First there was a name. Then there was a flower. Then there was a story… and a new story.
In the garden stood a maiden, a young woman in the first bloom of her youth… olive skin, dark-eyed, with a soft fringe and a pert nose. She wore a red dress and had red lips…then came a tall stranger from beyond the seas and swept her off in a whirlwind of romance…
That is how the story should have gone, but it did not. There was a garden and in the garden were many flowers. There was a young woman and she had scratches and cuts all over her knees, which she ignored. She was walking through the bushes and the thorns and twigs had left harsh imprints on her soft flesh. She was wearing a pair of shorts and a blue t-shirt. On her head was a straw hat. She was dusky, short and had hazel hair and eyes. She was looking for something…
As she peered into the bushes, a football came and hit her, hard on the back. She fell. A group of boys playing football nearby had sent the ball flying into the bushes, unintentionally. But the young lady was angry, her dignity being injured. She started getting up from amid the bushes and shouting, “How dare you?! You vandals! You nitwits!”
A strong arm came and helped her up and a deep voice said, “Come! Come! It was not intentional… what were you doing in the bushes anyway?”
“ I had a keychain. It had orchids in it. I was taking my landlord’s dog, Chester, for a walk and had a ball in my hand too. As I flung the ball for Chester to fetch, the keychain with it’s bundle of keys flew out too and I could not find the keychain anymore. I dropped Chester back and came to look for my keychain. It has the national orchid of Singapore in it, Vanda Ms Joachim, but actually, of the Papilionanthe family.” She nodded her head fiercely trying hard to look dignified and offended.
The owner of the strong arm and deep voice started to smile and almost laughed for the spectacle she provided was funny. She had a smut of dirt on her nose of which she was oblivious and dry leaves from the bushes in her hair. He threw back the ball at the group of boys playing football and dug his hands into his pockets.
“Would this be it?” said the deep voice dangling a keychain in front of her. “I found it lying under a bench near these bushes and had picked it up hoping to drop it off at the nearest police post.”
“Yes. Thank God. Thank you so much!” said the owner of the keychain.
She smiled and stretched out her arms to get it. The owner of the deep voice was a young man in his late twenties. He gave her the chain and smiled.
“ My name is Michael,” he said.
“I am Madhu. I am a botanist and have come to research orchid hybrids in Singapore. This keychain holds my favourite. It is pretty and the flowers are resilient and sturdy. I love the colour. So, this was very important to me.”
“How long have you lived here?” asked Michael.
“Oh! For almost a year…”
“And do you like it?”
“Well. Yes. I miss my family though…”
“I live in the houses across the road,” said Michael.
“I need to run home now. Bye,” said Madhu. She had become a bit wary… a stranger in Botanical Gardens. He did make her feel shy though.
Michael looked at her receding figure, shook his head and smiled. She disappeared.
The next day he saw her at the bus stop. She was waiting for a bus. Michael was driving past, returning from work. He slowed down but the bus came before he could halt and she was gone. He smiled when he thought of her. She was like a whiff of fresh spring breeze.
Michael had grown up in Singapore. His family was an old Pernakan one. Pernakans were Chinese immigrants who had intermingled with the local population of the Malay Archipelago during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over the decades they had developed a Westernised culture and converted to Christianity. Michael’s family had a few Indians and Westerners too. They celebrated every festival and were culturally very open. They accepted all people, all customs. They were rich traders who had the money to acquire the best in the world. They owned real estate firms in Singapore and China and gold mines in South Africa.
Michael had studied in Singapore and USA. He was a businessman too, like his father, and contributed to the family business. He was in the habit of getting what he wanted but always with a smile and graciously. So, now when he found himself thinking more than necessary of the hazel-eyed girl who popped out of a hedge in Botanical Gardens, he really wanted to know her better.
Every now and then he saw her at the bus stop in the evening but could never catch her. One day, he returned home early and went walking to the bus stop at the time he normally returned home. He saw her coming at a distance and pretended to look at his mobile. When Madhu reached the stop, Michael felt very nervous.
With his heart in his hand, he said, “Hi! Do you recognize me?”
Madhu looked at him surprised, “Oh! You are the one who found my keychain! I did not know you came to this stop.”
“Yes. I live very close. Do you research at the Botany Centre in the Botanical Gardens? ” Michael asked.
“I do. What about you? Where do you work?” Asked Madhu.
“I am a businessman. My head office is in Clark Quay.”
Madhu saw her bus coming, “My bus is here. Bye!”
She got onto the bus and so did Michael.
“So, where are you going?” asked Michael taking the seat next to her.
“I am going to the national library at Bras Basah. I normally get a book from there and have dinner and return to my room every night.”
“What a coincidence, I am going there too…I want to pick some reading material too…”said Michael.
They chatted on the way to the library. They talked like old friends. Somehow, Madhu felt she could trust him and liked him.
Madhu borrowed a couple o Agatha Christies and Michael borrowed a Dan Brown. They ate dinner at the cafe outside the library and took the bus back home. Madhu had rented a room in a bungalow at a little distance from the Botanical Gardens.
The next day Michael was there again. Madhu accepted his presence naturally. This went on for almost a couple of months with a few breaks on weekends. Then one day, Michael invited her home to meet his family.
It seemed the most natural thing to do. Madhu bought some chocolates and flowers and went over one Saturday afternoon. The family was very nice to her. Aliya, Michael’s mother, gifted her a hand painted white silk scarf with Vanda Ms Joachim on it. Madhu loved it. They even had the hybrid in their garden. Michael’s father, Alvin, was very nice to talk to. He knew many things about plants because he loved collecting rare ones. Michael’s younger brother, Melvin, came in for lunch and went back to study. He was a final year student in medicine and had exams to face. They had Nonya chicken curry in honour of Madhu for lunch. The food was really nice. Madhu loved it. She ate with gusto.
