Grow something, my friend. Even if it is a potted tomato plant, it will make a difference to your life.
A bowl of tomatoes is on the table before me. It’s two o’clock, and the afternoon sun slants through the west window, falling on the tomatoes and giving them a certain resplendence. They glow. They glow like – well, like tomatoes in the sun.
At one time, these blood-red “love apples” were considered poisonous, until a brave man came along and consumed a basket of them in public. Now we add tomatoes to all our dishes. Eating would be a dull business without a tomato to flavour the curry or the roast or the soup.
But this essay is not about eating. I have gone through life eating what is put in front of me, without fuss or favour. My grandmother saw to that. Eat your porridge, or go hungry. This was emphasised when I was at boarding school. Rhubarb as a sweet dish, every day all summer.
This was because our headmaster grew rhubarb in his back garden, and decided to inflict it on us. He probably charged extra for it, too. (Cynicism comes early at a boarding school.) And when I was in London, dashing off to work without breakfast, I would be sustained by Marmite sandwiches. Good old Marmite!
And I have a jar on my table, sixty-five year, later.
But I was praising the tomato not so much for its nourishment, but for its shape, its texture, its colour. An artist’s delight. Why paint apples when you have tomatoes?
The tomato is a sensual berry. Bite into it and the generous juices spill out over your lips, your chin, your hands – the nectar of the gods. Only the mango is more sensual. A mango will make love to you, if you allow it to do so. The apple belongs to cold countries. Rarely will its juices trickle down your chin.
Only a few western writers have possessed the gift of sensuality. AE Coppard and HE Bates displayed it to some extent in their short stories, but it would be hard to find a novelist who did so. Mary Webb, perhaps, in Gone to Earth or André Gide in Fruits of the Earth, or the artist
Aubrey Beardsley in a few pieces in The Yellow Book.
It takes an artist to appreciate the sensual – a Renoir, a Manet, a Monet, a Gauguin.... Gauguin in Tahiti! What a combination! A great artist’s sensual nature comes to fruition in a decaying paradise.
What am I doing, writing about tomatoes and the sensual nature of plants when hundreds of thousands around the world are perishing from the effects of swift-moving and cunning coronavirus?
Not everyone succumbs. It is hard on a few, easy on others. It is almost as if it is playing a game of its own. “Eeni-meeni-maini-mo, Catch a fellow by his toe!” Or rather, his throat.
Choosing its victims at random. One day a bus conductor, the next day a prime minister. (And Mr Johnson did look so vulnerable, unlike the boastful Trump.) Has artificial intelligence run amuck?
Is this nature hitting back, after all the injuries done to it by humans? Or is it a man-made virus, a chemical weapon that has cut loose, making fools of the scientists and world leaders who have brought it into being?
So here we are, locked up in our houses for days on end, hoping for a good hot summer to drive the pestilence away. Or maybe a deep freeze.
It will move in its own time, and meanwhile, we must give some meaning to our own lives and learn to live like Robinson Crusoe abandoned on his lonely island, with or without man Friday.
Well, at least he had an island at his disposal – trees, running water, coconuts, fish, and turtles’ eggs for breakfast. Respect your breakfast, said Manu the lawgiver. Actually, he said “respect your food”, which, for me, means breakfast since is the meal which sets me up for the day. And it is going to be a long day, as the world staggers through another twenty-four hours of bad news and gloomy predictions.
Mine is a simple but substantial breakfast. Three toasts. One crowned with a fried egg. The second is buttered and topped with a little garlic pickle. The third is left to my discretion. I may or may not consume it, depending upon my mood and appetite. It’s like a small insurance policy.
Well, a week ago, when all this lockdown fuss began, I looked down at my first toast to find that the customary fried egg was no longer smiling up at me.
“Where’s my egg?” I cried out like a lost soul.
“No eggs in town,” said Beena from the kitchen. “But there’s a nice fried tomato on your toast. You like tomatoes, don’t you?”
As I had only just written a poem in praise of the tomato, I could hardly complain, And Beena had done her best to make the tomato resemble a fried egg. Fortunately, we still had a good supply of my favourite pickles – garlic, mango, sweet lime, among others – and I went through all three toasts and a cup of tea without complaining. The tomato on toast wasn’t bad. You should try it sometime.
Excerpted with permission from It’s A Wonderful Life, Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company.