Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mandela's Tomato Garden: Reflection

I bought my Grandma Long Walk to Freedom a few Christmases ago. She read it, in rapture, and upon completion, wrote on the blank last page at the back of the book - "Well done". She felt a connection with him I suppose, and it was her way of congratulating him on the life he led up to the time of his autobiography.

I read the book not long after she’d finished and I similarly, was caught up in the wonderment of Mandela. I was doing my first year of Law school and my classmates found it bizarre that I would get up early in the morning, pile the law texts beside me on the bed, and completely ignore them so that I could finish reading the almost 700 pages of the book. It was exam time, I should've been hitting the books...reading about the foundations of the British legal system, mens rea, actus reus and all the elegant/cumbersome specialist language that distinguishes a young legal mind from "those other disciplines".

Law was foreign to me though. My soft heart was used to warm words and throaty passionate sentiments all there for me to pluck from their leaves and analyze and ultimately possess. But law was not about warmth and plucking. So, I latched on to my Mandela autobiography and took comfort in the beauty of his words and the strength of his resilience.

With my favourite writers, no matter how few times I have read one of their works, if there is something special that speaks to me, it never leaves me. So with Channer, in Waiting in Vain, I remember very clearly the love story between the characters Fire and Sylvia. With Hemingway, in Farewell to Arms, I still feel a pinch within my chest when I think about the painful end that came to the main character and his beautiful one. In Long Walk to Freedom, I constantly think about Mandela's description of his tomato garden and what became of it.

You see, he watered, tilled, tended to this garden - his release, his hope, his motivation, his symbol of love for his wife, Winnie. He did not know when he would see her again, touch her again, breathe into her neck and smell her musk. He was in prison...for life. So, he planted a seed and watched it grow to remember her. He cared for the plant as a mother cares for her child. It showed its appreciation by blooming and bearing some of the most beautiful tomatoes he was ever to see or taste. He would write Winnie about his plant all the time, very excited, hopeful, steadfast....

The tomato plant began to wither. He couldn't sustain it, bring it back to life. Fertilizer didn't work, abundant sunshine, weeding, weeping....nothing worked. Mandela told Winnie all these things in his letters to her. When the plant finally dried up, he was devastated.

Nelson, the freedom fighter, soldier, patriot, man on the run, revolutionary - devastated over a tomato plant withering and dying. It happens. After the world saw and fell in love with the story of the husband and wife, fighting to get back to each other for almost 30 years, for this tree which bore beautiful fruit in captivity to go dead at the root - a fact like this is hard to accept.

In My Girl, the movie, at a creative writing class, one poetry enthusiast wrote about planting grass for a girl he loved, painting her a picture and all dese t’ings. The girl however, did not sit on his grass or look at the picture.

This thing called love is tricky. We get euphoric satisfaction by making things for the ones we love so they can know how we feel. We forge ties with the dinners we make - we do them out of love; the sweaters we knit - as we drape the wool over your shoulders, we imagine ourselves draping our limbs over you; the statues or carvings we create - we feel so proud of how we have almost captured a part of your beauty that will always remain. It is a heady feeling - being brave enough to show someone how much you really love them.

Sometimes though, the dinners are either too spicy, too milky or perhaps not flavorful enough. The sweaters are too itchy and hot for the tropics. The pottery, just a tad too abstract for your beloved to appreciate. The root of the plant dies. Or, maybe, it was planted in sand or rocks and not loam.

Mandela cried, I am sure, for his plant. I cried three years ago for a beautiful lamp that was meant for someone else, someone more valuable. Women cry all the time for the work their bodies do for the sake of love, only for them to be scrutinized and passed off as has beens.

But after the crying, what remains? Pain will always be around in this life. But intertwined with the love rattan cane is the green ivy that symbolizes growth and regrowth. We can grow again, even if we have been completely shattered. Use a machete and get the rattan off your ivy. Carry home your plant to safe shelter. Immerse it in water and let it drink and drink until it can breathe without wanting to gasp for air. Next, examine your shelter; is it full of breathing room? Can a damaged and frail vine cling to its walls and become beautiful again? If the house is shaky and cannot withstand a vine blossoming on its surface there's only one thing to do. Find a home that can meet your ivy at its full potential. Because your love that you have to give is like a vine - it grows and grows with a caring and nurturing environment; it makes only the right type of home look cozy without strangling the space. You have to find the right home for your ivy.
Nelson’s love bloomed and died in captivity. Once free, I would think that his heart soared again. It is possible. I think I could do it again. Could you?


Sucharita Sarkar said...

Mandela is an inspiration to many many people in India also, but I liked the way you took up one episode in his life and expanded it into an allegory so relevant to us all. Tricky, indeed. But a treat as well.

bebestella said...

I love the symbolism of the green ivy and the rattan. I will continue to pluck the rattan out. I take so much from your gift of words sis. Thank you. x

Jaquanda Rae said...

I love you bebestella. Thanx.