My grandfather grew marigolds in amongst his vegetables to keep pests at bay; I pressed marigold petals into mud pies and used them to decorate sand-saucers for school gala days and later grew them in my first organic garden. These simple flowers occupy a special place in my adult heart. Their spicy perfume takes me straight back to childhood, to sticky fingers and to helping Didi (as we called our grandfather) pick grub–free vegetables although sometimes fat, green boiled caterpillars appeared on our plates amongst the equally boiled cabbage. But it is the colour of marigolds – that indescribable luminescence that stirs my soul especially on monsoonal days in India when wet grey sidewalks magnify the sight of nimble fingers threading garlands for the gods. Such a vision for jet lagged eyes!
Although I yearn to I can’t take the real thing home with me but there is a vendor in the old city markets of Ahmedabad who gives me a such a good deal on his artificial garlands that I collect a few on every visit. I imagine I will put them aside for a rainy day in Sydney and besides, they weigh little, pack down to almost nothing and whatever material they are made of it is indestructible. The garlands that hang around our garden have survived several wet winters and blazing summers and show no signs of fading or falling apart. Their loud exuberance makes me smile and takes me straight back to India, to chaotic streets, to busy temples and to helping Jabbar spread marigolds out to dry on his rooftop in Bhuj.
Master bandhani artisan, friend and Muslim *Khatri by name and occupation, Jabbar collects dead garlands from Hindu temples and turns them into dye. He creates marigold scarves for me based on my stylised interpretation of the flowers. His highly skilled artisans tie minute knots that faithfully follow my design and Jabbar then boils the silk in the marigold solution. The miracle of the first batch, of watching the colour develop in the steaming vessel, opening the knots and seeing the lacelike tracery of dots emerge – an intricate floral garden on glowing silk is a golden memory. Alchemy in action! When we hung them out to dry on the terrace we marvelled at the colour flowing against a deep blue sky. I love the significance of these scarves; I love the way they cut a swathe through creed and I love the way that the dead blooms give new life to the silk and pass their spirit onto the wearer. Reincarnation is a truth and I wear my scarf with gratitude.
And while all of India venerates the humble marigold, in my view it is Rajasthan that takes it to a higher plane. This place is orange at heart – Marigold to the core and the perfect setting for a movie and if you are reading this then I am sure you have already seen Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. After several viewings I can almost quote it word for word – and I’ll watch it again and probably again. The film is a finely grained version of the India I know intimately; the utter thrill of the traffic, the cacophony, the chaos, the colours and the constant flowing river of humanity. In a sudden revelation after the third viewing I realised that I could recognise myself in each of the characters – each one symbolising a stage in my own journey and each stage ultimately inspiring the best in me. I last watched it in July while flying home from Mumbai and by the time the flight landed in Sydney I had created the Best Exotic Indian Adventure. After eight years of organising special tours to the subcontinent this is the one that inspires me to new heights. I too need to rediscover marigolds.
There is a time in life to partake of marigolds … watch this space.
• Khatri is the surname that denotes the occupation of dyer. Kutch Khatris migrated to Kutch from Sindh from 17th century onwards. The name is ascribed to Muslim and Hindu dyers.