(Originally in Hindi as Tulsi ke Bahane by Vipin Choudhary. Translated by Madhavi S. Mahadevan.)
I was the one who opened the door. It could have been around one-thirty in the afternoon. Generally, the doorbell does not ring at this hour in our flat 101 of the paying guest hostel, because no one is in at that time. It just so happened that I was at home that day as I had some work in connection with that evening’s program at the Press Club. Who could it be, I wondered. Pressing the Save button on the laptop, I made a dash for the door. Before me stood a slim, short young woman. Going by the make up on her face, she appeared to be newly-wed. She stood there clasping her hands, clearly a bit nervous.
In the five-storied building that is our hostel mostly single women stay, but there are a few apartments for families as well. We don’t have much to do with them. The young women who live here are from small towns, studying in one of the city’s colleges, or in some cases, working, like myself. We are all, usually, short of time, and when we do manage to grab a break, some of us spend it with our boyfriends while others choose to head home to their families. That’s why, with just a glance at the young woman, I guessed that she was probably the new neighbor in the next apartment.
Before I could ask what she wanted, she smiled a smile of great sweetness and said, ‘We’ve only just moved in. We have to go out of the city for a few days. Could you take care of my tulsi plant for me?’
Taking my silence for a Yes, she disappeared into her own flat, returning after a few minutess with a pretty flower pot that she handed to me. I held it gingerly, as if it was a living creature – a soft white rabbit .
‘Sure,’ I said, like a good neighbor. ‘I’ll be happy to take care of it.’
I placed the flower pot on the balcony and kept looking at it for a while.
In the busy, knotted lives we single women led, that tulsi plant was like a new guest. While admiring it, I was reminded of the tulsi in my own home. In an instant, I had crossed the distance, leapt over the four walls that separated my house from the world and was standing before that plant. Despite all efforts to keep it going, it would wither and die. My mother would always worry about this. Hindus believe that the tulsi plant brings good luck and it is invariably present in every home. Whenever my mother transplanted a fresh flourishing plant at that spot, it would become lifeless in a few days. Advice and suggestions to solve this problem flowed in from all directions. Someone said that the tulsi should always be planted in a pair; it enables the roots to grip the soil more strongly. Those days, I was a student of Economic Botany, very interested in increasing my knowledge about the usefulness of different plants. I tried very hard to bridge the distance between the dying tulsi plant in the house’s courtyard and the one flourishing in my text book, but despite all my effort that did not happen. Finally, my grandmother came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the soil in the garden, or perhaps something inauspicious had happened at some time in the past of that house. At this my mother admitted defeat and gave up.
Now, after all these many years, here was a tulsi plant once again in my care.
That evening, when I returned from the Press Club, I gave my three flat mates clear guidelines and instructions on how to look after the tulsi plant. And all the while I was thinking that , Of course, these three aren’t going to bother with so much as a glance at the plant. But in the next few days that assumption was completely over turned. I had not imagined that these girls would show so much care and attention toward the plant. Whenever I opened the door to the balcony to have a look at the tulsi, I’d find it, well-watered, standing proud and tall. One of the girls had moved it to a shady spot where it was protected from the sun’s glare. Wah! There’s hope for them yet, I thought.
In the beginning I used to be baffled at the renaissance in my flat mates. However, even bewilderment, spread over a period of days, gets dreary.
There were four of us in the apartment: myself, Manasi, Gunjan and Ipshita. All four had emerged from mofussil towns and headed straight to the big city, New Delhi. The three girls, all students of Fashion Technology, had immersed themselves fully in the razzle- dazzle of city life. It was as if their small town values and mores were a skin that had now been shed. Why, talk of them alone, I, too, had not remained immune to its vibrant attractions. The first thing that I had abandoned were the daily rituals that I had followed at home. While speaking on the phone to my mother, I’d reassure her: Yes, I was still performing those little daily rituals she had taught me. Indeed, I had tried to for a while, lighting the wick in the oil lamp. But I had, before long, given up keeping the prescribed fasts and even lighting the lamp.
The city was rapidly pulling us towards itself, altering us in the process. My flat mates would appear in new avatars every day. Once, I noticed a small dark carton of something lying on Gunjan Raina’s study table, and assuming that it was a pack of playing cards, lifted it. To my surprise, it turned out to be a pack of cigarettes. Which of these three girls, I wondered. Or are all three …?
When I brought up the matter, rather cautiously, with her the next day, Gunjan sheepishly admitted that it was Manasi’s pack.
Do you smoke as well?
I didn’t earlier, she said, but now in Manasi’s company, I do smoke now and then.
After that day, I made a conscious decision not to ask questions that might imply that I was prying in their personal lives. Live and let live, I told myself. Since then, this loony bin of ours has remained a happy, cheerful place. One of them even stuck a big bold notice on the door: MADHOUSE.
Seeing it, I said, Agreed you all are a special sorority, but don’t include me in that.
No, didi, said Manasi, you are the superintendent.
Oh really, I laughed. Fine. We’ll keep it that way.
Yes, in the beginning I was astonished at the antics of my flat mates, but by and by, I got used to them. As a result, the girls, too, became more free and easy. In a few weeks, besides smoking, they were drinking as well. They’d get up in the morning and head off to the neighbourhood temple cupping an offering of flowers in their hands. The pub and the temple were comfortably ensconced side by side in their lives, however I was quite uncomfortable about this juxtaposition. The strange mix-and-match of their lives would frequently catch me by surprise. The deep rift between Indian culture and Western modernism that lay in me, never seemed to bother these girls. And now, the tulsi plant had forged another link to tradition.
All those days that the tulsi plant was in the apartment, I felt a bracing glow in me, as though an elixir of some kind was flowing through my arteries. And one day, when the tulsi plant was not at its usual spot I immediately asked Manasi about it. She said that the next door neighbor had taken it back early that morning.
Oh, I said. A sad acquiescence.
These days, the most significant change is the one I see in myself. After a long time, I picked up the small brass diya that had been lying neglected in a corner of the kitchen. I wiped the dust off it. With great concentration, I fashioned a wick. Then I poured ghee in the diya and lit the wick. As the glow grew stronger, of their own volition, my palms came together and that mantra, which I used to chant so frequently in my childhood, came to my lips.
Om namo Bhagavate vasudevaya namah.
Vipin Choudhary spent her childhood in Kharkhari Makwan, a village in Haryana, and her poetry displays a blend of both rural and city influences. Her collections include Andhere ke Madhya se (2008) and Ek Baar Phir ( Haryana Sahitya Academy 2008). She publishes poems, articles and stories regularly in various literary magazines, and also writes for the radio, drama, theatre and films. She is the co-ordinator of an NGO Manav Adhikar Sangh . She lives in New Delhi.