When my father put in his papers for a pre-mature retirement, I was only ten and didn’t understand the implications of moving from a city life and up-bringing, to a small town in Punjab. I was excited because we were going to a new place and for a girl who was a tomboy, well that spelt adventure with a capital ‘A.’
I wasn’t disappointed, three months into our stay in my father’s hometown, the Indo-Pak war rattled my world, my bones and my teeth. I witnessed a dog-fight over our house and the Pak plane go down in flames not too far from our house. Bombings became more real than the II world War stories my father told us. Paratroopers were no figures in the war comics I loved to read. I discovered how real when gunshots went back and forth between them and us. I learned what collaborator meant when a neighbour was under suspicion. I learned what courage was when I saw my grandmother walk through the night with my father as they kept vigil around our boundary walls, while my uncle had his post on the roof with sand bags and his rifle. She would not get into the trench as all of us did, including Grandpa.
Grandma is the one I want to talk about. Her courage and fearlessness was unbelievable. Nothing fazed her. To look at her one wouldn’t believe it. She was five feet, not an ounce of fat, small frame and a shock of snow-white hair. She smoked a hookah openly, and besides all the other activity that kept her busy the whole day, she loved to walk in the garden and talk to the fruit trees.
It was a big garden with many fruit trees. Mango, jamun, sweet lime, mulberry, big green ber, peach, lime, tangerine,Papaya, goonda (we called it “snotty fruit”), kachnar, drumstick, sapodilla...Gulmohar and her favourite flowers May Blossom. I would walk with her from tree to tree, bush to bush and wonder at the way she’d communicate and take care of the plants and trees. She would water the garden all by herself pumping water out of a hand-pump.
She had two favourites among the mangoes. She called one Krishanji Maharaj and the other Jungli. The former was her most favourite. She told me how she christened it. The trunk was very oddly shaped. From the base it branched out in two trunks with one crossed over the other like one would cross ones legs at the ankles. Above two branches grew out and turned slightly in, like two arms and they. It really looked like a person playing a flute. This is why she called it Krishna after the Hindu god. It was quite a leafy tree, and bore the most delicious mangoes in such abundance that it took care of pickles, jams, and chutneys as well.
Jungli got its name from its ‘desi’ species. She explained that it was unkempt, the mangoes had hairy seeds, and weren’t very big in size but they were sweet, very sweet...like most unsophisticated kids. I didn’t understand her of course but I was intrigued that she could talk to plants. She was like someone out of a book. She told me the history of three of the guava trees as she lovingly touched the leaves and patted the trunk. And that’s how I developed a friendship with an amazing guava tree. It bore guavas with red centres on its left branches and white centre ones on the branches on the right! It wasn’t very tall and had strong branches that spread out in all directions. In this tree I would spend many afternoons with a book, a pillow and something to munch if guavas were not in season. Ensconced comfortably between two branches that made a great lounger for me, I’d try to communicate with it like Grandma did.
With fields all around us needless to say we had reptilian visitors like vipers and others. We also had a cobra couple living on the premises. But none of us was ever bitten. Grandma explained that her presence “blinded” the snakes as she was the first-born child. So strong was her belief that indeed I saw snakes just waiting still, while she got up, brought a stick and smashed it. This was magic and Grandma was a magician!
Then the inevitable happened. Grandma died. The garden looked morose. Krishanji Maharaj and Jungli didn’t bear fruit for the first time. The first season most of the trees didn’t bear fruit and those that did bore poor quality fruit. Soon the fruit trees stopped bearing fruit. The tangerine, peaches, guavas, lemon, sweet lime dried up.
That’s when I realised that this was not fiction. It was not something I read in books, this was real. She was real, her beliefs were real, her courage was real, her insouciance in smoking a hookah openly; her sitting down with Grandpa’s friends to a challenge of Pacheesee, her poultry, her dog, and her interest in me, was real. No longer would the garden and her precious trees hear her sing her favourite hymns. No longer would snakes go “blind” for the first-born had gone. It was all so real...