Fiction: A Leaf of Tulsi

- Dinesh Srivastava

It was rather warm and I decided to sit in the lawn of the motel in Lafayette, where I was staying. I had gone to the Purdue University for a conference. Most of the other delegates were staying near the university. I sat alone and looked at the sun as it slowly sank beneath the horizon, leaving a glowing colourful cloud in its wake. I had not noticed Vivek. He had walked silently and stood behind me looking at those very clouds. I turned back when he gently coughed. I had seen him during the conference but there had been far too many people surrounding him.  I had noted that he was the only other Indian in the meeting. I asked him to have a seat.  He sat down and introduced himself. We started talking. Of-course I had heard of him. In fact, the newspapers of the day had carried a long interview with him along with his photograph. He was from University of California at Berkeley and his work in the field of astronomy was very well recognized.

He was telling me about his work, when he stopped in mid-sentence and got up. I followed his gaze to the small house towards the back of the hotel. An elderly woman in a sari, her head covered, a small lamp in her hands, was going around some potted plant in front of the house. It did not take us long to realize that she was performing Tulsi-puja, as millions of women in India have done for hundreds of years. We waited for her to finish and slowly approached her. She had noticed us and waited for us. She offered us crystal sugar and leaves of Tulsi. She blessed us profusely as we reverentially touched her feet. No introductions were necessary and we walked back silently to our seats. Her simple gestures triggered varied emotions in our minds. This is the story of Vivek, or rather his mother.

***

My mother belonged to a generation where women of good families never crossed the threshold of the house into which they were married.  Thus confined, she created a world of her own- which centred on her family: my father, me, gods and goddesses, various festivals, fasts, and rituals. She ventured out only very occasionally, that also only after my father's death, when it became essential for her.

I wonder how she lived all those years, confined within the four walls of the house. She never complained. She even avoided talking directly to my father. When she wanted to tell him some-thing, she would ask me to ‘tell father’. When she needed to call us inside the house, she stood behind the door and gently rattled the chain holding the doors. If she knew that we were close-by, she would just shake her hands, producing a gentle tinkle of her glass bangles. Only women, small children, and the family priest could come into the house.

Every evening, as our cows returned from the grazing fields and the sun dipped below the horizon, she  lit a lamp of pure ghee near the Tulsi (basil) plant in our court-yard and walked around it three times with folded hands. Every morning, after a bath, she offered water from a shiny brass pot to the Tulsi plant. She went around it three times keeping the plant on her right, saying prayers and offering a bit of water as she completed the round. The regularity and the constancy of this act gave me a feeling of strong comfort and bliss.  This is one of my fondest memories and some-how that is how I remember my mother.

Whenever I had a fever, she plucked some leaves of Tulsi, and boiled them with black pepper and made me drink that very bitter concoction. I hated the taste, but always felt better afterwards. She had kept my fever under control with the same concoction, even when I had suffered from malaria. Today I look back and wonder; how she had lived in that remote village armed only with her faith in gods and goddesses and some simple home remedies. As summer roared and evenings brought a mild breeze, the scorpions with their raised poisonous tails came out in search of food. Being a restless child, running all over the place, I often stepped on them in the dark, only to get a nasty sting. I would scream and my mother would light a lamp and look for the sting, remove the barb and apply a paste of Tulsi leaves. Diarrhoea was my most common problem, in my childhood. She always cured it by giving me some concoction of Tulsi leaves. She cured our coughs by making us chew leaves of Tulsi with ginger and honey.

Her whole life revolved around Tulsi and her faith in Tulsi was phenomenal! She used to hold a "Satyanarayan Puja" on every full moon day at our home near the Tulsi plant. The family priest came in the morning and started asking for all the things needed for the Puja. I ran in and out of the house collecting all that he asked for; a tiny branch of mango along with leaves, dry sticks of mango, some sand, various grains, turmeric powder, water, a small plant of banana, cow-dung, etc. My mother prepared gently roasted some floor, adding sugar or jaggery to it. She prepared the "charanamrit"- washings off the feet of Lord Shaligram using curd with dry-fruits and Tulsi-leaves. We knew the story by heart, yet we sat around, reverentially, rejoicing at the end of each chapter, when the priest blew his conch shell.

