She was staring at the plant for so long, the strain of continuous eyeing created a permanent mark between her rosy-soft forehead. With a heavy sigh and an uncanny discomfort, her untrained fingers dug around the plant. Suddenly, her nostrils were filled with a pungent smell which was possibly coming from the dead leaves lying around. Squatting near the rim of the plant, she noticed the apparent signs of horse-cow-cow-horse-hooves, pressing the earth, making rhetoric of design which her naïve heart was able to praise and understand well. What she could not understand was the untimely death of the Tulsi plants in her courtyard every monsoon season. Even stranger was the feeling that the blackish leaves and the smell of decay were so intimate and familiar to her. There was something about the death of the plants which caused in her both curiosity and complacency.
“Is it because of the name or something more intangible and deeply rooted that I feel this way for this particular plant,” the thumping sound of a brass-bucket suddenly brought her out of her monologue.
“Tulsi…., O, re, Tulsi….,” the invitation in the voice of her grandmother received the response from two persons in the house simultaneously. But both knew their duties according to the time of the day, hence responded differently. The mother had tied the hind legs of the cow tightly with a greasy thread for milking her. The girl, responding to the call, ran hurriedly inside the kitchen to fetch the tumbler, ignoring her grandmother sitting on her charpoy massaging her gums with a very strong tobacco-powder.
Tulsi is the youngest child in the family. The name was given to her by her grandmother, who would always say, “she just smelt like the Tulsi flower when she was born, as if she was smitten with it right from birth.”
“When her mother had entered the house for the first time after her marriage, I had felt the same aroma in the house, Radhe…. Radhe…. I have two Tulsis in my house. I will directly go into Lord Krishna’s lap after my death,” she would end the sentence with a sense of loss every time.
Tulsi’s mother got married when she was only fifteen. By the time the unfulfilled desire to play with the dolls was fading away, she got her own living doll. Tulsi’s father wanted a boy, so when Tulsi was born he showed no emotion- neither joy nor sadness. His apathy brought mother and daughter even closer. So, when her mother-in-law named the girl Tulsi, she immediately felt an intense desire to protect her, because now her daughter was given the same name as hers. She was not only the namesake of her mother; she learnt to imitate her actions from the quite early age too.
Tulsi never saw her mother smiling. She would meticulously do all the household chores with no complaint. Sometimes Tulsi saw her mother doing the same work again and again so many times, as if she was doing all that only to make herself tired. So tired that by the time her father comes back from the fields, she would attend him with half-open eyes like a dead body. After a silent dinner ritual, she would see her mother going into the room with her father with a sad face. She could spend no night with her mother for reasons unknown to her. It was this lack of her mother’s presence which made her spend more time with the Tulsi plants in the courtyard. She would spend hours talking to the plants, inhaling the same fragrance of care and compassion from them as she would get from her mother.
Besides her, it was only with the cow in the house that she saw her mother happy. Her mother would spend half of the day taking care of the cow, cleaning her, pulling out insects from her body and putting them in a hot water bucket, massaging her neck for hours together while looking in the void silently. Sometimes when she would be lost in her thoughts silently, the cow would jerk her neck to bring her out of the state of trance. Tulsi always loved drinking the milk of the cow because she always felt that the milk contained the love of her mother too as she would spend half of the day taking care of it. She started to believe that the warmth of her mother’s heart gets transferred to the milk when she milks the cow and pours the fresh milk in her big copper tumbler.
So, every time in the mornings and evenings, whenever she would hear the thumping sound of the bucket in the backyard, she knew it was time to milk the cow. She would run to the kitchen to fetch her glass and sit silently near her mother. Her mother would pour the fresh, raw milk in her tumbler and would wait to wipe the white moustache formed because of the froth of the fresh milk.
“Amma! I am going to play with Mohan now,” wiping her hands with her dirty frock Tulsi told her mother.
“Hmm!” producing the sound of consent her mother said, “but don’t fight with him, he is a boy after all.”
“Hu! boy”, twisting the corner of her lips Tulsi mocked, “he doesn’t drink the cow’s milk like I do Amma.”
“Accha, accha…be back before Baba comes from the fields,” caressing the heifer her mother ordered.
Elated, she collected some eatables from the kitchen in small diyas, milk in a bottle, tied a small piece of jaggery to the corner of her frock and packed one sesame-ladoo which her mother had prepared the night before. Filled with a sense of satisfaction with her preparation, she was all set to go out to play with her best-friend Mohan near the fields. Both had agreed to play ghar-ghar that day, a pretentious pastime in which Mohan roleplays the husband and Tulsi plays the role of the docile lady of the house.
“I can even imagine Mohan right now, drooling like a puppy,” Tulsi was chuckling while walking towards the fields. “He knows I bring jaggery every time, but ladoo…… let’s see bacchu, who dominates the house now?” she was walking proudly towards the fields keeping her head and shoulders high.