The next Monday, Michael took her to the library in his car. Madhu was gracious about it. Then, they walked to an Italian restaurant for dinner. And as they waited for the food to arrive, Michael took out a tiny box from his pocket and opened it. In it was a beautiful ring with an orchid holding a cluster of diamonds. The orchid was of pink and purple gold. It was beautiful and exotic!
He held the ring up to Madhu and said, “Marry me!” in a pleading whisper…
“What?!” exclaimed Madhu.
“Will you marry me?” asked Michael.
“I have not thought about it at all,” said Madhu. “Can you give me some time, please?”
Michael nodded and tried to look understanding. Then he said, “You mean, you did not figure out even when I invited you home?”
“I have not thought about marriage as yet because I have my work and I am away from home. I know my parents want me to marry … an Indian boy and settle down in India… I have been running away from this whole thing… just give me some time… and then I will have to break it to my parents too… Can we just continue friends for some time…I do not want to lose you…”
“All right. I will wait and we will continue as before. Will you keep the ring?”
“No. I will accept it after I work out things with my parents. In India, marriages are between families,” said Madhu.
“I got the ring made for you. I ordered it at the jewelers a month ago and I received it yesterday… It is also a Vanda Ms Joaquim… only for you… no one else can wear it…”said Michael.
“I promise you I will wear it… but give me a little time. I have to go for a cousin’s wedding in a fortnight. We will talk after I return again. I will be back in ten days,” said Madhu. “I will be leaving in a week.”
Michael and Madhu met everyday of the week and tried to continue like old friends but there was an element of conciousness in their interactions. On Friday, Madhu told Michael she would be taking a flight on Sunday. Michael insisted on seeing her off at the airport. He took her address in New Delhi from her. She told him she would not be wirelessly connected outside her home… and during the wedding she might be unreachable… Michael felt a little apprehensive but he had to let her go to get her back…
Ten days turned to a fortnight, Madhu was still not back. Michael was now really anxious. He called but no one answered. After the first few days, Madhu had stopped responding to his messages. She was not active on Facebook… When he contacted the botany institute, they said that Madhu had extended her leave and would return at some point. They did not know when.
Enough was enough. Michael flew down to New Delhi. He had booked into Taj Mansingh Hotel. He took a car from the hotel and drove down to the address Madhu had given. He got off outside the bungalow in Hauz Khas and walked in through the gate. There was a lawn outside the front door. A little child of about eight was playing in the garden bouncing a ball. Michael rang the bell. The door was opened by a plump, middle-aged woman in a sari. Michael asked if Madhu lived there.
The woman cocked her head to one side.
“Who are you to enquire?” she asked in a gruff manner.
“I am Michael, Madhu’s friend from Singapore,” he answered. He could hear voices inside.
“Why can’t you leave her alone? She will be married to a nice Indian boy. His family is visiting. Go now. I don’t want them to see you,” saying this, she banged the door shut on his face.
Michael’s head was reeling. He had to see Madhu once at least and hear from her that she was marrying another man. He sat on the steps of the front porch. After sometime, the little boy with the ball came to him.
“Who are you and why are you sitting here?” he asked.
“I am Michael. I want to see Madhu. I have a present for her,” he said. Michael had decided that he would in any case give her the ring as a keepsake… it was only for her, for his lover of Vanda…
“Oh! I see,” said the little boy. “You want to meet Madhu and she is not at home. But don’t feel sad for that. She has just gone to the Rose Garden with the man with huge moustaches. She is my cousin. And that was my mother! You can go there in your car.”
Michael thanked the little boy and asked his driver if he knew the way to the Rose Garden. The driver said, “It is very close.” And took him there.
Michael saw a huge garden full of roses and bordered by tall, slender Eucayptus trees. It crowded with people. He got off… how would he find Madhu? There were so many people. Groups of picknickers and then, there was an avenue going into a wooded area. What if she had gone off to the wooded area? What if he missed her? Suddenly, at a distance, he saw a scarf. The scarf was white and spread in a triangle on the woman’s back. It had the orchid Vanda painted on it… Madhu’s scarf! He had found her…She was sitting on a bench with her back to Michael with a muscular owner of fine moustaches… Her voice floated to him, “….my favourite orchid…Ms Vanda, is resilient and a hybrid… it is very unique because…” Her companion seemed a little restive and tried to put his arms around her shoulder and sidled closer on the bench. Madhu moved away. “I love orchids and my work.”
Moustaches and Muscles said, “You can have a garden to grow your flowers in our new home.”
“But I want to be back in Singapore… I can’t marry you,” said Madhu.
“Your parents said you could. Girls are shy, they say and always run away initially. So, I understand,” said her companion and sidled closer. Madhu jumped off the bench.
“Don’t you understand? I don’t want to marry,” said Madhu in a loud voice.
Michael felt it was time to announce his presence. He cleared his throat and put his hand on Madhu’s shoulder. She jumped up with a scream. Muscles and moustaches also jumped up and said, “Hey Mister! What do you think you are doing? That is my fiancee!”
Michael said, “Sounded more like she does not want you…”
Madhu turned towards Michael and hugged him, “Oh! I am so glad to see you!”
Michael held her to his bosom and said, “I will never let you go, Ms Vanda.”
He kissed her on her face, on her lips. He poured all his love into that hug and Madhu clung to him.
Moustaches and Muscles was angry, “You shameless girl, I will never marry you. Fancy, having a boy friend! Shame on you!” And he went off…
But never was a shamed woman happier than Madhu!
The owner of the Vanda Ms Joaquim scarf had accepted the exquisite orchid ring of pink and purple gold.