I enjoyed these occasions immensely, especially the "hawan" (the fire sacrifice), while chanting "swaha" with the priest and offering ghee to the fire, while my other offered a mixture of barley, rice, sesame, ghee, various incenses and powder of sandalwood. Soon the house was full of mildly scented fumes from the hawan. The final sounding of conch shell by the priest brought women and children from the neighbourhood in hordes. I used to enjoy this moment, as I could lord over all the kids and offered them smaller or larger quantities of the "prasad" (offerings) depending on my liking for them. My mother often sat near the plant, doing simple chores and composing or just singing hymns in praise of various gods and goddesses and of-course "Ma Tulsii". I found a large notebook of her hymns after her death and some of them were really quite lyrical and moving. It also contained a long lyrical poem describing the humbling of Satyabhama, one of the wives of Lord Krishna, whose entire collection of ornaments could not outweigh Him, while just a leaf of Tulsi outweighed Him.

 One day, my father brought her a book on homeopathy along with a small box of medicines. She carefully read the book and started practicing homeopathy. She prescribed medicines in the name of "Tulsi Ma". The women of the village came with their children suffering from cold and fever and diarrhoea and worms and boils and dog-bites and even injuries.  They gathered around her on Tuesdays and Thursdays near the Tulsi plant.  She listened to the symptoms and administered medicines, asking them to pray to "Tulsi Ma" to cure them. If they got better, she made a special offering of jaggery, ghee, and honey during her prayers. I was yet to develop a distrust of homeopathy and it was going to be decades until I was to hear of the placebo effect.

When my father got a job in the city, it was time for us to move. She carefully nursed a seedling of the Tulsi and by the time we were ready to leave, it was a few inches tall. A trusted servant was to look after the house and the fields. My mother repeatedly requested his wife to nurse the original plant, and light a lamp and offer water every day.  She had stood near the plant and prayed for a long-time with tears in her eyes, before leaving. She never let the pot with the little Tulsi out of her sight in our bullock-cart ride of three days, with stops on the way. She prayed and lit a lamp near it when we stopped for a rest in the evening and offered water to it after a bath when we started again in the morning. The Tulsi plant and the Ramayan were her "talismans".

We slowly settled in the city. In a few months, the Tulsi plant, installed into a large cemented pot, grew to its full height with many branches. My mother became popular in the neighbourhood, with her knowledge of home-remedies, many of which used leaves of Tulsi from our house. Yes, her faith in Tulsi was supreme!  I also saw the first and the only fight between my father and mother around this time. As my mother was very religious, non-vegetarian meals were never prepared in our house. My father had developed a taste for meat in company of his friends and one day he brought some cooked meat to the house. Just as he was looking for a place to keep it, someone called him at the door. He left the pot with the meat on the platform around the Tulsi plant and went to see the person. My mother screamed, shouted, wept, and prayed in turn, apologizing to "Ma Tulsi" on behalf of her ignorant husband.

 By morning, my father was quite subdued and my mother was shivering with fever. She whispered to me to tell father that she had to go to the village to bring back "Ma Tulsi", who had surely deserted us because of his act. He quietly arranged for us to travel to the village. During those three days, my mother lived on water.  As she alighted from the bullock-cart, she ran inside and wept profusely near the plant nursed daily by our servant's wife. We journeyed back with a new seedling, which was "installed" a-fresh in our house. My father gave up meat altogether. Our life returned to our daily routine. To her regular gathering of women, she started reciting from the Ramayan and often asked me to recite and read out the meaning, when she was tired. Occasionally, she organized continuous recitation of the Ramayan from the beginning to the end. She took turns with me and some literate women of the neighbourhood, to recite it. She distributed simple offerings of Tulsi leaves and crystal sugar or jaggery, when it was over. Though tired, her face would glow with reverence and bliss on such occasions.

 I went to all my tests, examinations, and competitions with a leaf of Tulsi in my mouth and a mark of turmeric and raw rice in the middle of my forehead. I had to offer the result cards and the trophies to "Ma Tulsi" before showing it to my father. Several years later, I left for California with a leaf of Tulsi in my mouth, a mark of turmeric and raw rice on my forehead, blessings of my parents on my head, and tears of my mother behind me. She had wanted just one promise from me. She wanted me to return to India to offer her Tulsi leaves with the holy water from the Ganges, when her time came.

When I decided to settle down in California, she reminded me of the promise I had made to her, especially as my father had passed away. I requested her to accompany me to our new house. She refused at first, when I told her that she could not carry a Tulsi plant with her. Yet, the lure of being with her grandchild broke her resolve. She was very happy to see that we had a big lawn with a hedge of roses around it. I often saw her working in the rose-bed and watering the lawns and other plants. She had brought seeds of Tulsi with her. She planted them and nursed them to several large plants. She treated our guests to the tea she made with leaves of Tulsi, ginger, and honey.

