Gardening came to me in dramatic ways. When I was around 8 , I learnt that methi seeds in mud when watered, would grow. I asked my mother for a handful, ran downstairs with a plastic box and filled it with mud from the ground near my building and pushed the seeds in. I watered it every day and lo and behold, soon the shoots raised their heads! I was so fascinated. Then I learnt that plants needed sunlight so I put the box up on our window sill. Two days later, it rained heavily and in a massive gust of wind, the garden box fell out of the window, scattering mud and baby shoots all over the parapet. I wasn’t tall enough to look over and I wasn’t allowed to climb up to the window. My plants died suddenly and shockingly. Later, I heard about my mother keeping a pet rabbit as a child and when it died, it broke her heart so much, she never wanted an animal friend again.
When I finally gardened again, I was an adult and had endured deaths of family members, classmates, colleagues and other people. Within six months of starting, I had to rush a family member to the hospital. I was alone without help and the next three days were a blur, trying to keep things together. The day we came home and settled them in, I collapsed on my bed. Then I shot up realising I hadn’t watered the plants in that time. One of them lay supine as if it had fainted (where once its stem would hold it up tall and upright). Terror gripped my heart again, just hours after it had ebbed when I had signed the hospital discharge forms. Discarding my principled rejection of organised religion (after I saw the wreckage it causes my country), I prayed. I prayed that my negligence would not hurt this little life. I tweeted my wish (early days so this was just screaming into the void). The plant lived. I have sometimes wondered if I snatched it back from the death it was supposed to have, by bargaining about my volume of loss.
Since then, I’ve prioritised watering my garden before all things. I’ve pulled myself through violent situations, depression, illness and more to ensure the plants I care for, receive all I can give them. And I’ve begin to realise that this is not my keeping them alive; it’s them keeping me alive. It is a privilege to be permitted to love, one that my world does not grant me. The garden does. It allows me to sit quietly with it and feel deep joy over the shade of green of a single leaf. Nothing is too much or too silly or too anything. I am allowed to love because it’s a thing I must do for myself; not for someone else.
My last decade has been rough and rife with attack and the overwhelming message has been that my very existence is unwelcome. The pandemic wore out my last grip on coping mechanisms. In those nightmare years, my plants gave me purpose. A cheerful flower in the morning reminded me that there was still life, even as the once-busy roads beyond lay dead and silent. Even if that flower would wither away by night. I learnt to hang my hope on that flower, the way someone who has been stranded in a dark tunnel for very long actively chooses hope, tethering it to a pinpoint of light. Some days that flower was my Wilson (from Castaway).
As the body count rose every day, I found myself having to sit with the memories of other deaths I’d seen in my life. I had always been the rational one during funerals because the people around me were hogging the luxury of going to pieces. I had reluctantly accepted the label of strength. I felt cheated out of my grief by people who were so afraid of their own they replaced it with loud reactions, lashing out and other theatrics. The pandemic casualties forced me to grieve anew for the world that was dying and the ones in my own life I’d never been able to. There was no escaping into planning schedules & taking care of other people. It was the ultimate waking nightmare of grief.
I have discovered the merits of pruning. A poverty mindset remembers all that was lost and operates from fear, clinging against the natural flow. When you’ve watched a plant you watered wither, it might make you reluctant to cut away healthy looking leaves. It did, me. Yet, everything I read said that too many leaves could choke up vital resources for the plant. I thought about baby hair, about toenails and such things that we learn to discard. Life has a wicked sense of humour when it decrees that to gain something, you have to let go of other things. To find a new door to open, you have to walk through the one you’re standing at and it may shut behind you. Each one is a death. It’s not scary; what is scary is letting yourself be eaten alive by a past that is just in your mind. So I learnt to prune leaves that had enticed me for weeks in vibrant green. Every single time, I was rewarded with a flower that lived for but a day. It was sublime and eternally beautiful, even in mourning. Things must die so they can live and they must live so they can die. I learnt to respect death instead of just fearing it.
Somewhere inside that despair I found calm. As my structures shattered, I felt moved by the fragility of existence. The flower felt beautiful as a bud at dawn, as a full bloom in the afternoon, even as a wilted stem in the evening and the next morning, a dead stalk lying on the floor. What a brave life it was to unstoppably live its full glory even as no birds could come to pollinate, no large audiences would applaud its looks. That was life without ROI. It lived because it lived, not because it had a defined function or brought some tangible value to somebody. That meant it never stops being beautiful, never stops being my teacher, long after it has returned to dust. How can death be anything but another natural stage in its journey and mine?
I am thinking a lot more about death these days. It’s not necessary to offer an elaborate backstory for that thought because I don’t feel that thinking about death is a bad thing. The Allusionist podcast examines our relationship with words and their latest episode is about Death. I found it incredibly moving as they spoke with great compassion but also decisive logic about the power of using the word ‘death’ instead of euphemisms. I have seen my share of deaths but I think I have far more than my fair share of people’s bad reactions to death. I’ve seen people morph into monsters around death – the money grabs at funerals, the power politicking of genocides, the intimate war of abuse that is justified by trauma. I believe all of these rise from a fear of facing the reality of death. And yet, death is the one thing we all share and we share it with every plant, animal, hell, even the virus that claimed so much of our life energy these past few years. We need to be able to think about it and examine our feelings about it. It seems like death is fertile enough for the most elaborate lies about humanity. It has taken me time to find the context to understand how I feel about death. My plants showed me the way.