Much of what I’ve learned about life comes from plants—the seemingly endless varieties my father planted around our homes in towns along India’s west coast. Each time we moved, my father yanked us from the ground, tap roots and all, and replanted us elsewhere, he in the center, the trunk of a great old banyan tree, my mother at the base, her arms about the main trunk, and we, seven children, sprawled around them. I, the oldest child, settled tentatively into the earth nearby. One little root, the third child, never did thrive; she lived in a silver frame on my mother’s dresser, a little girl of five, never growing older as we did.
My father was a professor of botany, a lover of the natural world. The shelves lining his room held an assortment of books (The Origin of Species, Mendelian Genetics, A Compendium of Tropical Plants) and small instruments—scalpels, forceps, dissecting scissors, pins, slides, all neatly stacked in cigar boxes. In staining jars were simple and differential stains—methylene blue, gentian violet, saffranine. Twenty years after his death, I could still see myself at his elbow peering at whatever treasure he held between his fingers whenever I walked into his room.
“Watch how it feeds,” he’d say, pointing to a Venus flytrap on the windowsill. Riveted, I’d watch him dangle a forceps holding a miniscule piece of meat over the gaping hinged mouth, brushing some trigger hairs. The bivalve-like plant would snap shut, gratified. But I worried, even grieved, for those little, unsuspecting insects browsing past. The herbaceous sundew was no gentler. With leaf tentacles secreting sticky droplets of mucilage, they lured prey with their beautiful sparkle, then bent, suffocated, and drowned them. My teenaged heart shivered, but my father viewed it as a victory for the plant kingdom.
“Carnivorous plants even life’s score. They turn the tables on the animal kingdom,” he said. “They’ve survived for many millions of years.”
Yes, survival was uppermost in his mind back then, especially since his salary—pulled and stretched like an elastic band—invariably snapped before the month’s end. That’s when I’d watch my mother quietly let down hems, sew new elastic on old underwear, open her precious jars of pickle, mango or lime, to eat with rice. Each day, she recorded her purchases from the bazaar: onions (1/2 kg,) beef (1/2 kg,) two coconuts, kerosene oil, cabbage (one head), and then re-total vanished rupees. Only at nights did I sometimes overhear her apprehensive whispers telling my father the money was gone. Survival then was immediate and real. Yet I now see that my father viewed life in a larger context. He applauded longevity in eons—millions of years—not mere thousands, and certainly not by the paltry decades of our life spans.
Hidden on a shelf in his room was my father’s microscope, its solid brass arm folded back in a black box. Between velvet folds nestled the convex mirror, light source, and round cut-outs for lenses. When I was twelve, I learned to make transverse sections of stems and roots. Embedding fresh specimens in wax, he steadied my hands, and taught me how to slice ultra-thin sections like a human microtome, then stain and mount them without air bubbles. Fingers over one eye, I peered through the ocular lens and beheld a panoramic view of vascular tissue—little pink-rimmed cells clustered like a clown’s cap, thin-walled lavender or thick-walled maroon cells, pigmented or translucent. It was breathtaking. My father distinguished phloem from xylem—cells that transported nutrients from those carrying water and minerals, a sensible division of labor. Together, they formed vascular bundles; the pink phloem cones glistening inside a ridged circle, like a kaleidoscope. This scattered, haphazard arrangement was typical of monocot stems—corn, grasses, cattails, orchids.
“Now look at this,” he’d say, replacing corn with a dandelion stem slide, and suddenly the disarrayed pink cones were swept to the periphery, leaving an expanse of delicate pith—a planet surrounded by moons. That the internal anatomy of two plants could be so different seemed inconceivable, even though corn was a highly valued plant, and the dandelion, a weed.
“Weeds are plants that grow where we don’t want them to. A rose bush in a wheat field becomes a weed,” my father said. I imagined a flowering peace rose, soft yellow petals edged in pink amidst stalks of feathery wheat.
