The grand sprawling semal tree was weighing down with hundreds of its fleshly red flowers until a week ago. Now, it is bare. Delhi’s brief spring has ended. The evening’s unusual warmth is an intimation of the terrible summer looming ahead.
We are on the terrace of Kiranmayi Bhushi’s apartment in south Delhi’s Khel Gaon. This address is a different Delhi. Its leaf-strewn lanes and clusters of trees seem to have seceded from the smoggy city that we have to navigate daily.
Kiran, as she likes to be called, teaches sociology at Indira Gandhi National Open University. Some of us may know her as the co-founder of Gunpowder restaurant in Hauz Khas Village that shut down a few years ago. Fortunately, Kiran regularly hosts home-made dinners for friends, friends’ friends and friends’ friends’ friends.
We, however, have only come to visit her terrace, a lovingly-nourished ecosystem so hopeful of life in a polluted urban setting that it should ideally be open to the city’s pessimistic citizens. Since this is not possible, we shall try to give you a sense of the place.
The terrace opens from Kiran’s book-lined drawing room. The first thing you notice on entering is colours: the yellow of the sunflowers, the saffron shade of nasturtiums, the pink of the bougainvilleas and the white petunias.
“The winter flowers are dying,” says Kiran, but cheers up looking at the petunias. “Most white flowers bloom in the summer… nature is so amazing…many white flowers bloom at night and then my terrace turns into a whiff of aroma. I often sit down here in the darkness and watch moths sitting on these flowers… we shall have more white flowers in a few weeks… Jasmines are not in bloom but they will soon be erupting. Champas will also be sighted.”
Kiran sits down on a metal chair. The small table has a little plate filled with the hard dry shell of a pomegranate. “I shall crumble it to make tooth powder,” she says.
Suddenly looking over her left, she says, “Oh, I must do something with the kari patta flowers… can’t have all that lovely aroma escape into nothing. May be I can infuse it into some oil….”
So far our exposure to kari patta, or curry leaves, has only been as a flavourful leafy thing floating on our sambar gravy. But a corner of Kiran’s terrace is devoted to this aromatic tree. She gets up, walks towards them and smells the flowers.
Just then Maharani, Kiran’s cat, climbs into the terrace and sits down quietly beside the table.
The terrace garden reveals itself to be a haven for salad fanatics. Lettuce and rocket leaves are growing in abundance. Kiran also uses nasturtium leaves in salads. We are shown something called Malabar spinach, which Kiran says, is often used in south Indian and Bengali cuisine.
“That’s kaffir lime leaves,” she says, plucking off a leaf from a corner plant. “The Bengali word for these limes is gondha raj…smell it… Bengalis love it… you’ll find a lot of kaffir growing in CR Park,” she says, referring to the Bengali-dominated neighbourhood.
The upper portions of the terrace wall are decked with vines of green beans. We spot a solitary pod. The rest, she says, have been harvested.
The terrace sights also include a view of rear body of Kiran’s air-conditioner. She finds it jarring but we see the AC as a necessary feature of city living, which, at least here, is smoothly harmonizing in this lush landscape of flowers, leaves and vines.
“I want to be a botanist’s apprentice. I want to be a forager of food… when you look for those elusive herbs and berries it is like a treasure hunt.”
As a child growing up both in Hyderabad and Delhi, Kiran often wandered around plucking berries.
“I must have been Darwin many many lives ago,” she says with a laugh, before telling us a story of her late father, a government officer, who famously filed a police case after two giant jackfruits went missing from his garden.
“I must do something with the flowers of the rocket leaves,” Kiran mutters to herself. “May be I’ll preserve them in olive oil. I’d preserve the lemon blooms in honey.”
Ending the evening with a cup of coffee, she says, “The season for flowers is ending but in May the terrace will have spinach, amaranth, tori and arbi, gongura…”
With bare semal tree as an imposing backdrop, Maharani continues to look unimpressed.