Sunday, November 30, 2003

Green Fingers and Blue Eyes

On our arrival in France, one of the first things we did was to find out the nearest food sources! We had 4 or 5 supermarkets in our vicinity including a tiny Chinese grocers who kept among other things ‘kancha lanka’, ‘dhonay pata’ and bhindi: a life saver for me in those early days when artichauts, endives, bette rave, celery, poireuax, champignons, girofles were such mysteries to me (and still are)!

There were the Indian Stores at Gare Du Nord and just a walk away, The Bangladeshi store for all sorts of fishes, bori, and other Bengali essentials etc at Gare de L’est. There was a problems however. Isn’t there always? Our ‘appartement meuble’ or furnished apartment had a tiny ‘frigo’ and one that was of an ancient model and not the frost free variety and was not very efficient. So whatever we bought, we bought in small quantities. They would spoil quickly otherwise.

One afternoon when A was in office, I decided to cook one of his favourites – korola bhaja : Simple enough. Wash and cut the korola, season with salt and halud and fry. I picked up the knife and as I sliced throught the korolas, some of seeds too were split and they fell away on to the cutting board. But what’s this? Why are they writhing? Moving? EEeeeeeeeeeeeeeks. Worms. They are crawling with worms. (I shudder even as I write this nearly 2 years later). I dropped the knife and ran to the sofa and sat there feet up, shuddering. After a few minutes, I rang A and demanded he come home immediately and remove them. He couldn’t ofcourse and so till he did as usual at half past six, I sat there shuddering. Ofcourse we did not eat at home that night. No question of me venturing into the kitchen.

Many women and men share my dislike of worms but mine is not just a dislike. It’s a phobia. It started when I was six. I was running around barefoot in our garden in Assam when I stepped on and thus crushed an earthworm. It had me screaming and jumping around hysterically for half an hour and completely turned me into this wreck ever since. Before that, I would spend hours in our garden crawling with all sorts of creepy crawly including snakes without turning a hair.

This has of course taken away many small enjoyments – things others would not even notice. For example, I can never relax on a patch of green on a lazy summers day when practically all of Paris (perhaps all of France) is lolling around on grass. Or enjoy a walk in the garden in springtime, or even a bouquet of flowers. No gardening , not even indoor plants thankyou. At first, I was quite content in my plant less existence and would infrequently water the enormous potted plant which came along with the furniture and not too bothered by the fact that the expensive tulip bulbs that A presented to me – my first Valentine Day’s gift from my husband (and the last) died because I mixed up the watering instructions: Instead of watering twice a week, I watered it once in two weeks.

But as I slipped more and more into my Domestic Bliss avatar, the idea of having a bit of greenery indoors began to appeal to me. But how was that too be? Just a couple of months ago, I raised hell when a tiny black worm was seen crawling on the creamy tiles of our apartment? It had apparently come out of bouquet A had got for me that morning when I had asked him to get me some flowers for my Durga Thakur. It was on ashtomi’s day in 2002. He picked up a bouquet from the florist and I used some petals in my puja. The rest I put into a large bottle. But the minute I saw that worm…bye bye bouquet! A had to go and throw it away. What a pity.

I did manage to overcome this problem of worm phobia and get my own bit of greenery indoors: 5 Potted Plants. I got one as a gift, soon after I bought one. Then two more and then yet another given free by a local nursery. How green was my windowsill! But I said I had. Now I have only two. That too in 3 short months. This is how.

Passing by the florists one day, I had a Brainwave: What about some Cacti? They are green and I have never heard of worms in Cacti. (Maybe I am wrong but please please…don’t anyone of you enlighten me on this).

I took to looking at the tiny cacti at the local florists and the enormous price tags and sigh. Then A surprised me by getting me my first plant / cactus. On my birthday, he went out early saying he was going to get cigarettes and came back with a fan shaped cactus. I didn’t suspect a thing because just days before we had returned from a trip to Cote D’ Azur, which was he told me, my birthday gift. It took me quite some time to notice the cactus waiting on my kitchen table!! I didn’t notice it till A dropped some very obvious HINTS!!

