Every year when the gulmohar tree, or Flame of the Forest, bloomed, the entire Hijli campus in Kharagpur was a riot of color. I derived so much pleasure from its flowers, not only aesthetic, but also tactile. Their long red stamens captured my imagination, and I conceived a game in which two opponents, each holding a stalk, locked heads of those rich, powdery anthers until the winner succeeded in pulling the head off her opponent’s filament. The mature seed pods of the gulmohar tree were also a source of fun. They hardened and rattled when dry, and became play-swords and percussion instruments.
The profusion of brilliant blossoms gave me another idea: couldn’t we find a way to make Holi dyes by soaking and grinding them? I never succeeded in this endeavor, but I see that nearly half-a-century later, people are using gulmohur flowers and leaves to make natural dyes for Holi and starting to investigate gulmohar flowers as a source of natural dyes for other purposes as well.
The hibiscus, showy and ubiquitous, was another flower that I tried, but failed, to put to practical use. Its common name, shoe flower, gave me the idea of using it to polish my school-uniform shoes, which were perennially scuffed and dusty. Alas, while it crushed the beautiful red blossoms, it failed to impart any lasting shine to my black lace-ups.
I wasn’t only destructive, though. One of my favorite flowers were antirrhinums, or snapdragons. Like so many children, I delighted in pinching them gently but firmly between thumb and forefinger so that their mouths opened and shut. Both in India and in Greece there were the trees, varieties of mimosa, perhaps, whose feathery compound leaves closed up if you so much as brushed up against them. Of course I did, and never tired of watching them draw together defensively.
Through the long summers in Greece, when the heat melted the tar on the roads, I found endless fascination in natural life. When we went to the seaside, I played with the sea cucumbers, making their pods snap like bubble plastic. In Athens I played in overgrown urban plots, part cultivated, part wild. The stands of hollyhocks were strange giraffe-like plants, with their long, woody stalks covered in short, rough hairs, their dry leaves, which always semed to be full of insect-holes, and their green geometric seed-pods. The flowers themselves seemed incidental to me.
Flaming red poppies grew everywhere. The flowers quickly bloomed and were as quickly blown, but the seedpods lasted, and it was fascinating to watch them dry and burst open, and sometimes to pry off the cap and squeeze out the thousands of tiny seeds.
It was only much later, in America, that I would be introduced to dried poppyseeds sprinkled on bagels and cream cheese. And not having been introduced to The Wizard of Oz, either, I knew nothing of the soporific properties of opium poppies.
The small creatures that lived on the plants also gave me pleasure. I was especially fond of common garden snails, and could lie on my stomach for hours watching them moving slowly and steadily forward under their spiralling shells, their bulbous-tipped antennae stretching ahead of them, a narrow glistening trail in their wake. Like the mimosa leaves, they too would close up defensively, no matter how lightly their shell was tapped.
It wasn’t until I was an adult living in the United States, when work, not play, was at stake, that I began to see these little creatures as my adversaries. Not snails, but slugs, were our enemies in the garden in Winchendon, especially in the battle over buttery lettuce leaves, both of our favorites. It’s funny how likeable snails are, and how unlikeable slugs, even though the former are just slugs with their shells on the outside. Even the snail’s lightly sticky, glistening trail, so magical to me as a child, is loathsome slime when it emanates from a slug.
I’m not going to spoil this idyll with a litany of garden pests, but there is one creature whose life is so bound up with the plant it loves that it embodies the old adage, You are what you eat: the tomato hornworm. If I could only erase the traumatic memories of my seven-year war with hornworms in Winchendon, I could see myself taking as much pleasure in their plump succulence, as close to a green tomato as a living being can get, as I did in the progress of snails as a child.