I notice the night jasmine in front of my house in Bhubaneswar, after many years, when it gets infested with termites. The insects have woven a second skin around the tree.
I hate termites. They eat books. I break a twig—as long as my forearm and as thin as Rumi’s little finger—from the guava tree that grows just beside the night jasmine. I don’t remember whether I planted the night jasmine or if it has grown on its own.
But I’m sure the guava has grown from seeds in the fecal matter of birds that sit on the champa tree on the other side of the gate. The birds on the champa have birthed two wood apple trees, one peepul and the guava whose twig I break to destroy the termites.
I don’t kill them with a vengeance. I don’t kill them at all. I just wipe out their home on the tree, with the guava twig. I poke at the second skin the insects have built. It peels off, mostly.
Then I go inside into the handkerchief of land in front of the house that has two coconut trees and pick up a few strands of their leaves lying around on the ground. The coconut pickers who plucked the fruits a few days back didn’t do a neat job of cleaning up before leaving.
With the coconut leaves I clean every part of the night jasmine that is infested—the main trunk, the sub-branches and then the joints. It takes a little more than a couple of hours. It feels like fifteen minutes.
I check every week for the termites. They’re back when I look. But their returns seem halfhearted. I destroy their home on the tree, again and again. After one and a half months, they’re gone for good.
The bark that is revealed now is not pretty, yet it is beautiful, like the gnarled hands of an ancient man with mottled skin. The colour is neither a mud brown nor a smooth grey but a mixture of the two with a hint of green. A little like my jaw, neither black nor grey or brown.
Around this time, Ma’s planters on the terrace start filling up with our kitchen refuge. They have no space in them anymore. So, I start throwing the kitchen’s garbage at the bottom of the night jasmine. In a few months’ time, the tree has grown by a couple of feet.
It looks stronger, surer of itself. Its foliage is now a thick curtain in front of the balcony. The pink–white carpet underneath its canopy is thicker than ever before every morning.
There is soon a pandemic raging in the land. Family members fall sick. Many I know die. It’s a flu of some kind. I am prone to flus, colds and coughs. Rama Bhai tells me that the night jasmine’s leaves are good for colds, coughs and fevers.
Every time I have a cold, I now pick the night jasmine’s leaves, the night jasmine that stands in front of my house in Bhubaneswar. I pick only a few from each twig, checking for caterpillar eggs underneath. If there are tiny, white spots on the rough bottom-side of the leaves, I let them be. Butterflies love the night jasmine, to feed from and to lay eggs on.
There’s often a thick layer of dust on the leaves. Bhubaneswar is a dusty city. It doesn’t have as many night jasmine trees as it used to have anymore. I pick the leaves, carry them in my palm and hold them under running water in the kitchen’s sink. Then I put them in a bowl, pour water and clean them again.
If it’s a cold or a cough that I need to tend to, then I grind seven leaves with seven black pepper corns in a mortar and pestle. I extract the juice. It is exceedingly bitter. I don’t know how the butterflies like them.
I mix a spoon of honey in half a spoon of the juice and gulp the mixture down. It’s still very bitter. Then I rinse my mouth with water and drink some. My mouth tastes like penance—painful but virtuous. I take three doses: morning, evening, morning. The cold goes, more often than not.
When I feel feverish, I get seven tender leaves from the tree. I put a mug of water in a pan on the stove. When the water boils, I add the leaves torn into bits, a teaspoon of salt and seven crushed garlic cloves. I boil this mix on a low flame for ten minutes. By then the water is reduced by half.
I strain the concoction into a glass mug; it is greenish. I drink it slowly, lukewarm, like a tea. It is bitter. But not exceedingly so. It is drinkable. I have this tea thrice in succession: morning, evening, morning, or evening, morning, evening. And the fever goes.
It’s twenty-four months since I started having the night jasmine’s leaves. I have had cold and cough almost every month in the last couple of years. But not the plague. But many I know did, and many have died. I’m sad for them. But I’m alive. I’m glad to be alive. But I’m sad for them.
Early in the morning, on cold winter days, when I open the latch of the balcony window and sit down on my favourite chair with a mug of fennel tea, I look out and see myself. I’m in the night jasmine and the night jasmine is in me.
Cover image © Sarover Zaidi.