Sometimes a kindness is so touching that it reverberates for years afterwards. For me, one of these most cherished kindnesses was a single rose, wrapped with a tiny spray of baby’s breath in a piece of a torn newspaper. It’s been over twenty years now since I was given that rose by a flower vendor in Bombay. But I still remember it with a catch in my throat.
At that time I was living in Juhu, which was and still is, is the “Beverly Hills” of Bombay. Most of the major film stars had built their huge mansions there and many of the city’s industrialists, hot on the coattails of glamor, had followed suit. My home was on the top floor of a building owned by my husband’s company. It was a breath-taking expanse of white marble floors and teak wood furniture, which I had designed with the young architect. I had the only “hanging garden” at that time in Juhu … a wonderful roof garden complete with a patch of lawn and my treasured bougainvillea with a papaya tree which actually bore fruit.
Most of the time, I wore sarees and travelled by car with my own driver, Nur Singh who to my acute embarrassment insisted on wearing a blindingly white uniform with a lot of brocade cord on his hat. He waxed his moustache to an alarmingly large handlebar shape and insisted on a smart salute when I came downstairs to be driven somewhere.
But I’d always loved a good walk. Daytimes I was under the purview of Nur Singh and his watchful eye. But the early evenings were my private time. Nur Singh drove off to the factory to pick up my husband and the cook was busy chopping vegetables and concocting recipes he felt would be appropriate for his foreign memsahib whose stomach still rebelled at the preponderance of chillies in the Indian diet. So I would throw on my jeans and kurta and grab a pair of rough comfortable Kolhapuri sandals and walk half a mile to the little village on the edge of the Juhu community. This was my daily chance to relax and be myself.
The village was a small conglomeration of ramshackle buildings, leaning against each other and threatening to topple into the road. There was a small provisions store with a tiny old-fashioned ice-chest and shelves stocked with hair pomade, soaps and various local toiletries. For some reason, India produced a tremendous variety of non-edible products but there was a woeful lack of canned or prepared foods of any kind. Oil and sugar were available, but often only sporadically.
But the village market next to the store was filled with produce. The vendors sat on dirty mats spread out on the ground and displayed their wares in front of them in little piles. I regularly headed straight for a tiny flower stall at the far end of the market for a bouquet of marigolds.
I always bought marigolds. And the vendor always urged me to buy his roses. He would lift out a bunch of roses from one of his metal cans of water and hold it out to me as he waved towards an explosion of baby’s breath displayed in another can. He insisted he would include a generous spray of the delicate white floral garnish. I would smile and insist on the marigolds.
We repeated this little ritual for weeks. I resolutely insisted on the marigolds because they matched my living room decor. I had asked my architect to use teak with a glorious curved stone wall behind my sitting area. “Natural, Prem ….. it must be natural, ” I’d admonished him many times as he’d suggested false ceilings and lavish plaster curlicues. I’d fought for that natural effect and to reinforce it, I chose autumn colors for the upholstery and curtains. No brocade. No velvet. A gorgeous warm rust tweed for the sofa. Marigolds were the perfect complement to my decor.
But one evening as I greeted the flower seller, he gave me a special smile. His eyes twinkled as he reached obediently for the marigolds and wrapped them up for me. Then he paused for a moment with his hand poised over the bunch of roses. He selected one and reached for a spray of baby’s breath which he nestled next to the rose with a little piece of fern. Then he wrapped it up with the same torn newspaper all vendors used in those days. And handed it to me. “ Ek memsahib. Ek galubi bahut zaruri …” he said.
I translated his Hindi in my head, word by word. ” A lady, a rose is necessary for a lady …” Then I caught my breath. I reached for his gift to me and my eyes filled with tears as I understood his gesture. And thanked him.
He had never seen me in my costly saree. He didn’t know I ordinarily was shepherded everywhere by my own driver. That my husband’s family owned the huge mansion in which I lived. He thought I was maybe one of the hippies who rented a mattress in one of the beach shacks or lived in the Hare Krishna ashram a mile or so down the road. And he thought I was buying marigolds because they are the cheapest flower available and because I couldn’t afford his expensive roses.
So many years have passed. And still my throat tightens whenever I see a marigold … or a rose.
And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.