Sometimes my father took me on botanical class trips with his college students. I hurried along, impatient when he stopped to peer at patches of moss clinging to rocks. Out would come his scalpel and a small plastic lidded cylinder. Squatting, he’d carve out a half-inch piece and gently scrape it into the cylinder. My father’s moss collection astounded me years later, but on that trip I felt only the thrill of that one boy, who stopped and waited with us. And when my father’s eyes were downcast, focused on his specimen, our eyes met each time we stopped to gather moss.
At fourteen, I finished high school and wanted to go to college. But I was a girl, and money was thinner than any glimmer of hope. Bombarded with copious advice from family and friends (for whom higher education for girls was a sheer waste of money) my father stalled, balked, agreed, recanted, and finally consented, but with one caveat. No falling in love; no quitting mid-stream, no changing majors. Naturally, my focus would be science.
“Science will land you a job.” he said, “I’ll need your help so all six of you graduate!” And science would land me a scholarship to America, I thought but didn’t dare say.
I was accepted to Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in a small town several hundred miles from home. To me, the pearly gates of heaven paled before the portals of the university—my entry to freedom and independence. I was captivated by my science courses. But then there was the lure of literature. Warily at first, then blatantly, I began to cut science classes and drift over to the English department where I spent intimate hours with the works of Eugene O’Neill, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and others. I began auditioning for parts in plays. One year, I played Gloria in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell; in my final year, I was Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. So in love was I with Laura’s character that I began to live inside her beautiful glass world, oblivious of looming board exams. At first, my plant portfolio was skimpy—some common pressed specimens, some cross-section drawings. That was all I had to offer. That, and the memory of my father’s voice—no falling in love, no quitting, no turning away.
Aside from worries about earning potential, there’d been no dichotomy between Science and Arts at home. As educators, my parents encouraged all learning. Yet I had run into a well-marked fork in the road at the university. No converging paths, no double majoring. Like my father, I chose to major in Botany—no surprise there—a decision made at age sixteen; and so I broke out of my glass world and graduated with distinction, despite my nagging obsession with literature, to which I kept turning and returning for decades.
“Tropism,” my father would say, comes from the Greek word “to turn”—to respond to light, touch, the force of gravity. It was how seedlings, drawn to light, forced their way out of soil, against the earth’s gravitational pull. Roots were geotropic; they turned inward, anchoring the plant. With pole beans, it was “all about touch.” They crept along fences, winding for support. If they trailed, they would rot. He showed me the feathery leaves of mimosa—how the leaflets collapsed on contact, their ball-like flower heads nodding at night. Such thigmotropic plants were fierce communal survivors in a competitive environment; they knew the value of support—something we, though highly evolved, hadn’t yet learned. We have little time for tenderness of bodies or souls. And for many, sadly, touching can be indiscriminate—even cruel and oppressive.
After college, my father and I continued our long walks. We collected leaves with deep veined, straight or serrated edges; he showed me the jointed stems of bamboo and sugarcane, their rough nodes and slender internodes; and we came home, fingers stained, with odd shaped fruits, berries, and pods. Some pods popped to expel seeds forcefully, others were dispersed by wind, water, birds. We gathered burrs and seeds with plumes and wings that lifted them aloft; examined the coconut husk, buoyant and water borne, capable of floating to the loneliest Pacific island, and the remarkable spiral crane bill fruit that lodged in the ground until the humidity rose, so it could ratchet into the soil. Germination was sometimes triggered by fire or freezing temperatures; some seeds required the grinding action of running water; certain lotus seeds found in peat deposits near Tokyo germinated after 2,000 years. But the record, my father said, was held by a delicate flower of the Yukon, Lupinus, which grew after remaining frozen for 10,000 years. Some idiosyncratic seeds even insisted on passage through a particular animal’s digestive system. On the island of Mauritius, the seeds of the 300-year-old Tombalacoque germinate only if passed through the crop of a dodo, a native bird. These seeds lay waiting for the bird that would never come. Mercifully, the naturalist who discovered this curious phenomenon began to germinate these seeds by passing them through turkeys.
