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An Elsewhere Place

By Malay Kumar Roy

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Father and Mali

The conversations of my father with our gardener—Mali, as we called him—were an unending source of comedy. Mali, well past middle age and wizened by the sun, was a man wise to the world of trees, plants and flowers. He was a skilled gardener, besides being an overall handyman around the house. As a gardener, Mali liked to keep things simple, planting flowers according to the seasons, and it was especially from November to March that the garden came alive with its winter crowd of cosmos, marigold, dahlia, rose, flox and pink.

Father took a deep interest in the garden and earnestly shared his ideas with Mali. Father had some fixed notions. He had a horror of flower beds on the side lawns and wanted them to be free of everything but grass. Mali would point out that this was not the fine ‘durba’ grass but rough crab grass, typical for Hazaribagh. ‘Nevermind, it’s grass after all,’ would be Father’s reply. Another impasse was Mali pruning branches. ‘Why doesn’t he leave the branches alone? Why doesn’t he let them spread naturally?’ He complained often.

The platform for real mirth though was elsewhere. The truth was that Father’s enthusiasm far outran his knowledge of things horticultural. What this did was create uproariously hilarious situations. We were accustomed to the format: Father’s animated proposals, Mali’s polite boredom, Father getting more and more exasperated that he wasn’t getting through to Mali, and Mali declining to take him seriously. One day Father saw a row of gourd vines that Mali had planted in our vegetable garden. Struck by the sight of fragile white flowers, off he went in search of Mali with an original idea. Wouldn’t it be great, he tried to persuade Mali, if the vines were planted in the front garden? The garden would come alive with countless small white flowers. Mali was speechless, but responded heroically. Very good idea, he said, but when the flowers turned to gourds, what then? ‘Just pluck ’em,’ was Father’s unperturbed reply. Mali was looking beseechingly at Mother who was doing her best not to giggle.

Another day, on the field behind our house, Father saw a small mustard patch, bright in the sunlight. Father had an inspiration: why not have mustard patches in our front garden? He was sure they would light up the place. By now Mali’s forbearance had begun to run out, and with complete seriousness he suggested that perhaps Father could also consider installing a crushing plant for mustard oil: ‘Tel ka ghani baitha dijiye.’ Father was miffed but I often wondered if they actually enjoyed their exchanges.

On an afternoon in autumn, I found Father in the garden, almost inarticulate with exasperation, and his anger was real. Planting for winter, Mali—in total disregard for Father’s fondness for clear green lawns—had dug up the garden to make flower beds. The entire garden from the entrance to the porch, and from side to side, taking in the two lawns, was one great scar. Heaps of dark brown earth were turned up, giving the entire ground the unsightly look of a construction site. Father’s disappointment was such that he refused to sit out on the porch, and for days sat at the back in the shade of the mango grove, looking out to the fields and the distant rolling hills. He refused to speak to Mali, but Mali’s composure was intact. He went about his work without a word of regret and if he was hurt by Father’s temper, he did not show it. Slowly the scars faded. The lawns, the central flower bed, the rows past the drive up to the front of the house were filled with tender green seedlings. Over days they grew rapidly and father went back to his original sitting place by the front porch.

Curiously, Mali had planted seeds of chrysanthemum—no other flowers, and I couldn’t get over the feeling that this winter our garden was going to look monotonous and featureless. Mother thought so too and, privately, we blamed Mali for what we were sure was going to be a dull garden whereas it could have been ablaze with the colour of winter flowers.

In the days that followed, the saplings grew tall and luxuriant, the countless buds now fuller and firmer. We didn’t get the chance to ask Father what he thought, partly because he felt that this was one unsavoury episode he had no choice but to get through, and partly because he was busy preparing to leave for Calcutta on a long trip. Days passed, the bushes and the buds stayed as they were till one day the first blossoms appeared, as though tentative against the oncoming chill of winter. Then they came out in a rush, and soon our garden was covered with small, tender blossoms. They were all white and I remembered that Mali had gone all the way to Ranchi to make sure that all the seeds were only white chrysanthemum.

The flowers grew bigger and day long they were radiant in the sunlight. By the time the day of Father’s return came around, the flowers were in full bloom—large, white as snow and beautifully formed. That night when Father was returning, Mother and I waited for him on the front steps. In the stillness of the night, we gazed at the garden spellbound. The moon was full and the surrounding countryside was silent. But the garden was a miracle. It was a sweeping wave of pristine white chrysanthemum which seemed to glow under the cold, hard light of the moon. Never had I seen a garden so luminous, so dream-like; it was almost otherworldly. Guiltily I recalled my earlier reservations, and I knew that no mix of colour could come close to the breathtaking sea of white that stretched before us. Crossing the gate, Father entered. For a while he did not speak, looking on quietly. He did not immediately go inside, preferring to sit out in the November cold.

In the morning he went up to Mali who was picking green peas for Mother’s kitchen. I was wondering if Father felt diffident about his earlier show of temper. That wasn’t quite so, but he was not his usual jovial self either. With grave courtesy, he apologized to Mali for having criticized him. He was wrong, of course, and he thanked Mali for giving an aging man a small gift of wonder that was the garden in the night time.

Father died two years later after a brief illness and we came to Calcutta where I began my graduate studies. A year or so later when I went back to Hazaribagh for a school reunion, the first thing I did was go to the house. Mali came running to greet me; he was still wiry and nimble but there was a tiredness about him that wasn’t there before. The house stood silent and sad, but sadder still was the garden. Plants grew, the grass was trimmed but somehow it had the look of casual indifference, as though maintaining it was no more than an irksome task. I commented on it and Mali said that in Father’s time gardening was fun and that he always enjoyed Father’s interest, particularly his odd and whimsical ideas. ‘Ab kiske liye karoon? Tum log to aate nahin ho; ghar to khali parah hai; ab aur mann nahin lagta mera.’ To that I had no answer.

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