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An ode to a potted plant

What images does the mind conjure up when it hears the word ‘Beauty’? We think of rolling meadows, colourful flowers, waterfalls, and lush forests. Of course, Beauty is not always about Nature, there is a world of beauty in the innocence that we see in a child’s smile, its tender touch or even its gurgles and giggles.

Then why, you may wonder am I talking about an Ode to a potted plant? Potted plants by definition have a contrived artificiality to them. One sees them adorning our houses adding a touch of greenery and yes, Beauty. But to me, it means a lot more than just that. It takes me back to a little path in the maze of the by-lanes of my childhood memories.

When I was in school, I had to visit an orthodontist, every fortnight. This involved a 45 minute bus ride from my home to the Hospital. On the way, the bus passed thru several suburbs of Bombay, some pretty and green, whilst for most parts we passed thru the industrial sectors-grey, grim and grimy. These areas, typically had rows and rows of bleak looking rundown buildings lining the road. Most of them were a collection of apartments or to be precise, tiny cubbyholes, 10’ by 12’ sq.ft rooms, which usually housed families of 4-8 people. They were what we in Bombay called chawls. Life can be quite tough when every inch of space has to be shared, leaving no scope for privacy, the luxury of solitude or a personal space to cherish. I used to quickly avert my eyes from this depressing scenario, bury my nose in a book and try to pretend that these suburbs did not exist. All the time, there would be a sea of conflicting emotions churning within me. A feeling of guilty relief that I was spared the agony of such a lifestyle; but also questioning the random unfairness of it all; ‘Why was I privy to a life of comfort but ‘they’ were destined for this miserable environment?” These questions used to stay with me for a long time and I invariably returned in a slightly depressed mood- not entirely linked to the terrors of the Dentist’s chair as my mother always assumed.

But one fateful day, unknown to me, this was to change. I was in the bus as usual. We had stopped because of a procession which had disrupted the traffic. Averting my eyes, again as usual, I caught a glimpse of something which made me turn round and stare. There it was - an old tin-pot, dangling precariously from a balcony of one of the ‘flats’. It was wound around the railing by a rusty piece of wire. The pot contained a plant!! It was not any exotic species, nor was it a rare flowering shrub. It was a simple money plant, and a rather anaemic looking one at that. The plant was a mere wisp of green, reaching out to a faintly visible thread which went on upwards to the next balcony. Oblivious to the harsh contrast of its surroundings, this plant seemed to be making a valiant statement. A remarkable feature of the ‘chawl dwellers’ in Bombay is their ability to share each others sorrows and more importantly their joys. In my mind’s eye, I could see that here was the potential for this plant to grow, and spread its greenery from one house to the next and create a green curtain, which would add beauty and also provide much needed privacy from idle gazers [self included] in the buses cruising by. This was the quintessential spirit of my city: Innovation in the most challenging situations. I was very impressed by the spirit of the person who had taken the initiative to hang that potted plant.

How easy it is for us to place plants artistically around the house, but when faced with a severe space constraint, this person thought out of the box, and used the balcony. He/she did not want to be denied the pleasure of decorating their house and so found an innovative way to do so. It was an attempt to capture a little of Mother Nature’s bounty and bring into one’s life.

The sight of that brave, wispy and precarious potted plant, brought tears to my eyes. I learnt a very valuable lesson that day. Beauty, Ugliness, Heaven, Hell are all creations of our own making. They can assume the most obvious forms, but often they come to us in unusual forms and in unexpected places. To spot them, savour them or shun them, as the case may be, is what makes our life one long voyage of discovery.

I learnt, that when Life gives you lemons, learn to make lemonade. This little potted plant became a symbol to me of resilience, and hope. I began looking forward to seeing it each time I went on the dental trips, not averting my eyes, but eagerly exulting in its upward growth. It felt like meeting an old friend, where words are not needed to communicate. I would always return home very happy, making my mother wonder and marvel at my new found courage to face the Dentist’s chair! Years have gone by, like everyone else, even my life has seen many ups and downs, rewards and challenges. On occasions, when faced with a difficult situation, I recall the hardy spirit of that plant and more importantly of its unknown owner, who did not let circumstances decide his/her response to them. We have changed so many houses, but wherever I have lived, I have always had one constant factor in the décor of my home, so that I never forget that wispy, precarious but precious potted plant.

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