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My Holy Basil

It is monsoon in my native place now. For several reasons, people have less love for the rain now than before. There is an unspoken wariness surrounding the monsoon, more so with a persistent pandemic in tow. Rain has slowly stopped being a symbol of love for us. It is, for the most part, a reminder of past afflictions. Strange, how we remember the shadows that time casts on our lives than the light it throws!

Back here, I am wallowing in the swelter of desert summer and thinking of the monsoon with an old fondness that I can’t shake off. The yard around our house must be thriving in green, with new sprouts coming alive from the seeds that had lain underground waiting for the rain. Among them will be scores of tulsis that flaunt their fresh shoots as soon as the earth gets wet in anticipation of the seasonal rendezvous.

The holy shrubs that lace the periphery are subordinate to the queen tulsi in amma’s tulsi thara. The queen gets all the attention and adulation that the rest don’t get. Amma doesn’t water the queen. She gives it a sacred bath with such devotion, careful not to let the water crush its leaves or bore into tis roots. As kids we were taught to use our palm to break the force of the water and make it cascade gently into the soil.

The face of tulsi thara then got a generous rub of turmeric and a dash of vermillion, and a lucky leaf would wear a sparkle of yellow and red soon after. Amma then placed a flower at its helm, lit a lamp at its foot and went around it thrice with a prayer on her lips. It was a heart-warming ritual to watch in the mornings and evenings.

The grand treatment the queen got from amma often made me wonder if it was the dwelling that decided the worth of the dweller. Is it the cup or the coffee that is important? It is an argument I would like to keep for another day.

The tulsi holds a unique charm for an Indian woman that no other plant can ever aspire to match. Every time I return from a sojourn back home, I tuck in a pouch of Tulasi seeds in my bag, and religiously sow them in the potted confines of our apartment in Dubai. Year after year, I have tried to set up my own ceramic tulsi thara several times but failed in it miserably.

The seeds either become sumptuous meals to itinerant birds or they simply fade into oblivion. How something that spills lavishly on the ground and flourishes in one place completely defies its own character in another place is something I have never understood. Maybe, it is a question of volition versus force. Clearly, I can’t force a reluctant seed to sprout if doesn’t will itself to grow. No matter what my stature as a human, I cannot make nature do my bidding. Can I?

Subsequently, I was told that tulsi seeds seldom sprouted in artificial conditions and the easiest way to own a tulsi plant was by getting a sapling from the nursery. Now that was sound advice, but one that I didn’t pay serious heed to. How can an off-the-rack plant match the beauty of a seed sprouting silently when the world wasn’t looking?

I was determined. There was a pouch full of seeds in stock and I wasn’t going to give up until I had exhausted them all. Somewhere, amidst the dry flakes of brown there should be a feeble presence of life waiting to spurt. The flowers of yesterday cannot be so dead and devoid of soul.

And boy, was I proven right!

I remember the day I first saw a bright spot of green in the soil. Is this how a woman who has just got the first hint of a life growing inside her feel? Euphoric and anxious at the same time?

Monitoring the green dot’s growth then became an obsession to me, and I kept a constant watch, watering it carefully, not so much that the tiny leaf gets inundated and dies, nor so less that it shrivels and falls. How is life sustained in delicate times like this? Who knows? Buoyed by a fixation, we simply follow our instincts and hope that we are doing the right thing.

My tulsi is now several inches tall. It has flowered and matured enough to have seeds of its own. They will probably fall and raise a new generation of plants. There is no monsoon here to inspire it, but I help them experience rain with a lavish spray twice a day. There is no ritual other than uttering a sincere word of thanks to it for materializing in my life.

Standing here I imagine the smell of petrichor rising from the pot as the water sinks to its bottom. In my mind, I see the monsoon. I see amma’s tulsi queen in her royal finery and the rest of her subjects thriving around the house.

Home, for me now, is just a dainty tulsi plant away.

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