The Green Thumb by Avantika Mehta

I’ve never considered myself to be one of those persons who is gifted with a green thumb. So, when my husband gave me the plant, I was baffled by the strange choice. I can understand flowers, appealing immediately to the senses and easily ignored in a vase till they need to be thrown out. Ankit and I had met in college and been married right after. It’s been five years now and not once had I shown the slightest interest in gardening of any kind.


‘It’ll be good for you,’ he said when I voiced my reluctance to take responsibility for it. I realised then that he was compensating. I had miscarried the year before and we had been trying for more children since, but without success. A few weeks ago at my insistence, we had undergone fertility tests. The results were maddeningly inconclusive.


It was devastating. Being an only child and having never experienced the warmth of a familial home, the news had left with me little guidance as to what I could do. Ankit didn’t believe in large families and thought our apartment too small to entertain such dreams, so the news wasn’t as unsettling to him. He had watched dispassionately as I went through homeopathic cures and old wives tales. I suggested adopting a child. Ankit didn’t believe in adoption. He lives by poker analogies such as ‘you play with the cards you’re dealt, you don’t change the pack…’ That was the week before, and now here he was, with a potted plant cradled in his arms.


I stared befuddled as he handed it over. His once chiselled face had grown plump like a child’s. There had been a time when we had seemed to always be in step. That day however, caught in the middle of our opposing expressions, the plant appeared more an emblem to his virtuosity than a gift for me.


‘Do you really believe that some strange looking plant will make up for the empty second room in our apartment?’ I asked him, trying to understand the logic behind his move.


Oblivious to how he had humiliated me, he replied, ‘perhaps if you’re good with this plant we can turn that room into a nursery for plants, darling. It gets great sunlight. Why not make the best of it? Maybe it’s not for us to have children,’


How willingly he had surrendered the dream. I was furious, and in my rage, I ignored the plant. For a long while, almost a fortnight, I think, the plant just stood there in our living room in its earthen pot. If this was my husband’s attempt at planting some seed of compassion, I felt determined to see its desiccation. I wanted him to understand that, rather than a present, he was handing me an everyday reminder of my disgrace. ‘It feels like a mockery,’ I told him. ‘A barren woman taking up botanics … you could just as well get me a cat and make me the neighbourhood cat lady! At least, you know I like cats. What do I know about gardening?’


I begged Ankit to let it die. It didn’t make up for anything I explained to him. In fact, it made me feel hopeless. I didn’t need this runner-up medal. I was still in the race. He told me that as always, I was being dramatic.


The tension at home took on a life of its own, and my sullen silence afforded him more excuses to spend time away. During certain lonely moments – dinnertime when only the cutlery made conversation, late nights with only the television for company – I’d glare at the plant, willing it to wither away. Not once in that fortnight did either Ankit or I add soil or water to the plant. I went about doing my chores waiting for it to wilt.


This went on for a while and then I noticed something peculiar. The plant was as healthy as ever. Its leaves were a vivid emerald, luminescent even, as if someone was polishing them everyday. I inspected the soil – the earth was dry and cracked, there was no way that it had been watered recently. ‘How is this possible, Plant?’ I found myself asking it.


Perhaps it was a desert plant and had hidden stores of water, I concluded. I watched for another week. I watched both my husband and the plant. I tried to ascertain if he was sneaking it liquids behind my back, but it didn’t seem so. Yet, week two, there it was, inexplicably thriving, healthy as a newborn. Week three, I began to have nightmares about the plant. I would dream that it was supernatural, and had powers that could bring me great fertility. Eleven children to be precise. The sound of these hellish undecupulets crying would cause my body to shatter like glass. Other times I would dream that the plant grew arms and legs and came at me to take revenge for starving it. Not that it looked starved. It was actually burgeoning. Its flat leaves grew thick with unaccountable plant juices. Even its stalk sprouted forth in a gangly, adolescent kind of way.


Late at night while I waited for my husband to come home, I would tiptoe into our living room and ask, ‘How are you doing so well, Plant?’


After a while it became evident that the plant had no intention of fading away from our lives and I gave up ignoring its presence. I didn’t tell my husband about the strange behaviour, or my dreams. I didn’t tell him that, occasionally, I went into our living room and asked the plant its secret. By now, I had stopped telling him anything and he managed my muteness by pulling farther and farther away. The plant on the other hand, showed determination to flourish.


At the end of the third week I began to get curious, so I broke the wall of no words between us, and asked Ankit what kind of plant it was and where he got it from? It turned out he knew less about plants than me. He had no idea what it was, and said he got it from a researcher in the laboratory where he worked. He added, ‘It was for you, I thought it might cheer you up.’


