This is a story of a 7-year-old girl who inspired me to get closer to nature. It is also my entry to the “Nature’s friends” blogging contest on Indiblogger. Oh, do visit or take your kids to Kissanpur at http://www.kissan.in/; they seem to be doing some interesting, fun stuff there.
She was a brat, a headache, a pain in my neck. She actively spent her entire day raising hell. At nights she was quieter, perhaps to hear better the sound of her inner devil plot new ways to unleash chaos as soon as it was light. There was never a moment of peace with her around.
Pinku was a cousin. She was rude, I was tired of her rudeness. She was on a vacation, I was on a sabbatical and totally clueless about what to do with my career.
She was seven; I was three times her age.
We were both at my grandparents’ home in a remote village of Bihar. The house had space, none of the frightening pace of the city I had left behind; and the soothing presence of the gentlest ever set of grandparents. The setting was perfect for relaxation but for the presence of the pint-sized hell-raiser.
We couldn’t get along perhaps because of the age gap, but also because she was a complete stranger to the notion that it was alright to not to have every wish of her fulfilled.
I particularly didn’t like her lack of tidiness. She always looked grimy, and it appeared she was fond of chocolates— some of it often seemed to land on her face. The muddy marks all over the floor of the house could only be the imprint of her impossibly tiny shoes. I often scolded her for her carelessness. I complained to others, too. But she remained defiant.
My patience with her ran out at last the day she decided to drown my Walkman in water. It was a mistake and she apologised, but it made me upset. I decided to step away from the scene of her act of transgression. I went upstairs and slept earlier than usual that night.
I woke up earlier than usual, too. Rubbing sleep off my eyes, I got out of my bed, wore my jacket, stepped out of my room into the balcony, ready to launch my regular train of thoughts that began with optimism around trying to resume work and ended invariably at the more depressing staying-at-home-forever idea.
It was then that I saw her in the garden on the ground floor. I couldn’t see her face from such a height, but I could see a bit of her pink t-shirt and yellow shorts she had been wearing the previous day. The girl was in the garden, squatting right next to a potted plant, watering it.
Standing next to her was my grandfather, telling her something I couldn’t quite hear. I was surprised to see her up so early, but even more at the level of noise coming from her—none. She was quiet, listening to whatever her octogenarian dadaji had to say.
The sight was surreal. I wanted to see it more closely. It was really cold, so I wrapped a shawl and went downstairs. I reached the verandah and stood at the entrance to the garden to observe.
The visual contrast between my grandfather and my cousin was stark. She was small, even smaller than the watering can she was somehow holding. At 85, my grandfather had stooped with age but still towered above her. My cousin was watering the plant. After feeding the dahlias, she got up and moved toward the roses. Then the frangrant tuberoses. Then the colourful gazanias. Then the tiny white alyssums. Then the healing tulsi.
She was meticulous in her act of watering the plants. The girl who rarely left a thing in its right place hadn’t let a single drop land outside of the flowering pots. She was not watering the plants till even the brim. Was it because it was winters and the plants needed less of it under a benign sun? I didn’t know; how could I? Forever caught in my personal preoccupations, I had rarely taken interest in taking care of another person, let alone a pet or a plant.
I thought Pinku was done after she had watered the plants, but I was wrong. She picked a broom standing in the corner of the garden and began to sweep the leaves that had fallen from the trees in the garden on to the ground. That was quite a task, to brush off every brown leaf, and not just for a little girl. Many trees lined our garden. There were a couple of neems, a guava, a leechi and a mango tree. In another corner, there were a few banana trees too, a regular feature in the houses of east India. All of them had been planted by my grandfather. An avid lover of nature, he used to sweep the garden himself till the previous winter. Between then and now, his back has aged too much for him to continue doing that anymore.
Pinku was tidying up the garden when I heard my grandfather ask her, “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?” My heart skipped a beat. I looked at her feet. He was right; on a mid-January Bihar morning, she had no shoes on. Barring the brown of the mud, they had turned white from the cold. She stayed quiet. He asked again. She replied in a pitch higher than normal, “My shoes get dirty. I don’t like that.”
I knew right away what she was doing. The girl, a third my age, was trying to protect me from looking like the mean elder sister that I was. I hadn’t liked mud inside the house, and she was trying to avoid bringing any inside.
My grandfather told Pinku to go inside and put on shoes, but by then I had stepped out from where I was standing and was walking toward them. I took the broom from her hand and told her the same. She looked at me and grinned. I think she was relieved I seemed to have forgiven her for the Walkman fiasco. With her mud-stained face—it wasn’t chocolate after all—she looked adorable.
I swept the rest of the garden. I wondered whether trees were supposed to shed so many leaves. Pinku was back soon enough. She looked happy, but still a little circumspect. I looked at her, raised my eyebrows and asked, “What?” She carefully leaned into my ears and said, “Come I will show you something.”
I smiled and followed her to the other side of our house. She took me to the narrow space between the wall of the house and the boundary and pointed above me.
I turned around to see what she was talking about. “Let’s grab a few,” she said, looking at the guavas that hung from the branches of a tree from across our boundary slightly above my head.
“No way, these aren’t ours!” I exclaimed. “So what? They pluck our mangoes all the time,” the girl replied.
“Yes, but we have our own guava tree, right?” I asked, feeling mostly worried but just slightly excited at the prospect of stealing.
“And they have their mango tree as well! Still they do it. And they fight too,” reasoned Pinku, now holding my hand and jumping on the spot, as if doing that will somehow convince me better than just words.
She was right. The neighbours were what one could call a bit shameless. They complained about our mango branches entering what they referred to as their ‘airspace’, but the feeling of being invaded didn’t prevent them from enjoying the juicy dasheris that hung on their side of the boundary.
I gave in and decided to have my share of adventure. The branch was low but not enough for me to reach it. I told Pinku to grab the wooden stool from the garden. She brought it. I stood on it and gave the low-hanging ones a tug. It seemed easy enough.
But just as I thought we would easily get away with our little adventure, I was proved wrong. The neighbour’s son, who had woken up early and was cleaning his teeth with a neem stick on the terrace, had seen us. “What are you doing,” he yelled. I didn’t feel scared till he screamed, “Papa-ji” so loud his voice rang across the length and breadth of the village.
What followed was a day of embarrassment. But I was not reprimanded much. I think my family felt the act was one of just retribution and were disappointed because it couldn’t be done successfully. That they never quite said that to Pinku or me is a different matter.
I spent many hours in my grandfather’s garden for the rest of my stay. I joined Pinku and my grandfather in their morning ritual of watering the plants. We went beyond the confines of the garden in our house to explore the mango orchards a little distance away. While only one of them was ours, we were free to roam around and explore others’ as well. It was winters, and we knew we had to wait till summers to actually bite into a mango. Nonetheless, the trips were fun. Between our several picnics under the warm, afternoon sun, the gardeners, who initially kept their distance, eventually warmed up to us. They even told us ‘city-dwellers’ some nature-friendly ways of taking care of plants, without relying on fertilizers.
A few weeks later, I returned to the city and Pinku went to hers. Reinvigorated, I started looking for a job and found one. My few weeks with Pinku had helped me bond with her and through her, with nature! Living in an apartment meant I couldn’t quite find the space to plant a tree, but I decided to buy potted plants for my balcony. I began with one to see how well I could do. With a little care, my roses bloomed well. I now have six plants. My balcony is now my own little garden—colourful, fragrant and a lovely reminder of the days I spent with my little sweetheart, Pinku.