I was in Pondicherry three decades after I had left the place. Pondicherry is where I grew up, and memories from those formative years clung to me like a second skin. The house where we lived for six years should have been easy to find. A building with bright red and white bricks, the Lawspet Police Station stood exactly across the road. Such an easy landmark. I could visualize walking in there in my brown frock, to talk to Inspector Mani Uncle, asking him permission to use the phone to call up my Dad.
But as my auto rickshaw passed lane after lane, I felt dizzy. Development had happened at a racy pace and the landscape did not seem familiar at all. Gone was the laidback peaceful village of the seventies. Here, I couldn’t find an inch of empty space as buildings of all sizes and shapes seemed to have hideously cropped up. I didn’t find a red and white police station any more- a non-descript yellow double storied building stood there.
And then I saw them. The two glorious red and white flowering trees towering over the boundary of the house, on both sides of the gates. The Mussaendas. Thirty years later, they were there as if to say his soul still lived there. A flood of memories came gushing by. And I could see my eyes turn moist.
My father was very fond of plants and certainly had a green thumb. In 1978, when he joined Pondicherry as Principal of the Kendriya Vidyalaya in JIPMER Campus, the entrance to the school was a long arid stretch of sand. You could polish your black Bata shoes every morning, but by the time you reached the morning assembly, the sand would have turned them dusty and dirty. I remember his pride, when after quite some struggle, he was able to get a tar road constructed from the main gate to the school building, and our shoes remained shiny and black.
But there was more to come. Slowly, month after month, the school environment changed. Basketball, badminton and volleyball courts came up. But more importantly, trees and plants began to spring up, as did flowers and kitchen gardens. Among other things, our SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work) classes were spent planting kitchen gardens, weeding and watering them, and enjoying the delight of seeing the plants grow. Each class had its own patch. We no longer had to stay confined to our classrooms. It was fun to learn yoga under the trees, or share our lunch boxes under their shade.
Not many people know the role of Mussaendas in this transformation. Actually, these ornamental shrubs were not as common in Pondicherry in the seventies, as they are now. My Dad had managed to grow two Mussaenda plants in our house- one had white bracts, while the other had really striking blood-red inflorescence. It was the latter which caught the eye of a gentleman, who happened to be the director of the botanical gardens (“Au Jardin Zoologique”) at Pondicherry. Yes, the same botanical gardens that are mentioned in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. That the gentleman was a parent at the school helped. He didn’t have a specimen of the red Mussaenda in his botanical garden. So he approached my Dad for a cutting. Between them, they did some experiments in plant grafting, and managed to successfully produce a Mussaenda with pale pink bracts, which left them both thrilled. The bond between these green-thumbed gentlemen strengthened, and I remember several long Sunday lunches at each other’s homes- discussing botanical trivia.
One of the offshoots of this collaboration was that the botanical garden helped the school develop its green environment. It wasn’t just the plants which grew there, they completely changed the way we learnt about nature. Each plant had a painted signboard, where the name of the plant was written in English and Tamil, along with its scientific name. Subconsciously for us school children, Mangifera indica (Mango), Azadirachta indica (Neem), Saraca asoca (Ashoka) and Bougainvillea spectabilis became part of our routine vocabulary. I remember biology classes being conducted walking through the school campus- touching leaves, examining flowers, and just being out of stuffy classrooms. We won prizes for our gardens and flower arrangements in the annual flower shows. It was a delightful metamorphosis.
Awards won by our school for flower arrangement at the Botanical Gardens in Pondicherry
I walked back to my old school this time. Yes, it is a lot greener. The eucalyptus trees have grown taller and the trees almost conceal the school building. I think the signboards on the trees no longer exist. But not many know that two inconsequential Mussaenda plants and two enthusiastic gentlemen were responsible for the beginning of this green transformation.