I don’t know what it was that made me think of them, but yesterday as I washed up after lunch at the kitchen sink and looked at the Autumn leaves swirling down to the ground I was reminded of the small cement patch at the rear of my house in Madras that Amma calls the garden. It’s had its ups and downs over the years, the malli took off spectacularly for a while and the parijatham has been going strong for some years now. But I will always associate my mother’s garden with the hibiscuses that flowered there. Bright red, palest orange with whitish centres, baby pinks. Every morning they’d be plucked - some still buds – by my mother before neighbours and early morning ramblers could snake their hands over our compound wall and pluck a few for themselves. The buds would be dropped in water and those that had bloomed would be placed in a bowl set aside for her daily prayers. After they had wilted they would be preserved and every weekend the dried, blackened petals would be boiled in water and the sticky goop produced be added to the shikai that was pounded in to our heads by Meenakshi, our diminutive but freakishly strong house help.
When I moved to Bombay there was no place for a garden, not even a small patch of cement in our first apartment. The second was no better but the living room had a massive window that was fitted with an ugly grill our where the landlord had left behind some potted plants. Taking that as a sign, I decided to turn it in to a garden of sorts. For one the creepers and hanging baskets hid the ugly grill while still offering a tantalising glimpse at the old crumbling Parsi mansion opposite our flat. There was a plant nursery on the grounds of the mansion and one of the first things I bought there was a red hibiscus plant. I can still remember my joy at the first signs of a bud. A great achievement for someone who had in the past managed to even kill a money plant. My hibiscuses were small and petite, not big and blowsy like the ones that grew in my mother’s garden. They hardly ever produced enough goop for a shikai bath but every morning I would open the window while I had my coffee and check to see if there were any flowers for my prayers.
I still can’t think why I was reminded of them yesterday. I hadn’t thought of them before. Not in three years almost. And now I can’t stop thinking about them.