Since he had no answers for me, and the researcher had left Ankit’s company, I decided to embark upon my own fact-finding spree. I took an image of the plant. By now it was at least two feet tall with triangular, neon green leaves. From the tiny bulbs peeping from under the base of its stalks, I could tell that the plant had plans to flower soon. I took the picture to every botanical garden in the city.  After that I went to the nurseries, and after that, the libraries. No one knew what sort of plant it was.


One botanist told me to bring it in so that he could record it. He said he had never seen the species before. I left his office and never came back. His curiosity was so objective and cold that it made me want to protect the plant from his probing.


I begged Ankit to trace the researcher and let me speak with him. I reasoned that I could not be expected to take care of the plant, if I did not know anything about it.


He said that as usual I was being a bit excessive but he would his best to trace the researcher. This gave us a few topics to discuss over dinner; the clatter of fork and knife was replaced by questions of plant and origins. Questions sometimes asked loudly so they would carry across the chasm that had formed between us.


Weeks later, he reported that the man had moved to the beaches of South India and did not wish to be found. Finding someone is like saving someone, you can’t do it without their co-operation. So the origins of the plant remained a mystery. Still, ‘a plant is a plant is a plant,’ reasoned Ankit and told me to care for it like I would any other plant.


I sought out people who had green fingers. I went to them for advice. I let them come over and see the plant. They were all in awe. They had never seen such a species before, and none of them believed me when I said I had not watered it since it had entered my home.


I began to water the plant, twice a day. ‘You’ll do really well now won’t you, Plant?’ I’d say to it while turning the soil. ‘Now it’s you and me, we’re in this together. We have all the instructions on how to take care of you.’


For the first time in longer than I could remember, I felt grounded, committed. Now that I had started to care for it, to pay attention to its life, to want it to live, I was convinced that the plant wouldn’t let me down. After all, it had survived my stony disregard, so how could it not flourish with my love?


Ankit made a few snide remarks about my overindulgent guardianship of the plant. As if by its very existence it was choking any chances of marital reconciliation. To be perfectly honest, by now any rise out of him was a pleasant change from his indifference. Yet I found myself replying that the plant was around more than him.


One day, he brought over a botanist, a well-respected man in his field. Immediately there was something about this man that I did not like. Perhaps it was his air of self-approved superiority. Or perhaps it was the fact that he kept comparing my plant to other plants he had seen along his lifetime of plant hunting. ‘Its leaves are like that of a Mulas tree, yet the colour resembles Ambrosia trifida and the smell. Well it smells like the Rudbeckia hirta.’ I admit that if he had simply said apple, weed and daisy to me instead, I may have been able to reconsider my dislike.


But, he was the expert, a breed of man Ankit respected and he left me with advice that was guaranteed to bring about continued growth and perhaps a bloom. I was happy to see the botanist leave, and a little while later, a friend stopped by to visit me. I told him about the supercilious botanist and how much I hated his advice. ‘If you want the plant to live, why won’t you pay attention to how it has behaved so far?’ my friend asked. ‘Why would you listen to other people. After all, it’s your plant, not theirs?’


He was correct, but then, I reasoned, what did I know? I’d never had a green thumb. I had never kept a plant before. My mother did not have a green thumb, and neither did my father. I had heard that plants had actually died when my grandfather came within their vicinity. ‘No,’ I told him. I couldn’t risk it. I needed a plan, a schedule, I needed a routine with the plant. Something I could follow, without blame, without reproach, without culpability.


I bought all the fertilisers and plant food that the Ankit’s botanist friend recommended. Each day I would water the plant, plant food mixed in, and turn the soil every week. And every day, to pass the time, I’d speak to the plant. I’d discuss my day, my fantasies of a happy home, the reality of my failing marriage. I shared with it the fear that my husband was having an affair. I shared with it the fear that my husband may not entirely understand me nor want to any longer; that we had married too young, more for fear of loneliness than for love. Married because it had seemed to be the correct thing to do, because it was our age, because it was how things are done. I told the plant about my unborn baby, how joy and desolation could be intrinsically intermingled in such memories. I asked the plant if it ever wanted to have babies of its own, if it would ever allow itself to flower?


The plant grew even bigger, until it was almost as tall as me. I took this as a sign of success. A triumph of order over anarchy, of structure over creativity, and I was elated.


