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My poor frangipani February 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Childhood.

frangipaniThough the house I grew up in was tiny, it had a wonderful garden. It was an L-shaped patch, abutting two sides of the house, about five feet wide and maybe 25 feet in length altogether. There were no cemented areas or paved blocks in the garden. The entire area was mud with just the short path from the gate to the front door hardened by a daily coat of cow dung mixed in water. The soil must have been rich because we could dig a few inches down and get a rich harvest of earthworms.

In that tiny garden was a neem tree, a yellow bells shrub that had grown quite tall, almost into a tree, bougainvillea, a frangipani, a fairly large jasmine creeper and a papaya tree. And in the corner, a small vegetable garden growing mostly green chillies for the parakeets. It seemed that anything we planted grew well and quickly and had character.

The neem tree grew in the far corner. It was large and, along with a couple of other neem trees from the neighbouring house, covered our entire house in its shade. During season, the neem tree would be in full bloom and the garden would be blanketed by the half-eaten fruits dropped by the hundreds of rose-ringed parakeets that settled on the tree during their daily sojourn. The yellow-green semi-ripe and ripe fruits would form a carpet on the ground and squish awkwardly under our feet.

The fruiting of the trees coincided with the breeding of the rose-ringed parakeet and the entire house would be filled with high-pitch screeches, shrieks and squawks from the parent parakeets and their new born fledglings.

The yellow bells shrub stood next to the gate and it turned out to become a 15 feet tall tree. It was a vibrant green, very different from the neem green and its flowers were the bright yellow of the early morning sun. The seeds were green and shaped like torpedoes with sharpened ends. If you took a dried seed and poured a drop of water on it, it would burst with a wonderful popping sound.

This tree was on the target list of a local woman who would come around when we were not watching to pluck the flowers for her morning prayers. Six of us watching out against one old cunning lady with a stick and invariably she ensured she managed to pluck the flowers from right under our noses. On the odd day when one of us caught her red handed, she would launch into a long lecture on the benefits of showering the flowers on God instead of “wasting” them on the tree. It was a battle that we could never win.

The bougainvillea was like the sentry on the other side of the gate and it was one hardy tree. Of all the trees, this was the one that was most neglected by us. However, it did not seem to care whether we watered it or not and, unmindful of our apathy, grew and flowered profusely. It covered one side of the compound wall completely with bright coloured flowers ranging from violet to orange to yellow and even a rare white once in a while. It appeared that nothing would dampen its spirit, not even being puked on, which a visiting relative did once. That was the only occasion I remember one of us pouring water on the poor plant.

The jasmine creeper was on the side of the house just below the bedroom window. It was tended with loving care by my mother even though it produced fragrant jasmine flowers only on the rare occasion. When it bloomed, my mother would gush over it and tie the handful of flowers into a garland and wear it on her hair. The rest of the time, the creeper gathered dust. Unfathomably, my mother also believed that the jasmine smell indicated or attracted, I don’t remember now, the presence of snakes and hence was very ambivalent about the creeper and would not go near it except when it produced the dozen or so flowers once a year.

Right next to the creeper was the papaya tree. The papaya tree was something of a novelty at that time. There were not that many of them in those days, being not native to our area. I still remember that it grew from a sapling to a 20 feet tall tree in some 3 months and started bearing fruits immediately thereafter. The fruit, though sweet, had a distinct smell that I did not like much. My father, on the other hand, quite taken by having such a wonderfully exotic fruit growing right in his garden, would insist that we all eat it and like it. Every day, he would look up the tree to see if there were any fruits ripe for plucking. The fruits grew right out of the trunk at the very top of the trunk just below where the leaves started and so we got only a bottom view of them. He would wait for a fruit to grow to a decent size and just as it started turning yellow, he would take a long stick with a knife attached to the end and cut down the fruit. Most of the time, much to his disgust, and to my secret pleasure, the fruit would be just a green shell with the entire flesh having been eaten by squirrels through a neat hole bored on the side close to the trunk. To be fair to him, my father never resented the squirrels, but nevertheless took to plucking the fruits while they were still green and then ripening them in the rice drum before serving them to us.

The most beautiful tree in the garden, however, was undoubtedly the frangipani. It grew at the corner of the garden nearest to the road and was just the most delicate of trees. The large leaves were a rich green while the stem was a mottled grey. It bore the most beautiful white flowers with a smidgen of yellow at their heart. There was just a hint of fragrance, and one could get a whiff of it once in a while when a gentle breeze blew in just the right direction. The branches were thin and brittle and so we all touched it and handled it like it was made of the finest bone china. It was one tree we never climbed. It was our show piece and the pride of the garden. All through the year we tended to it like it was an only child of poor health.

Unfortunately, it was also the most traumatized tree in our garden.

Every year, the choultry opposite our house conducted Iyyappan Pooja and they made sakkarai pongal, a local delicacy, to die for. It was made from rice cooked in cow’s milk and the best jaggery in town. It was full of fat succulent raisins and thumb-sized whole cashews fried in butter. The whole dish would be half-submerged in ghee. The pongal was the talk of the town and every year people from all over the city, Iyyappa devotees or not, would make a beeline to get some of that amazing nectar.

The brahmins in the area got priority. They would send large vessels through the back entrance of the choultry and collect the pongal for the entire family. The next set of people, the decently dressed ones, would be able to go through the main entrance and collect generous dollops in donnais (cups made from dried lotus leaves). The boys from the slums were as usual the last to gain entrance. By the time they were allowed access, the cooks were scraping the bottom of the barrel so to speak. And they were usually all out of donnais. In fading light, the boys would be literally climbing over each other to get the last of the pongal.

That is when it would happen. The first set of enterprising boys would notice the frangipani. The most agile of the lot would bound over our compound wall and before we could should “Don’t!” all the leaves of the frangipani and half its delicate branches would be gone in a volley of crisp snaps. A new generation of boys had found out that the frangipani leaves made an excellent donnai.

It would take a year of tender loving care for us to bring our fragile beauty back to its resplendent best!

Just in time for the next Iyyappan Pooja.



1. Gita - February 1, 2016

So sweetly written. Brought to life all the plants and trees and how much you enjoyed them. You also left unsaid how much you miss them!

2. padmaja - February 1, 2016

i love frangipani flowers! nice read…

3. S.satish Kumar - February 1, 2016

Beautifully written.

4. S.satish Kumar - February 2, 2016

On my morning walks i see many of these trees and often pick,pluck and sometimes lean over someone’s compound wall and steal a few chanting lord shiva’s name and trying to console myself that the flowers are better off being used for pooja rather than fall on the ground and become one with earth and dirt.They have a very mild fragrance and so many times just before dawn they shine like stars in the sky.Thank you for sharing your memories and as always thank you for taking time to write your thoughts for us to read.Be well.

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