Many of my best childhood memories are based in Coimbatore. Riding doubles with cousins on a bicycle, the bright orange pink blossoms of the pomegranate trees, the bell sound on the temple elephant as it came parading down the street, the smell of ‘Adhirasams’ (literally meaning ‘most tasteful’, these were deep-fired patties of rice flour cooked in jaggery syrup) being fried. My father’s older brother (my Perippa) and sister lived on the same street and we visited Coimbatore almost every summer.
I always remember my Perippa as being tall, soft-spoken and mostly bald. He used to narrate the same stories from his youth over and over again, which we listened, as kids in awe and then as youngsters in skepticism. One story stands out – My Perippa was getting ready to run an obstacle race in college. While he was paying attention to the instructions of the race, a co-student was styling his hair and looking around to ensure that the ladies were watching him. When the race started, the other student took the lead with Perippa close behind him. They leaped across pits and climbed rope ladders and came to a hurdle that was meant to be jumped over. But the other student, not paying enough attention to the instructions crawled under the hurdle and promptly got stuck. This story was repeated year after year with little embellishments here and there, mostly about the plight of the student stuck under the hurdle, enticing peals of laughter from everyone in the room.
Perippa was a professor at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and rightfully had all 10 green fingers rather than just a green thumb. Every seed, sapling, cutting and root he planted thrived in the awesome Coimbatore weather. The house was surrounded by coconut palms, papaya trees, flowering trees and rose plants. While neighbours bought their rose plants from nurseries, planted them in terracotta pots and sprinkled ‘Stanes’ fertilizers to help them bloom, Perippa would simply plant a cutting in an old, washed out Palmolin can and the plant would flourish. I remember him walking around the garden every morning, tending to the plants and picking flowers in a plastic basket for the daily pooja. He would painstakingly pack rose and hibiscus cuttings, carefully wrapped in jute sack cloth for me to bring home.
Whenever he visited our home in Chennai, he would inspect our plants and give me tips on how to take care of them. He once pruned an overgrown rose bush in our home, down to just a few stems, much to my despair. But it was a lesson for me in the benefits of pruning when that plant was sprouting leaves in a week and was covered with buds and blossoms in a month.
Perippa is the reason I actually took an interest to watch ‘Vayalum Vazhvum’ (Fields and Life, a program geared towards farmers; He even featured on it once!) on Doordarshan and to read the agriculture section of The Hindu. I loved Botany, drew amazing pictures of flowers, petals, sepals, pistil and stamen and would have gladly pursued the subject, if it was not accompanied Zoology all the time. I like to think that I got my green thumb from Perippa. I love the feel of soil in my hands and find a lot of pleasure in tending to my odd collection of house plants and yard plants, pruning the overgrowth, nipping dried flower stalks, taking cuttings and propagating new plants.
Perippa was very proud of the dwarf Papaya trees that he grew on the little strip of land on the side of his home that yielded fruit when the tree was just a few feet tall. He would come around with a plateful of cut fruit and try his best to get us kids to taste a piece. We would run away making puking noises.
Now my grown up taste palette actually takes to Papaya. I remember my Perippa fondly every time I plant a cutting, prune a bush or like I did yesterday, cut into the orange pink flesh of a ripe Papaya.