To you I come for solace
For - it is here I remember
I am born of gentle grace
In the epic novel Dune by Frank Herbert, the Lady Jessica, sought solace at the atrium, a haven of a luscious garden, an outright extravagance on the arid and primitive planet Arrakis.
Throughout mankind’s history, we have been lured by the promise of a heavenly garden, paradise itself. It is natural perhaps for man to constantly try to emulate the idea of idea of Eden. Be it King or ordinary men and women, sprawling estates or hanging baskets become a wonderful source of solace. What goes into the care of the plants – fertilizer, watering, pruning…love, patience, knowledge is returned manifold.
It is true that a well cared for garden revives the soul and the body. For it is often within the green alcoves of shady vines one can find inner peace and calm. Senses come alive when caressed by the wind, stimulated by an ancient scent, mesmerized by the gentle sway of a flower.
My grandfather used to make the annual blossoming of his Grand Dame Bakawali, a family moment. Deep in the night when the air is at is at its coolest, the delicate white fragile petals will gracefully open over a period of two to three hours and fade just in time for morning prayers. And all of us, cousins who were ‘lucky’ enough to be sleeping over, would be dozing off on the even colder steps while grandfather admired his beauties.
A Garden in the Malay Kampung is really an extension of the house and its daily runnings. In the morning, all the windows are opened wide to let in the breeze, the view and the sun as if the household especially the children, just like the trees outside need the same basic ingredients to grow strong.
As breakfast is being prepared, the young ones will be told to run downstairs to the garden to get the lemongrass, lime or pandan leaves and many other herbs before the kids disappear into the surrounding woods at play or fruit picking depending on the season. Breakfasting during the fasting month was not complete without the cooling ‘air kelapa muda’. One of my chores was to prepare the rambutan drink, my grandfather’s personal favourite, there was always more rambutan than syrup in the punchbowl. Preparing it by the way, meant climbing up the tree for the fruits, peeling and slicing its flesh thinly and adding in the syrup and ice. Not as simple as opening the can and pouring its content out, but certainly more fun. I must get a fast tree (as in fast food) fast growing, fast fruiting rambutan sapling at the next Pasar Tani. Maybe then I can get my girls to make me that wonderful rambutan drink 3 years from now.
During festivities like Hari Raya or weddings, the garden really becomes an extension of the lively kitchen. Young maidens openly laugh with and chat with the lads over rows of bamboo crackling in the fire – cooking lemang out in the open is an example of how central the role of a Malay garden is in the Malay household.
Herbs essential for other occasions like during childbirth, to cure minor ailments and to calm those who are deeply troubled are also abundant. Serai wangi, lenkuas, kunyit, menkudu and many others are but a few of the plants my grandmother told me I must always have in my garden. She of course had a monster of sireh plant climbing up the water tank tower. It grew upwards reaching out to the sun, outgrowing even our golden coconuts like a great giant beanstalk. I remember how proud I was when she told me that I plucked the perfect sireh leaves for her, I must be a natural at ‘daun ubat ubat ni’. I was thirteen years old. I guess she was referring to her own inherited knowledge – a mixture of aromatheraphy and alternative medicine so popular today.
There are many things I learnt from being with my grandparents out in the garden. I was also fortunate to have father insisting that I must experience the paddy fields. ‘Your Grandmother used to to do this a very long time ago…’ I was bundled off to a ‘projek rakyat’ in Luit, Pahang and had a one day workshop on transferring young paddy shoots from one plot of the sawah to the other (mengubah) and also tried my hand at menuai.
Until her very last days, grandmother would be out in her garden, sitting on her kekuda – wooden stool when she was tired even though her arthritis must have made it torturous for her .
When grandmother passed on, I took three things to remember her by. Her aloe vera plants, her 80 year old water-basin which captured rain water we used to wash our feet with before going up the house and her green baju kurong I wore when we were bathing her for the last time at her funeral. Last week, one of my aloe vera flowered after a very long wait of 15 years.
Most likely, the inspiration for this musing of mine… Thank you, Grandmother.
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