Mohan is two years older than Tulsi, her neighbor and the only friend in the village. His father was the only barber in the village. Tulsi loved going to his father’s shop with him. She was always enticed by the phuss-phuss spray bottle with which Mohan’s father sprinkled water on his customers’ hair. Mohan allowed Tulsi to dab her face with exotic powder.
“Tulsi……”, Mohan was waving his hand from the corner of the field in a shadowy grove where they usually played together.
“What did you bring for me today?” the excited Mohan could not hide his emotions.
“What is the hurry?” Tulsi dismissed his appeal straightforwardly.
“Let me first set up my house. When I invite you to my house, you will see what I have got for you today,” said Tulsi with an air of confidence.
She drew her bottle and started sprinkling water at the space which was already cleaned by Mohan. She stretched the bedsheet and almost with a touch of perfection had set up a miniature kitchen, their make-believe house. She didn’t forget to first put some basil leaves which she had plucked from home to purify the small earthenware she was using. The moment she sprinkled some more water on the fresh diyas, a very pleasant smell emanated from the reaction of basil leaves with pottery.
She poured some water in one glass and a little milk in the other. After placing jaggery in one of the diyas, which disappointed Mohan, she proudly placed sesame-ladoo in the final diya covered with basil leaves. The sheer smell of ladoo changed Mohan’s attitude towards Tulsi. After giving a last look at her preparations, Tulsi invited Mohan in her house, opening an imaginary door. She did it the same way, her mother opens the door when her father returns from the fields. But unlike her father, Mohan’s eyes were fixed on the ladoo.
“You must be tired. Let me get you some water,” Tulsi impersonated the tone of her mother too. The tinkling of bells tied to the necks of the drowsy cows and the chirping of birds in the field provided the background symphony for their game.
“Tapti is not giving enough milk these days. Get green fodder for her at least twice this week,” Tulsi commented sarcastically while handing over the glass of water to Mohan.
He always admired the ingenuity of his best friend to forge any conversation. Tulsi had impersonated her mother so well. Mohan also had to live up to the expectations, so he replied, “I will go on the other side of our fields and collect the green bundles from Hariram’s fields.”
Tulsi seemed satisfied with the answer and both started enjoying the game more now.
After serving Mohan dinner, she quietly handed over the ladoo to him and while Mohan was busy relishing the sweet gift, she appeared in front of Mohan after just a minute’s disappearance which he didn’t even notice.
His face was wide open now, not because of the ladoo, but more so because of Tulsi’s dress. She had brought her mother’s green-tulsi-dupatta to cover her head. Without saying anything, Mohan and Tulsi held each other’s hands and moved to the other side of the bedsheet, imitating her mother going in the room with his father every night after dinner.
By this time all the birds had settled well in their nests and the evening sun had splashed rosy color on the horizon. The evening wind was blowing with a sense of stillness. Nature was orchestrating a background setting for their game.
Mohan and Tulsi sat together comfortably for a while, holding each other’s hands. Since Tulsi didn’t know more than this, she was looking content with the happy closure of the game.
“Shall we finish the game of imitating your parents,” Mohan asked inquisitively.
Contented as Tulsi was with the game so far, just turned her head on Mohan’s shoulder affirmatively.
Mohan took a deep breath, stood up suddenly and before Tulsi could understand anything, he started beating her on her back with his legs. The last kick rolled Tulsi, and she fell near the diya which she had lighted at the beginning of the game.
Tears rolled down from her cheeks and fell over the diya, extinguishing it, leaving behind a trail of blackish demonic fume.
Angrily she turned towards Mohan and shouted in utter resentment, “I brought ladoo for you and you are beating me! Why are you hitting me like this?”
Dumbfounded, Mohan suddenly realized that it was no longer a game now.
“But…. But… that is what your father does to your mother. I have seen it often from the window of our house, which opens towards the window of their room. I thought this is how elders show their love to each other,” Mohan was trying to justify himself.
“I can never hurt you Tulsi. You know that, don’t you.”
The words of Mohan were resounding in Tulsi’s head. She found herself in the eye of a violent whirlpool and her mother was crying for help. Suddenly she saw the Tulsi plants of her courtyard being blown away, dried, making rustling sound which was very unpleasant to her. Now everything was suddenly making sense to her.
“That is why I never saw Amma smiling at home. That is why the Tulsi plants wither without any reason. Because when Amma is not happy, how can plants flourish?” She had forgotten about Mohan.
She collected all the broken diyas, tied them in her Amma’s dupatta and hurriedly she ran towards home. When she reached the courtyard, she saw her Tulsi plant also dead. Now she knew the cause of the plants’ untimely death. Now she knew the intimate connection between plants and human-beings. Now she knew…