My garden was progressing pretty well and I was continuously learning on the job, with advice from Mrs. Iyengar and other neighbours. The trees had been planted and I acquired quite a few pots and planted them with various ferns, cacti, rubber plants and other leafy ornamentals whose names I used to know but have now forgotten. I also had some very pretty potted flowers on my window-sills and was very proud of them. Never had to buy any plants except for the tree saplings; everyone around me was very generous with their cuttings and seeds.
During the summer and winter holidays, I would spend the daytime in the garden because evenings were reserved for friends and playtime. Sometimes, my grandfather who used to stay with us at long stretches, would also walk into the garden to watch what I was doing and tell me that I reminded him of the mythological character “Shakuntala” in the forest. I used to find this very irritating and wished he would go away and leave me in peace. But he would go on to recite some complex, classical Telugu poetry on Shakuntala which I could never understand. And I would turn away from him, make a grimace and continue with my work.
My maternal grandfather was a chemistry lecturer, but also very much into English and Telugu literature. He had many bound and serious looking books in the drawing room of his house in Vijayawada, and was considered to be very well read. He was also a very eccentric and strict man of whom most people were scared, but apparently his students loved his lectures. Now when I look back, I feel that instead of getting irritated with him, I could have asked him to teach me some Telugu and Telugu poetry. One of the biggest regrets I have now is that I’m not proficient in reading and writing any Indian language, and never gave any importance to it.
He had also helped me quite a bit with my physics and chemistry in school. I still remember how difficult I found my first physics lesson, and couldn’t comprehend anything in the textbook: “Fundamentals of Physics” by Reznick and Halliday. I was almost into tears when my mom suggested I should ask my grandfather for some help, because he knew physics and chemistry. Thanks to his teaching, I overcame my fear of physics. Could have learnt Telugu from him, in the same way.
Another interesting story that my grandfather used to always tell was that of a remarkable astrological treatise called the “Nadi Grantham”. He was very much into horoscopes, nothing much was done without checking for good dates and times. Even marriages in our family were always based on astrology – the stars had to agree to the union before the families and relatives could. So he told me that there remained only two copies of the “Nadi Grantham” in India, and that it contained all the possible horoscopes in the entire world – all the permutations and combinations of stars possible, and that if one delved into it or had a good astrologer to interpret it, one could know a lot about one’s past and future.
He had visited an astrologer in Kerala who possessed a copy, and found out that he’d been a prolific poet in his previous life (!!) and also found out much about his present life and future. He then told me very seriously that he was aware of the year and month on which he would die! Ever since I got this information, I was very keen to go to Kerala and meet the astrologer myself and find out about my past life and future. It seemed too thrilling an adventure to miss, but I never managed the trip 🙁 🙁
Coming back to gardening, he wasn’t that helpful as far as this subject was concerned and actually made me mess up a few plants once. On someone’s advice, I had purchased the fertilizer “Suphala (NPK)” and wanted to use it on my plants. However, I’d no idea how to use it, so I asked him. He casually told me to sprinkle it over all the plants and I did so. The next day I was devastated to see that the leaves of all the plants on whom it had fallen and remained had shriveled and turned dark. These same plants had looked gorgeous and luxuriant the previous day. I was really mad at him for giving me the wrong advice. Apparently, the right way was to apply it to the soil and not sprinkle it on top of the plants.
But to compensate, he did get me some “gongura” seeds from Vijayawada when I asked him, and also got me an excellent cutting of an awesome “mehndi/henna” plant from there. Gongura is a very popular sour leafy green vegetable consumed in Andhra. Those days, it was rarely found in Bangalore markets, though nowadays it’s ubiquitous. So when he got me the seeds of both red and green varieties of gongura, I was elated. They grow very easily with very little tending and water required, and are great to have in a kitchen garden.
The mehndi plant which was a cutting of my grandmother’s plant in Vijayawada, was also much cherished because its leaves gave out a very beautiful, rich dark red color when crushed. We used to grind the leaves and apply it to our hands and hair. Unlike North Indians, South Indians in those days had extremely simple Mehndi designs comprising of only big and small dots and sometimes lines. Nowadays, everyone is applying the same complex North Indian designs.
Initially, I tried growing a lot of vegetables, but then ended up restricting myself to very few, because the effort versus yield equation was not very favorable. Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, kohlrabi etc.) always got infested with pests and it was heartbreaking to see them eaten up by worms. Beans and peas somehow yielded very few pods and didn’t seem worth the trouble. Same with tomatoes, brinjals and ladies fingers. So I ended up growing only “dondakai (gherkins)” and “karela/bitter gourd” which were creepers and yielded bumper harvests. I devoted most of my attention to a lot of flowering plants that I’ll write about in later posts.