The sight of a ruby red hibiscus flower takes me back to my childhood. To a certain garden in Dharwar (in Karnataka, India), where this splendid flower grew in profusion. And to the house, which this garden adorned.
This beautiful, grand old house in Dharwar was our destination during our summer holidays, when my brother and I were in school. The morning after our exams ended, my mother, brother, and I would board the train to Dharwar. After a 14 hour train journey and a thrilling 20 minute tonga (horse carriage) ride, we would would find ourselves outside a small wooden gate set in the high brick wall that ran around the house.
As soon as the sounds of the tonga and our voices was heard, my aunts and cousins would spill out through the front door, onto the broad verandah that encircled the main structure of the house. I was always happy to see all of them, but until I laid eyes on Ammama, I never felt as if I had come home to Dharwar.
Ammama (maternal grandmother in Konkani) was not really my mother’s mother. She was my mother’s mami (maternal uncle’s wife.) My mother had lost her own mother when she was a little girl—barely four years old.
After the loss of his wife, my grandfather had taken his young daughter to Dharwar, where she was placed in her maternal grandmother’s care. The household included my mother’s maternal uncle and aunt, whom we came to refer to as Ajja (grandfather) and Ammama.
Ammama was tall, willowy, and fair-skinned. She had patrician features, a serene expression, and light brown eyes that were truly kind. When my mother came into her household, Ammama already had three daughters of her own to care for. (She went on to have two more daughters and a son.) But she took the motherless four-year-old child under her wing and embraced her as one of her own.
Many years later, when my mother married and had my brother and me, Ammama became our de facto grandmother. She treated us in the same manner that she treated her “real” grandchildren—with overwhelming tenderness and concern. I was eight years old, when my mother revealed to me that Ammama was not my biological grandmother. The revelation made no difference to my regard and affection for her. If anything, it added a dimension of respect.
Every morning, after breakfast, my cousin K and I would step out into the garden, armed with a brass phooldani (vase), to gather flowers for Ammama’s morning puja.
Our first stop was at the parijat tree, which I loved to shake until the small, creamy flowers with their saffron centers rained down. In my fanciful way, I liked to think that the gods were showering flowers on me.
We would then wind our way to the champak: the pink-shading-into-yellow as well as the heady, golden variety. Right by the golden champak was the madhumalati creeper with its coral-pink flowers, which my aunts taught us to braid into garlands—without using string—with just the long, pliable stems. Then on to the fragile, orange aboli and the perfumed chameli and mogra, which my mother and aunts wove into garlands to adorn the deities, keeping some flowers aside to bind into gajras (hair decorations) for our hair. And finally, the hibiscus: a rich ruby red flower that, when completely unfurled, was larger than my open palm. In size and shape, utterly sumptuous.
Once we had gathered the hibiscus flowers, our job was done. We would take the phooldani into the puja room and place it at the base of the platform where the deities sat.
Around mid-morning, Ammama would enter the puja room, freshly bathed and wrapped in a dark pink anvaale (a special silk sari). She’d seat herself before the deities, light the lamp and incense stick, and ring a silver bell to awaken the gods.
She would adorn the idols and pictures with the flowers we had picked. But the flower that stood out by in my memory by virtue of sheer size and vividness was the ruby-red hibiscus. And so I came to associate the hibiscus with the puja room in that grand old house in Dharwar. And with a serenely beautiful lady with kind eyes.
I knew that when and if I ever had a garden, I would plant a red hibiscus in it.
Finally, four years ago I planted a hibiscus in my garden in Houston. I planted it into the ground a little late in the season, but the hibiscus still rewarded me by putting out a bloom a month before the first frost. I was reversing out of my driveway prior to setting out on some errands, when I saw the ruby-red flower. I stopped, got out and walked over to the hibiscus.
I traced the curly edge of a petal. And the years fell away. I was back in the garden in Dharwar, topping off an already overflowing phooldani with a couple of large hibiscus blooms. Now, I tripped up the stone steps, which led from the garden up to the verandah. I crossed the verandah and stepped carefully across the broad wooden threshold into the house. I felt the coolness of stone floors beneath my feet as I walked through two more rooms, before I finally found myself in that incense-scented room.
I heard the sounds of children—my brother and cousins—playing on the verandah drifting in through an open window. And then I heard another voice, a gentle one, urging us to hurry into the dining room, where mangoes were being sliced for a mid-morning snack. And I knew that if I looked up, I would see Ammama walk in through the doorway clad in her pink anvaale.
Across the street, my neighbor called out to her young son, who had driven his bicycle off the safety of the curb and onto the road. The sound brought me back—however unwillingly—to the present. In my purse in the car, I had a list of chores to complete: groceries, Indian store, library, optician. But I couldn’t leave the hibiscus—not just yet.
My fingers whispered over the little globules of burnt-orange stigma that crowned the tall, milky stalk arching out of the flower. Lower down on this stalk a miniature forest of filaments branched out, the tops dusted with a honey-colored pollen. A little to my right, I heard an impatient buzzing: a bee waiting for its turn at the bloom. Tiny green-bodied ants hurried in and out of the flower, drawn there—like the bee—by the life-giving nectar that resided in the heart of the flower.
I felt my throat tighten. There was beauty here and a nurturing sweetness, all bound up in one glorious, ruby-red package. Hibiscus. Ammama.
Gauri Sirur is a writer/blogger who lives in Houston. She likes to write about travel and personal experiences.