I am looking out the office window at the magnolia tree on the lawn. I stare at the magnolia’s white blooms in the heat of a Bengaluru April and then remember the gardenias and I confuse the scents of both.

I wrote poems about my grandfather’s garden. I was young and my blood was hot and I wanted to bury my face in white flowers each morning and instead of writing about friends and lovers and quarrels I wrote about my grandfather’s garden.

Here I am writing about it again and I think back to remember if I am exorcising something, anything that I did in those years I spent wandering around his mango trees and his string beans and his hibiscus and his chickoos and his gardenia. Going around that sandy half acre in my memory embroidered and embellished with details I’ve retrospectively put there and I always, but always, end up looking at the bluest sky through the tangled branches of the gardenia and the chickoo.

*

Ten years ago I went back to Thrissur and my mother wanted to buy some plants for the garden now that they had stopped their wandering, her and my father, and were putting down their roots, digging in, trying to be happy about it (and not succeeding).

The twin jackfruit trees, a botanical mystery because no one could remember planting that type of tree in the garden, were yet to fruit. The mangoes were yet to fruit. The chickoo was yet to fruit. The coconut palms – they couldn’t stop putting out fruit.

Now my parents would have time. Now they weren’t spending days counting down hours to the time they’d leave to catch flights or trains or buses. Now they would have time to head over to the market and buy cowdung and horsedung and groundnut cake and haul it back home and mix it in water and pour the slurry in shallow pools around the fruit bearing trees. The whole avenue would be stinking for days afterwards.

When I arrived home the stink had died out and my father could once again sit on the verandah and nod his head as he read aloud from The Hindu or the Manorama.

We are going out to look for some nice flowering plants, my mother announced and he looked up, confused.

Why?

She wants some new plants.

He looked at me and said: but you’re not going to be around to take care of it.

No, but you are, I said.

He stared at me over his glasses, that same look he’d give when as a girl I asked for money to buy chocolate from the school canteen or a book from Higginbothams at railway stations just before an overnight train journey. I could see him do the calculations in his head, the effort that might probably be involved on his part and finding the sum satisfactorily in his favour, he nodded.

We weren’t asking your permission, my mother said as we marched out the gate.

*

Two years ago, in March, we walked to Lalbagh and then to the nursery opposite that ancient rock and we stood eyeing the roses, figuring out which would most likely survive aphids and spider mites and strange hungry caterpillars that were forever making a home amongst our plants in the balcony.

I looked over to the geraniums and begonias and one of the employees of the Nurserymen Cooperative ambled up to my side, a woman in a green saree, and she asked me in Kannada do you want these madam?

No, I replied. I let my eyes slide to the far corner where the jasmine saplings stood, in their hundreds with small white blooms all over perfuming the Saturday morning.

Those? she prodded. I went over to look at the white stars among the green.

A familiar leaf peeked through one group and curiosity piqued, I went over to check the plant.

An old friend, that leaf. I looked over at the helpful signage demarcating the plants and read the name and the woman asked me do you want the gardenia madam? It smells so nice.

I shook my head. The woman lost interest and walked away.

*

On that expedition across Thrissur nurseries my mother picked up jasmine and azealias and orchids and rangoon creepers. She decided to be courageous and picked up four roses as well. At the counter of the last nursery we visited, a house set in the middle of around thirty similar houses, I asked the owner what I’d asked at the nurseries at the Swaraj Round, off MG Road, near the agricultural university in Mannuthy. Gardenias, I told her. I want gardenias.

She smiled wide and went behind a shed and returned bearing a sapling in a black bag with that familiar leaf.

Oh, my mother said. Oh. There it is.

*

I changed my mind and bought the gardenia from Lalbagh and thought I would plant it in a pot in the balcony and see how it goes.

It didn’t go well. It stood through a monsoon and in November, its leaves fell off and then its stem dried and I kept it for months in a corner, hoping I’d wake up one morning and see a green shoot somewhere on its brown body.

*

My mother planted the gardenia under a coconut tree. For five years it stood there, never growing in height. Leaves it gave out, in abundance.

One October, after the rains had finally left, my parents went about rearranging the garden, chopping up stragglers and the overgrown, cutting back the creepers and the bird-of-paradise.

My mother uprooted the gardenia and planted it in a large brown pot and moved it past the chickoo and the miniature lily pool and placed it beneath the mango tree.

It has started growing, my mother reported. Every few weeks she would send a picture. A new branch, a new bunch of leaves. Then in late December, three buds were spotted. In early February when I went home the white flowers had fully blossomed and were in their final fragrant hours. I stood in the garden in the late evening, ignoring the mosquitoes layered thickly on my shins and calves. I sniffed.

The blooms were at my hip. I closed my eyes and they seemed to be above my head, their thick waxy petals brushing the top of my skull.

 


Saudha Kasim can be found most days trapped in a cubicle in Bengaluru. She hopes to escape to Chile in the next decade and spend the rest of her days there eating stone fruit and Kinder Bueno bars while watching 90s romcoms.

 

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