After a few weeks the botanist dropped by without warning. When he arrived I was sitting with the plant, telling it about my day. The botanist laughed. ‘Your plant doesn’t care that the chocolate soufflé didn’t rise, you know?’ he said to me, only in half jest. The other half was made up of pure contempt. Perhaps at my naivety, perhaps because I was so lonely that I was talking to a plant, or perhaps simply because he felt superior to me. Whatever the reason was, it made me feel small. I felt I could fit in the palm of his hand, and that he would almost certainly squish me like a bug. He wasn’t the kind of person who would open a window and let me out into the garden. No, definitely not.


‘A friend told me that plants like it better when you talk to them,’ I told him. After all, it wasn’t just his advice that I could follow, though I didn’t say it with the greatest degree of confidence. I regret that now. I should have said it like it was the gospel, because what he said afterwards, sounded like it should have been part of a holy book.


‘Plants are just plants, my dear. You’re being asinine. It’s alive, but it doesn’t know language, it doesn’t have a direction, a purpose, it doesn’t understand anything you’re saying to it. You’re wasting your time indulging it like this, talking to it.’


His words stung and I started to notice that he looked a bit like a squid or a jellyfish, all floppy around the edges. I didn’t think too much of it then, perhaps I only thought about jellyfish because it can cause the same kind of stinging pain. It, like the botanist, perhaps doesn’t mean to, but is simply protecting its territory.


I felt like a coward, but I didn’t argue with him. I let him tell me what to do. I listened without questioning, and ignored my desire to talk to my plant. That was my great mistake. The truth was, no one had told me to talk to the plant. I had started doing so on my own accord. Till the day that I stopped, it had felt like the right thing to do. In fact, it was the one thing that I had done with the plant that was my own.

A week after my silence began, my plant began to ail. Initially I did not make the connection. Even now, I suppose, I can’t really say there was definitely a connection. But the idea of talking to it, it feels right in my gut.


I almost went crazy when the plant’s leaves began to fall. Once resplendent, so bright that it would practically glow in the dark, now they turned a different shade of dark green. The colour deepened till it was almost black and then, one by one, the plant’s generous foliage began to thin out. I watched the plant night and day. I cried for every leaf that lay slack on the living room floor.


I told Ankit one night that it felt as if a part of me died with every part of the plant that fell. He didn’t say anything. He wiped away my tears. There might have been a time when he would have encircled me close to his chest but that night, he did not. I was so distraught with grief that I did not even feel the chill between my husband and myself. I busied myself in following the routine. I watered the plant twice a day. I sprayed it with plant proteins. I changed the fertiliser and the soil. I did everything by the book.


Eventually, despite everything, the last leaf fell off the plant and on that day, my husband took me in his arms. I wasn’t crying though. I couldn’t cry. I was too confused. I wanted answers.


I phoned the botanist and told him what had happened. I had expected sympathy, I had expected regret. I had expected too much. ‘Well madam, you obviously didn’t follow the instructions I gave you properly, if you had, it would not have died,’ was what I got from him. ‘No!’ I assured him, ‘I did everything you said. I watered it twice a day, I stopped talking to it. I used the plant proteins. So how did this happen?’ We argued for a long time. He refused to believe that I had not digressed at any point. He had issued the standard set of instructions. If they’d been followed they ought to have worked.


‘What if,’ I told Ankit later, ‘what if my friend was right?’ Ankit was confused. He did not know which friend I was talking about. So many had come over, and so many had given their contribution. ‘My friend who said we should just let it be, my friend who said the botanist was wrong. What if he was right?’ I had to find some reason that the plant died and it couldn’t be because of me. ‘What if I just don’t have a green thumb?’ I asked him.


Ankit looked up from the book he was reading and smiled. ‘A plant is a plant is a plant. Sometimes they live and bloom for a while, and sometimes they die. It happens. They’re all the same. There’s nothing that could have been done.’


He made me lie down next to him in the bed and cradled my confused body close to his. I wanted to feel comfort but I couldn’t. I asked him, ‘is this how you comfort your girlfriend when she’s upset?’ He was taken aback but he did not try to deny it.


Instead he said, ‘this is how I comforted my mother after my father died. I sat with her for ages after he was cremated and held her. She cried for a long time, but I think my holding her made her feel better. Doesn’t it make you feel better?’ And I thought, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t because he thought, ‘A woman is a woman is a woman....’



Avantika Mehta is a writer and a lawyer. Currently, she covers legal news for Hindustan Times. She is also the managing editor of a humorous lifestyle e-zine She has previously reported on all things under the sun for Times of India, The Sunday Guardian, Tehelka Magazine, and (Aus.). Her fiction has been published by The Asia Literary Review.