I would often see her sitting with Mary; my wife, playing with the baby or patting him to sleep and chatting amicably, even though she spoke no English and Mary spoke only a smattering of Hindi. On these occasions, her face glowed with warmth, affection, and fulfillment.  Soon enough, my mother happily incorporated Christ into her pantheon. She had learnt from Mary, who was Greek, that, Tulsi had grown over the tomb of Christ.  She started offering leaves of Tulsi and a lamp at the little altar Mary had in the house. I found it most amusing but was even more surprised when I found that Mary had continued to offer water to the plant of Tulsi and light a lamp near it every day, after my mother had returned to India.

I tried to get my mother to move to California with us. She firmly refused, telling that she could not leave the house with the memories of my father in it. I succeeded in persuading her to stay in the city, which had better medical facilities. Occasionally she travelled to our village, which by now had a better connectivity, to inspect our fields and the house which were still in the care of our servant and his wife.

I was not prepared, for what I was to see. She had known but had never told me. The servant had died. His only son was alcoholic and a loafer. He had systematically pillaged our house, the surrounding mango orchard, and the fields. He had cut and sold several trees and taken a loan against the fields. However, that was not all! First, he had sold the doors, the windows, the cots, and the vessels of the house. Then he had sold the fired clay tiles, which had covered the roof of our house. Finally, he had sold all the seasoned wood, which had supported the roof on the clay walls. The two intervening monsoons had reduced the walls into a mound of clay.  I looked away while the widow of our servant held on to the feet of my mother and wept, murmuring her helplessness.  My mother sat in the car, shedding silent tears.

I slowly walked to the spot where our house had once stood. Several small trees of acacia, neem, and peepal were growing where I had played as a child and where my mother had sat and dispensed medicines to the simple women of the village. So many memories came flooding back to me and a lump started rising in my throat. I was almost turning away when I noticed some-thing familiar. I saw the large cemented pot, which used to hold the Tulsi plant of my mother, lying on its side, almost completely buried under a heap of soil and grass. I slowly walked to it and called out to my mother. Near one of the small trees of peepal, surrounded by grass, several inches tall, we saw several plants of Tulsi, growing lustily and swaying in the breeze.

My mother wiped her tears and asked the widowed wife of our servant to get her clothes from the car and fresh water from the well. She prayed for a long time and lit a lamp near the Tulsi plants. We cleaned the pot, filled it with fresh soil, and planted several sturdy plants of Tulsi in it. My mother rested for a while and then asked me to call the doctor of the village dispensary. She donated the land and the orchard surrounding the house to the dispensary and asked me to sell the fields and give the proceeds to the doctor to build a decent hospital. She put only one condition; the potted plants of Tulsi were to be looked-after.  When we returned to the city, she complained of being tired. In the morning, she got up, took a bath, offered her prayers to Tulsi, and then sat down with exhaustion. She called me and told me that the time had come for me to fulfill my promise to her. I wept and poured water from the Ganges- kept for this purpose in the house, and a few leaves of Tulsi into her mouth. She closed her eyes and a smile full of bliss covered her face.

I went to see the hospital a year later. They had named it after her- Radha Devi Hospital. I was happy to see that the plants of Tulsi were prospering. The employees, especially the nurses, took good care of the Tulsi plants, and worshipped them on a regular basis.  The Tulsi plants she had grown in a corner of our lawn in California survive to this day. Three years after her death our daughter was born. As I held her, Mary told me that she would call her Vrinda- in the memory our mother and her love for Tulsi. She also told that my mother had confided in her that her maiden name was Vrinda, which is another name for Tulsi. She had adopted the name Radha after her wedding, for the women married into our family had to change their name as well. I called our village and requested them to change the name of the hospital to Vrindavan.

****

Next morning as we proceeded to Vivek's car to go to the meeting, the elderly woman, whom we had met the previous evening, called out to us.  She put a mark of turmeric powder and rice on our foreheads and gave us each a leaf of Tulsi and crystal sugar. She smiled at Vivek and told him in Gujarati, "May Tulsi Ma bring you glory". Vivek's eyes turned moist as he touched her feet.

Later, it was my turn to have moist eyes, as Vivek received a standing ovation when he concluded his talk.

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