He squatted on a patch of cabbages, under the relentless supervision of a July sun. Major L.D. Budhwar, (Retired) – the word had been enclosed in parentheses on the address painted in bold red lettering on the mailbox, as if justifying his gardening in partial nudity to visitors, loiterers and passersby – examined the leaves of what was to be his evening meal. The cabbage was the star of his cruciferous garden– its spring-green leaves untouched by disease and eager for recruitment to the dining table.
Major Budhwar had fought and won important wars in his vegetable garden. A hailstorm had been averted by chanting the Gayatri Mantra as he ran out in his striped cotton half-pants, to chastise a gathering of clouds in November last year, that had threatened to destroy a young guava tree. A few hailstones had struck his garden, before the storm had relented to the powerful shlokas and shed tears of remorse instead, allowing the tree a lifetime of fruit bearing. The birds that peopled Major Budhwar’s skies – cheels, parrots, crows and pigeons – had been terrorized into changing the trajectory of their flight by a scarecrow he had created– the face of goddess Kali, with glowering eyes and bloody tongue painted on an overturned earthen pot that hung from a pole in the midst of his nursery of foliage. Rats and rodents had been caught in carefully laid-out traps that enticed the offending burrower with slices of bread laced with sedatives. The garden thrived under the vigilant care of Major Budhwar, rewarding his toil with spectacular root, fruit or leaf, and nourishing his family with homegrown vitamins and minerals.
Trouble arrived in a frothy pink frock. She had jumped across the wall that separated Major Budhwar’s lush vegetation from his neighbour’s neatly manicured and characterless lawn. She stood in the middle of the cabbage patch, an incongruous blob of pink amidst the thick foliage. She must be fumigated and eradicated, immediately. But before he could banish her with his most ferocious, “Shooo-shooo!” -reserved for squirrels, snails and ladybirds – his granddaughter Sweetie bounded out of the house and into his vegetable patch. Together, the girls turned the hallowed furrows into a playground. They murdered tender saplings with their clumsy feet, played ball with cabbages, plucked the stillborn fruit of new shrubbery.
In the eight-and-a-half years that it had taken Sweetie to turn into a vegetable-stomping monster, she had not revealed a trace of willfulness. Or the daring it took to defy her grandfather and play in the vegetable garden. This was the influence of the child next door, who arrived every day in a new frock and with new tricks to delight Sweetie on a sacred piece of land that was meant to be off-limits for children.
Aradhana wasn’t a “hyperactive child”, as some of her chiffon-draped aunties had unkindly labelled her; she was just hyper bored. The winter break was a yawning hole of walks in the park with her mother and occasional visits to her grandmother’s house in a faraway part of the city. Everyone at home was glued to the television more than was usual for them – a lady with a gigantic rose in her hair had smiled at them from the TV set in their living room and informed them that there was “trouble brewing in the city.”
The news had caused unease in Aradhana’s house. Her grandfather, Jaspreet Singh, a pink-cheeked Sikh who could solve Math riddles with the ease with which he could recite his beloved Japji Sahib, had abandoned his morning walks in the colony with his group of gregarious septuagenarians, for a brief stroll in the lawn that appended their home. His name, embossed in gold on the front gate, as befitting the patriarchal head of the family, had been removed, and had startled Aradhana into enquiring whether Dadaji thought she was “such a nuisance” and had decided to leave home for “peace and quiet.”
“Don’t trouble Dadaji,” her mother had said, when Jaspreet Singh, fond doer of holiday homework, ignored his granddaughter’s textbooks and allowed his tea to grow cold as the beaming newscaster announced on TV that someone had been assassinated.
Aradhana’s birthday party was cancelled. The grown-ups chose to ignore her. Dadaji, who would frequently give Aradhana a piggyback ride and even allow her to play with his long hair – usually on Sunday when he washed his impossibly thick tresses and waited for them to dry before arranging them neatly in a bun over his head and coiling his turban around the circumference of his head – no longer had the time to talk to her, let alone do her sums.
The wall was easy to climb. And if she jumped across, no one at home would notice.
The vegetable garden was full of delights. She could sit under the tomato shrubbery and pretend it was raining ketchup when an overripe one fell on her head. She could, with Sweetie’s cooperation, build a little stove with crisscrossed twigs, and cook a meal of mud chapattis and toasted guavas for the squirrels. She could stick her tongue out at goddess Kali and compare the pinkness of her flesh to the scarlet of Kali’s tongue. She could laugh out loud at the face painted with garish detail on the pot, because even though the goddess was meant to be terrifying, there was no hair on her clay head.
But Aradhana’s daily tryst with prize-worthy fruit and vegetables was interrupted by an impossibly old man in striped chaddis. Every day, she risked her welfare, and the fate of a lacy dress, to admire his handiwork. Every day, he drove her away with his rude “Shoo-shoo-shooooo!”
Sweetie, who had wilted like a neglected wallflower when Major Budhwar forbade her from entering the vegetable garden, had grown bolder in Aradhana’s company. Ample sunshine and the minty breath of the garden had developed a sinew of defiance in the girls. This, they put to good use, together with the strength of their limbs, when Major Budhwar shoo-shooed them with a tender bamboo staff.
The Prime Minister had been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. The capital city had been tranquilized with a curfew. But a riot had broken the membrane of an imposed calm.
They were setting buses on fire. Walking into homes and butchering Sikh families.
The household was worried about Aradhana’s Dadaji. He was the only one in the family who wore a turban and had obstinately refused to remove it or cut his hair in the face of impending death. He had held his kirpan, the holy sword of the Sikh warrior, close to his heart and declared, “Let them walk in. I will die a martyr before they can touch me.”
When the mob broke into Aradhana’s home, they were greeted by a family having dinner together. The couple didn’t look Sikh – the husband’s hair was cut in a short and trendy crop, while the wife wore a freshly blow-dried blunt. They weren’t wearing the customary Sikh kada around their wrists. Their daughter was a grubby eight-year-old with filthy fingernails. A painting of a chubby Lord Krishna in his infancy stared benignly at the family eating together.
Slowly, the group of men who had barged into their home with hockey sticks turned around and left.
Major Budhwar, who had sensed a commotion outside, stepped out to check on his garden. Worried about trespassers trampling on his bitter gourd, he walked towards the vegetable patch with a torch.
Everything looked undisturbed; the vegetables slept peacefully under the moonlit sky. Kali looked magnificent with her piercing eyes and blood-soaked tongue. And the wild locks around her face really added to her appearance of murderous rage.
“Stick your tongue out Dadaji,” Aradhana had said, as she positioned her grandfather where Kali once stood, and painted his tongue with her mother’s lipstick. Sweetie giggled. “No one can find you here,” she said, as the mob receded from their colony.