What Plants Can Teach You About Relationships

First, a word about me to set things in context. For some, this essay may seem sappy and irreconcilable to good sense. I understand. So, the background I now outline is to establish that I wasn’t a New Age-y tree-hugger or plant-worshipper right off the bat. In other words, I wasn’t always likely to think this, much less write this. I grew up in Bombay with scant regard for anything ‘green’ or ‘natural’. Sure, I loved the sea and the way it messed with sunlight in early evenings to give it a soft, lazy, happy sheen. And yes, I rhapsodized about the melodramatic, lusty downpour of the monsoons. But plants? Meh. I never really cared for them. I may have stroked the odd orchid that graced the centre-piece of fancy Thai restaurants but that’s about it. Then one day, I married, moved to Delhi, and had a colossal heart-break. And I changed.

Without going into too many details, let me sketch a little picture of the day when I first noticed the ‘green wisdom’. I was returning from office with a throbbing heart and churning insides. During the course of that workday, I had hoped to hear from my husband – who was incommunicado at the time. I had hoped to hear him say sorry. I had hoped to hear him say that he loved me or that he wanted to make things work. But the hours had passed by and no call came. By that time, I had become so disconsolate that I was hoping that maybe I’d get a text saying, “Goodbye”. Something, anything would have done. Anyway, I got off the office cab and made my way home. I was filled with dread, tension, and grief at my stupid judgment of falling in love with a man and then marrying him.

But just then, the evening sky had begun to soften and darken. Clouds glazed across the city and a moist, cool air blew across Delhi – like a caressing hand offering solace to lonely me. That’s when I saw them – rows and rows of swaying Gulmohar trees. They were lush with happy, dancing leaves and bogged down with floral outbursts of crimson. These trees – they looked so – complete. They couldn’t, didn’t need to be, more anything. The leaves couldn’t have been more green, the flowers more red, or the trees more bough-y. They were receptive of that delicious, early monsoon and that specific moment, as I stood feeling helpless and unloved, they became my saviours. I felt the resurrection of something meek and timid, daring to breathe again. I felt hope.

At the time, I could have been moved and made glad by one tree and a smattering of blooms. Instead, here I looked at a crowd of pretty treetops and hundreds of flowers. So, that’s how I got an inkling of my first lesson from trees – that in love, as in life, there’s more. Always.

I’ve been a keen student ever since.

The marriage ended, in case you were wondering.

A few years have passed since that flora-induced epiphany. Over these years, I have mended and matured and kept a note of some of the most important wafts of wisdom that plants have sent my way.

There are all kinds of love and relationships. If you don’t judge them, you see them for what they are – perfect in their own right.

Even as I wrote that down, I realized how much of a cliché that sounds. But every time I walk out someplace, I’m taken in by just how much the earth makes space for…every square inch. There are thistle-bushes, sturdy weeds, cheery chrysanthemums, or even stunning, prize-winning black roses. One time, a friend and I were gazing at a neighbour’s garden. There was a large bush with huge, lavender-coloured leaves. It looked brazen, beautiful, and lascivious almost. “Look at that purple plant,” I told her. “Yeah! Such tiny flowers too!” she replied. She was looking at some other bush that had a cloud of teeny purple blooms. It was an exquisite plant but I hadn’t paid it any attention. When my friend looked at the plant I was admiring she marveled at it. “Imagine…a plant without flowers can still be pretty!” Yes, it can be. It came as a bit of revelation to me then – plants don’t really need flowers to be pretty. If you think about it, if you don’t have very many strict ideas of what a relationship ‘should be’ like – like it needs to be with someone in the same city or similar aspirations or whose parents you like or whose parents like you – if you let go of all those calibrating criteria, it may be possible to have a great relationship, even if it doesn’t tick off all the boxes of some checklist. Yours could be the one without flowers but with spectacular, lavender leaves.

Your heart’s a lot stronger than you think.

No, I get it. We don’t need the hassle of yet another relationship where we crash and burn and then spend a lifetime in mourning. But maybe we can think of giving all those defences and walls around the heart a rest. Even if it gets hurt or bruised, it will mend. And it can withstand a whole lot, just so you know. I have this on full authority from a silken white tuberose that grows along the highway. If you looked at it, you’d think it’s tended to with white gloves – all delicate handling and supreme protection against the elements. But it grows forlorn, exposed to the wind and vehicular exhaust. I’ve never seen anyone take care of it. Stray dogs muss around the bush, some water tanker will heave its dark fumes on to it – but there it stays – gentle, white, and perfect…ready to greet the open road yet another day.

It’s enough to wake up and show up. It really is.

The first plant I was entrusted with was a tulsi. It was dainty with tiny, fragrant leaves. The plant came with instructions on how to tend to it, water it, weed it, etc. But I was living the good life in a big city with no time to care to a plant. So the tulsi bore the brunt of my wanton neglect – no watering or weeding and friends tipping their ciggies over it to fleck off the ash. At one point, I did notice that it had dried out. I tsk-tsked but let the plant be. Months later, one rainy night, I looked out the window onto a city that was getting shrouded in silver rain. Then, in the soft glow of a nearby streetlamp, I saw my dried-out tulsi plant. Except that it wasn’t dried out at all. It was green and healthy. Little leaves peeped out from the stalk and the plant shivered in the rain. In all the months of neglect, that plant did what it could. It didn’t throw tantrums or pout and whine, “You promised to water me but you don’t.” (Although, often I imagine the money I could’ve made with a talking tulsi.) That little plant went about its day with the tenacity of a warrior. It sucked out moisture from the reserves of the soil, opened up to the sun and let nature have its way. That night, I really thought that maybe the ‘work’ that we need to do in relationships is to figure out how to be more simple and free. Maybe it’s not so much the romance that keeps love alive. Maybe it’s the hard and base, “You gotta do what you gotta do” spirit. Perhaps, if you simply tell your partner straight up, “I’ll be there for you” and actually be there for him or her, that’s enough. That complex, layered, tempestuous love will weave its way around in its own time.

Love could go, relationships could change, and it could still be an experience worth cherishing.

You know how they say that lovers can’t really be friends? I don’t quite get that. In fact, I think they have the best chances to be that way. A neighbour had a plant that housed the most exquisite yellowish-orange blooms. They had long petals that seemed as if they had been dipped carefully in molten Caribbean sunsets and left to dry on the tropical sands. Over time, though, each bloom had withered and fallen away. The plant itself had dried up. Then, one day, someone added some dry pooja flowers in the soil and forgot about it. In fact, the world went about its business having forgotten about it. Then, months later, a kid stopped and asked, “What flower is this?” The rest of us blinked at a huge, dazzling marigold. Sure it wasn’t that exotic yellow-plumed flower. But this was a fine specimen, indeed! What I find most touching is thinking about where it grew from. The same soil that had once nourished and nurtured an exotic plant, now caused a regular, ordinary, but delightful flower to bloom. Maybe that’s the way with love and friendship too. Just because the fragile ‘love’ couldn’t stay doesn’t mean that a sturdy ‘friendship’ can’t grow.

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I had promised to not get New Age-y but here’s a coincidence I have to share. Matters of the heart, they say, are usually governed by the ‘heart chakra’ located in the centre of the chest. To improve relationships, one meditates on this centre, imagining the hue of its glow. And the colour associated with the heart chakra? It’s green.

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