The four o’ clock flowers in Istanbul

A four o clock flower plant is in full bloom. On the street you can make out a blur of lights and people

In Gujarat, India, the Mirabilis Jalapa or the four o’ clock flower is known as gulbas. Or at least, that is how I have known this plant.

Though Wikipedia says that it arrived in Europe in 1525, I didn’t see much of it in Reading, Berkshire where we lived for about five years or so. I once chanced upon it while doing a run for Indian groceries on the Oxford Road, where a store called Exotic was like a treasure trove for me – stocking masalas, fruits like guava and Indian mangoes when in the season, hair oils and Indian soaps, and all kinds of flours and pulses.

The plant was in full bloom – in a beautiful shade of orange. I stood there perplexed for I was seeing it after many many years and it had me rooted to the pavement. My husband had to cajole me to move, ‘You can’t just stand and stare at someone’s driveway, P. Even if it reminds you of Indubaa.’

For meeting the gulbas was like saying hello to my maternal grandmother Indubaa whose passport-sized black and white photograph I carry in my wallet and whom we lost many, many years ago.

She came to stay with my parents and me after my grandfather passed away and my parents decided that it was best that she stay with us and not on her own. She sold her one bedroom-dining hall-kitchen tenement and moved in with us. She brought a few pieces of furniture with her, but what she also brought were three little saplings of the gulbas plant.

Her garden had about six to seven fully grown shrubs of the gulbas plants and she and my grandfather had tended to them with a lot of love. In the evening when they bloomed – (they were in yellow, pink, violet and a mix of yellow and pink in the same flower) it was a sight to behold. It seemed like they were competing with the skies every evening when the sun set, as if saying, look our colours are as vibrant as yours.

The flowers were much sought after in the Gujarati Vaishnav sect that my grandmother belonged to (they were particularly used for making a garland of flowers for the baby Krishna, Mahaprabhuji and Shrinathji idols that a lot of Gujarati Vaishnavs have in their prayer mandirs).

Every evening, my grandmother would await a member of a family in the neighbourhood who would come to collect these flowers. Sometimes it would be one of the daughter-in-laws, sometimes it would be Vanubaa (the matriarch of the family.) Vanubaa made beautiful and intricate garlands for the gods in her prayer altar with an assortment of flowers and gulbas was one of the prized flowers because it is supposed to be dear to the lords. Because of the flowers, a long lasting friendship developed between Indubaa and Vanubaa and their families.

No wonder then that Indubaa had a special love for the gulbas plants. She left the fully grown plants in the garden – they wouldn’t have survived the replanting. Her next door neighbour was buying her tenement and she requested him to take care of the plants.

She got the seeds and a few baby plants to our place and had them planted in the flower bed that ran parallel to the compound wall of our tenement. When the plants grew up and started flowering, it became a ritual for Indubaa to take a small wooden stool and go and sit with them in the evening.

For about half an hour every day she talked to them. Sometimes, she would cry and I could overhear her saying – do you like me, miss our home? We can’t go back, you know. Our home is gone. It isn’t ours anymore.

I didn’t fully understand it then but I do now. I understand what it is to have a home of your own, the one that you create with your husband and how difficult it is to leave it all behind, and go and live with someone – even if that someone is your daughter (and son in law and grandchild).

My parents looked after her very well, but that wasn’t the point. It was about things that were lost and things that would never come back. And with her husband gone, her home was gone forever.

I recently saw those flowers in Istanbul. We had stepped outside our hotel on the day after we arrived and were walking towards the Sultanahmet area. There they were – their buds were closed but I could see that they were purple and I stood there in a trance. It was like meeting Indubaa in a different world, it was as if she was there with me in foreign country.

In the evening, we met the flowers again. This time they were in bloom.

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