Wow! How sweet of A, how thoughtful…whenever did he think this up? But what’s this? Bits of the cactus looks eaten away?! So we went out to the florist to get it changed who didn’t think much of the eaten away cactus. She said we should have looked carefully before picking up. I let A do the taking. His lack of French is such a deterrent even to the most tenacious vendors! The florist gave up her stance and quickly led us to the cacti, where I selected a healthy but a plain, normal sort of a cactus. It’s a smallish blob with two or three blobs on its sides, dark green with grey spikes. Not as elegant with the other one, but it would do. It came in a teeny-tiny pot and I would soon have to repot it. I brought it home lovingly and promptly dropped it on to my palms and got stuck with 100’s of tiny thorns which A had to pluck out using my eyebrow tweezers.

Bien Commencé!

A few days later, I got another cactus from our supermarket which was giving a ‘promo’ on potted plants. This one was a beauty. Three long bright green tubes covered with yellow thorns. Now there were 2 of them on my windowsill. A tall one and a short one. Reminded me of us two sisters. I have always been a feet and a half taller than my sis!

My enthusiasm knew no bounds. I looked up the watering schedules on the net. I tried looking for their names but gave up after going through a few pages of photos of cacti which did not remotely look like mine, since I had only a 1000 or more odd pages to go through! Doesn’t matter. What’s in a name, anyway?

Both of them came in very tiny pots and I was worried they would die if I didn’t repot them soon. But where could I find pots? Or the small dishes in which the pots rest? Or soil? I looked around in the supermarkets and soon discovered a variety of plain earthen pots, very affordable at one. Now, soil. A said he would nip out one night and dig up some from the fields!! Eeeeeks. I had to act fast to deter A who would carry out something if he got it into his head. I asked N (who came here 10 years ago and therefore is my yellow pages for most things).
Before answering my query, she said:
“gardening’er bhoot chepeychey? Amaro chepeychilo, ekhon aar nei…(pointing to the row of wilted dried plants on her balcony). Bricomarché tay paabey”.

It’s this enormous store which sells hardware, Do it Yourself stuff. I searched for nearly half an hour in the bewildering array in the ‘jardinage’ (gardening) section. Found some sacks too but these were on closer inspection fertilizers. Ki jay Kori? I tried to ask a burly guy (a shop security) but quite forgot the French word for soil / earth. I pointed to a potted plant. At first he thought I wanted a pot.

Non, non…(No, No)
Terre? (Earth / Soil)
Oui Oui! Terre! (yes, yes! Soil)
Venez avec moi (Come with me)

And he took me behind the store to an enormous enclosed area – a good sized nursery. I found sacks and sacks of soil. I picked a 5 kg of one for 1E50 only!! Yippee. I thanked the guy profusely and flashed him a brilliant smile of gratitude but perhaps he got it wrong since he sort of swivelled on one of his heels, and gave me a slow and leery wink. Eeeeks. I ran out despite the 5kg bag in my hands.

Back home, A and I got to repotting the two cacti. Easier said than done. Nothing to scoop out the earth (had to use on of my table spoons), no thick gardening gloves to hold the prickly cactus. We managed it at last…But our results were a bit shoddy. I had one short lopsided bulbous cactus and 3 wobbly leaning towers. And soil all over the floor. Oh well. I watered them once in 15 days. And made sure they got plenty of sunlight, shifting them around so that each side got plenty of sunlight!!

A month later, I added 3 more plants to my collection. During the Foire d’Autone or Autumn Fair, a nursery was selling saplings for 1E each. Picked up a pot of mint and bergamot and another of a succulent plant with green leaves arranged just like the petals of a flower. Succulents are very hardy and do not require much care. (How blissful, my own herbs…mint, bergamot)!

