A Holy Basil
by Ali Berlow
She closed her eyes and let her face fall into the basil plant that she held in her hands. The smell of it always reminds her of her great aunt even though she was only nine years old when the grande dame died. She watched that day when they’d put her on a thin mattress on the floor because in Hinduism dying in bed is a bad omen. And she saw them gently place leaves of the tulsi plant—holy basil—in her aunt’s mouth along with some sacred water from the Ganges, and read to her from the Gita to ease the way through her final journey.
Afterwards, the cousins whispered between themselves that it was inauspicious for such a young girl to have seen death up so close. It was only going to bring her bad luck.
No one knew how old the great aunt was when she died but they’d guessed it was somewhere between 99 and 102 years. She was a tiny woman who always wore gold embroidered saris, bracelets up and down both wrists and a long braid streaked with grey that she swirled into a tightly woven bun. When she told stories, she had a habit of rubbing her arthritic hands with a freshly cut chili pepper and the skin under her chin would flap like the wattle of a turkey. It swung when she got excited talking about being a scullery maid in the kitchen of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
She’d brag to anyone who’d listen that it was because of her that Rudyard Kipling came back time and again to eat there because she’s the one who chopped the ginger, garlic and chilis and ground by hand the brown mustard seeds, amchoor and cumin for those chutneys and pickles that Kipling liked so much. This was how she traced her greatest contribution to the civilized world—by feeding England’s first Nobel Prize winner in literature.
The little girl who saw the old lady’s death didn’t grow up to be so unlucky after all. She inherited her mother’s shapely proportions and her father’s black coffee eyes. She’s good at organizing things, gives money to charity and helps out at the animal shelter when she can. She’s fine being over forty and never married. Really she is. It just never worked out that way for her and so she travels a lot—and posts the pictures on her Facebook page for the family to see.
Her cousins settled in New Jersey and made their fortune with a line of boil-in-bag Indian dinners—all natural and kosher certified; Bombay potatoes, Kashmir spinach and Punjab lentils are just a few of them. Ever year they send her a case for Christmas. What she doesn’t eat, she gives to friends because there’s always a few meatball vindaloos left over.
She snapped out of her reverie, jerking her head out of the basil plant when she heard the Italian cooking instructor’s voice say something about ‘dropping the leaves in boiling water for 5 seconds.’ The teacher went on about plunging them in ice water to set the bright green color before making the pesto.
The basil plant she was holding was wilting in her hand—the ball of roots was nearly dry and soil-less and hung limply in a plastic bag, bound by a rubber band. It was hydroponic—not of the ground. Looking it this rather pathetic plant, she decided to skip the pesto and the class and take it home instead. Every good Hindu household she knew of had a sacred basil—and even though this wasn’t the holiest of them, it was time she grew one.
A version of this was originally broadcast on WCAI & WNAN, The Cape & Islands NPR Station.