Reading My Family and Other Animals was quite like a trip to my own childhood. While I was not that interested in insects as Gerry was, plants were always a source of wonder and joy. The earliest recollection I have of feeling this sort of wonder was when my cousins used to make a ‘watch’ for me with the long leaves of a coconut tree. At that time, we used to live in a small house with no space for a garden. So my exposure to plants was restricted to annual vacations to Kerala and the school garden.
Another source of wonder during my Kerala visits was this tree that had leaves of an odd maple kind of shape if I remember correctly. When you pluck the leaf from the tree, you would see this gum like thing oozing out. My father showed me this trick. After you pluck the leaf, try to separate the leaf from the stem right at the point that it meets the leaf, however take care not to distend it completely, just about enough for you to see that gum like substance. Then just blow and voila, bubbles emanate from the leaf. I kid you not, I have seen this, done this. How I wish I knew what that tree is called, I dont even remember the exact shape of the leaves to identify the tree anymore! Kerala also meant to me the land of touch me nots. A favourite pastime used to be going to the backyard of my grandmother’s place, where there was long bed of touch me nots. Start from the beginning and keep on walking on all of them till all the leaves folded and by the time I reached the end, some of the leaves in the beginning would have opened again. The other joys in Kerala were plucking tropical fruits like Love apples, Arinellikai (a type of very small amla, very khatta, you get them at Mumbai bus stops too), mangoes, collecting the coconuts that would fall off at the seed stage itself, green and small. Every vacation was about new discoveries till the fireflies heralded the dark.
Back at school there was this tall eucalyptus tree. Now the eucalyptus sheds something that looks like a mini fool’s cap. All of us students used to fill our pencil boxes and empty nashta boxes with these ‘topis’ and we would take them home. Some of my friends had used these topis as decorative items for craft projects. Some of us just collected them and made imaginary castles and barricades with them. One of the things I used to do was collect the topis and the sticky upper part of ladies finger and try various permutations and combinations of arrangements. Sounds silly now, but was quite entertaining then. Another plant in school had these peculiar seeds which were a source of great amusement to all of us. If soon after plucking the slightly dried brown seeds, you put them in a bowl of water, the seeds would explode like mini crackers. All this experimentation continued till the school authorities changed and students were asked not to touch any plants on campus. Quite the spoilsport our principal was we thought!
By now we had moved to our new home. Here we had ample space. My mother loves gardening and soon we had 5 colours of roses, many shades of sevanti, sunflowers whose seeds parrots would come and pick, mogras and many other flowers. The land was very fertile and I have seen tomatoes, water melons, passion fruit, brinjals, chillies, mangoes, pomegranates and even wheat shoots grow at home. These are experiences that I wouldnt trade for anything. Here in Mumbai, there isnt much of an opportunity to experience all that. The closest one can get is to go to agro-tourism spots like Saguna Farms in Neral, to see for yourself how things take root and grow. I may be wrong, but somehow I feel that one needs to experience such things as a child, thats the time when you still are capable of feeling wonderment at the things nature has to offer. Everyone I believe should have their own version of Malgudi days, what say?