The owner of the nursery had set up a small corner where he was urging people to pick up a tiny sapling from a tray, a pot from another and soil from a third and take away a plant home! I stood in the line for my own free sapling. When my turn came, I scooped earth using a pot and put it into another one instead of using my hands. The chap looked at me and said mock-seriously “Mais non Madame, Vous trichez. C’est n’est pas sale”. (No Madam, You are cheating. Its not dirty). Sheepishly I put down the pot and used my hands. Heartened by his talking to me even though only to rebuke me, I managed to ask him if I needed to repot it. “Non! Non! Leave it like it is and in printemps(springtime), they will blossom into flowers as blue as my eyes; Look at them then, and think of me”!! For once I was glad that A could not follow the chap’s high speed French. A might have just upset the whole tray of soil on the poor chap’s head!

I spent a happy week with all my five plants in a row till end of October when I had to switch on the heater just below the window sill. Kothai rakhi? Idea? I put them on a carton in which we bought our CPU. I put the pots on it and placed it on the wall opposite to the window and heater. It looked quite nice there.

But, problems struck soon. Firstly, A who is generously built ashtey jetey would often bump into the box and which would upset my already wobbly leaning cacti, throwing soil all over the place. Once, I too knocked them over with the edge of my blanket, which I had wrapped myself in while watching a late night movie….again repotting…cleaning the soil, the mud stains and lastly…the thorns and spikes that had stuck onto my blankets at that late hour. Aargh!

Soon after this, I heard a strange scratching noise from the mint pot. It went on for couple of days and A said he would change the earth in the pot with some fresh earth that I had bought. But that night I was woken up by those same noises (as if some tiny thing scratching its way out of the pot, trapped under all that soil) …. So loud they sounded in the stillness of our flat. I managed to convince a very sleepy A to put the pot outside our apartment, in the landing where it stayed for couple of days. I watered it everyday but it was obvious that it was dying in the hot and dark corridor. One day, A picked it up and put it among the green shrubs in the green swathe nearby, very scrupulously maintained by the town municipality. Couple of days later, A found the pot gone. Hurrah! It had found a home and kinder and braver(than me) owners. It was not a poor, abandoned, orphelin (orphan) anymore.

The tiny sapling however, flourished. When I had first brought it home, it was level with the edge of the pot. But it grew slowly, first sending up a shoot up straight and then tiny branches and pale green leaves. It gladdened my heart. I watered it dutifully, a few drops, morning and evening. Put it on the window sill whenever a bit of sunlight broke in through the murky autumn skies. We would be leaving for India soon. What would become of this sapling? I don’t know my neighbours well enough to ask them to water it twice daily. I could give it to N…but she has three kids, one of them a 3 month old baby. Suppose she forgot to water it? Etc Etc. The shoot was now 10cm high and I thought a bit leaning on to one side (because of its weight). A suggested sticking in couple of the thin wooden sticks from the Chinese chicken brochettes that A had eaten the day before. Next morning proved to be too late. The plant was not leaning, it was wilting. By evening, it has shrunk and drooped life less over the side of the pot. I thought it was the heat in our apartment. A thought I watered it too much. He was right. On closer inspection I found a sort of whitish mould all over the pot. My poor sapling. Now I won’t be able to see “blue as his eyes” flowers in printemp. Not in my apartment atleast. My cacti still exist…a bit wobbly, a bit uncertain…but still there and hopefully will be there in the new year as well.

Glossary French Words
Bien Commencé! - Well begun
promo - A special deal
artichauts - artichokes
endives - Endives (thats what my dictionary says)
bette rave - Beet
poireuax - leeks
champignons - Mushrooms
frigo - french slang for fridge

Glossary Bengali words
kancha lanka - green chillies
dhonay pata - fresh coriander
bhindi- Okra
korola - a type of bitter vegetable
bhaja - fry
halud - turmeric
Oshtomi - 8th day of the bengali festival of Durga Puja
gardening’er bhoot chepeychey? - Got a gardening craze?
Amaro chepeychilo, ekhon aar nei…Bricomarché tay paabey”. - I too had it, not any more
Ki jay Kori? - What shall I do?
Kothai rakhi? - Where shall I keep (it)?
Astey jetey - while coming and going

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