Trying to grow anything in the desert-like soil and climate conditions of Ahmedabad is like trying to grow grass on your palm! I have always admired how fresh and healthy all plants looked in my father’s apartment in Cochin! Just the moist air, which we curse for the sweat, is ideal for them. You just throw something into the soil and it takes root and grows whether you like it or not.
For years I tried to grow vegetables in the backyard of our home at Ahmedabad. I was furious with the Mali (gardener) for the lack of any vegetables and yes, the langoors and peacocks on campus did the rest!! We had N number of Malis over the years, one of the most unstable category of workers I figured as a Labour Economist! (You can add drivers to that.) All of them claimed to be farming back home in their villages, but I was not sure! They had the most impressive names, Ravi Shankar, Dharamveer Chauhan, all migrants from East UP!
How futile the exercise was at Ahmedabad I figured when I started to grow vegetables in my backyard in Anand, in the very fertile Charotar region of Gujarat. What amazed me was the size of the leaves of Palak (spinach). In Ahmedabad they were hardly the size of my palm, but at Anand, they were more than double that size!! Then I learned some agricultural science! Incidentally, the Agricultural University shared the back wall of my garden and perhaps some knowledge floated by! It had nothing to do with my ‘lazy’ knowledge-deprived Malis! The vegetables came in kilograms, larger brinjals (aubergine/eggplant), little carrots, and ladies’ finger (okra). This was despite a much larger population of langoors that landed every now and then and lolled around the vegetable garden!! The little langoors were cute, they dug up the little carrots and rolled over the rest of the carrot patch for effect. Little Bugs Bunny in another avatar! “Hey Doc”, I could almost hear them say as I watched in amusement, not having the heart to chase them away!
We moved to a new home, new gardener and began all over again in Ahmedabad! The garden both at the back and front of the house looked like a jungle! Nobody had bothered for many years it appeared. We got the whole thing cut down. Large parches of banana trees. They were back in no time and we reaped the benefit of our predecessor’s efforts. Ravi Shankar Mali took one look and disappeared! Too much work, I assumed.
I had been struggling with one Adenium plant with multiple gardeners for more than eight years, I’m sure. I set it in different pots, was thrilled to bits when it bloomed with pink flowers once a year! For the record I had another one too. I argued with each Mali to replant Adenium with cuttings. They insisted that it was not going to grow! Not being an ardent gardening fan or not quite a ‘googler’, I never figured they were fooling me.
My new Mali, Babubhai this time. He was doing ok, seemed to have green fingers. The lawns and garden in the new house grew back. Our predecessors had planted a row of ‘desi’ roses. They bloomed in February-March-April. Wrong time I thought, but no matter.
And then he did the unbelievable. My precious Adenium started to rot and die. When I confronted him he sheepishly admitted he made a mistake. He over-watered it! Good heavens, is he a Mali, was my first thought! But I liked his honesty. Stupid as I am in gardening (and other matters, I’m sure), I would never have guessed. As a desert rose, it apparently required very little water. It stood in a row of non-desert plants and he did not pay enough attention to it, happily sprinkling water on all at random.
The Adenium stood there looking wasted for months. I kept complaining “it is dead, at least do some cutting, perhaps it will grow?” “No Ben (Sister in Gujarati), it is not dead”. “No Ben, it does not need to be cut”. A couple of months passed and I get impatient. “You should cut this at the top stems”, I point out to Babubhai. “No Ben, it will flower directly now from the top stems, we should not cut it.” OK, now that it is so many months, might as well wait. And so we waited. Another month, and imagine my excitement when I see green shoots at the top of each of the stems! And a few more weeks, there are bright green leaves and “Oh My GOD!” Pink flowers bloom!!
I must give it to him and all the gardeners and farmers of this water and rain starved country. The immense patience and faith in nature! I really learned a lesson in life from my humble Mali. Thank you Babubhai and thank you all the millions of farmers in the semi-arid regions of this vast country. Without your immense patience and faith where would we be? All of us and generation next, need to take a leaf (literally) out of your book!
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