I would go on to get a Ph.D. in Microbiology at St. Louis University School of Medicine, and later work in the lab with viruses, bacteria, and fungi—as well as neuronal, epithelial, and muscle cells, including the now famous HeLa cells—yet my love of universal learning, literature in particular, was always the undercurrent. On one of my mother’s trips to America, my daughter—whom I had named for my 5-year-old deceased sister—pulled out a shabby, dog-eared sheaf of papers with rusted staples from my mother’s suitcase. “What’s this?” she asked. I recognized the loopy cursive handwriting of an 11-year-old. The manuscript was titled “Maria’s Story.” I’d started writing about my sister as a way to soothe myself, then tossed the papers away. Until my mother brought the story to America that year, I didn’t know that she’d retrieved and saved it.
Still, my journey was rooted in botany, which encompasses yet transcends life. Take the spiral patterns my father would show me on the faces of common flowers such as marigolds, cosmos, and dahlias. We counted a lot—flower petals, cauliflower florets, pinecone scales, and as we did, he showed me their arrangements, the Fibonacci series—1,1,2,3,5,8,13—each number was the sum of the preceding two. It was God’s language, a heavenly Morse code. Dividing each number by the one that followed yielded a number, 0.618, the Golden Ratio. Instinctively pleasing to the eye, it was abundantly evident throughout God’s creation, and seen best in His most creative work—the human skeleton. Using myself as a guinea pig, I once measured and calculated my ratios—total height versus length from floor to navel; length of head versus ear to chin; and so on. Seeing how close I came to the Golden Ratio, I was thrilled, unaware that time would eventually distort these proportions.
In time, my father’s face became my garden. Sitting in my sunroom on what would be his last visit to America, I saw our family history etched there. When I was only four months old, he had set sail for Scotland to earn his Ph.D. on a ship carrying post-World War II British soldiers, leaving my mother and me behind in India. For four years, with no telephones, she waited for the postman in his khaki uniform and Gandhi cap to bring her foreign-stamped envelopes. Later, when he retired, the rings under my father’s eyes, like the rings of trees, marked his years of service for the Indian government. I could see traces of the places we lived. Our first home: a little house with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no cemented or tiled floors. Yet the garden was lush and thick with sound. There were rose bushes out front, gul-mohur and jacaranda trees, lavender bougainvillea by the fence. On moonless nights we chased fireflies and listened to the trill of gray tree frogs, the chirr of crickets. In the back near the chicken coop, he planted a grove of plantain trees, where I’d mournfully buried a White Leghorn chick from our first batch of hatched eggs. I remember asking my father why he kept planting plantains right up to the day we left that town, since we wouldn’t get to eat the fruit. And his haunting answer: “so that someone else may eat.”
I think about tropism a lot these days. Days when I find myself in some dark place, pulled by gravity, or some strange force I cannot name. I think about my father—how he sat in the dark in his easy chair, legs crossed, fingers wrapped around the glowing corncob of his pipe. Little blue smoke rings formed halos about him. From him I learned not to fear the dark, to wrap it about my shoulders and snuggle in, as the roots of plants do, but also to turn back to the light. From him I learned to turn outward, to reach out to touch, and be touched, while staying firmly anchored to the earth.
My father died suddenly in 1987—just three weeks before a family reunion. After fourteen years, my sister, who had also immigrated to America, my youngest brother, then in Germany, as well as my husband, children, and I would all be together with my parents and our siblings who’d hadn’t left India.
In India, land is at a premium. There are no rolling, grassy cemeteries with trees and ponds to put a finishing touch on death. Instead, the Church compound itself serves as a burial ground—a court of white marble gravestones laid out like decks of cards, side by side, their perimeters rimmed with marigolds or jasmine garlands, their centers filled with rose petals. Graves are owned and shared by families. My father lies with his parents, two brothers, his daughter-in-law, an infant niece, and his once five-year-old daughter in a plot that has been ours for nearly a hundred years.
Eight years ago, I went back home again, where all six of us gathered around our mother. We came from across the globe—Germany, New Zealand and America.
We came, together, to see her settle one last time at the base of the banyan tree.