catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 10 :: 2014.05.16 — 2014.05.29


A fistful of earth

My grandmother came from non-farming stock; her father was the Post Master General in British India and her husband a school principal. My grandparents lived in a town in South India where every third person owned farmlands and paddy fields along the fertile banks of River Kaveri. “While these rich landlords nurtured fertile fields, my husband nurtured fertile minds,” she quipped.

My grandparents rented a large house that had an ample backyard with banana plants, coconut, drumstick, lime and mango trees, dozens of flowering plants, a vegetable patch that provided tomatoes, greens, chillies, pumpkins and different types of gourds. Swaddled in yards of sari, my grandmother toiled in the garden through the day and put to shame all the landlords in the neighborhood who never got their hands dirty in slush. At the crack of dawn they tied their horses to the carriages and left for their fields. They sat in the shade of neem trees and drank coconut water, ate cut mangoes while the laborers and farm hands slogged under the sun.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother came to Madras with my father.  Years after his marriage my father bought a house in a suburb of the city. My grandmother   gave a hard look at the scrawny weeds that ran along the building, she yanked them out to test the nature of the soil. She considered the pasty earth in her hand, dry clumps of clay, stones and plain dirt that filled her palm. A day after shifting to the house, she was at work in the yard.

She first had a crude bamboo fence put up all around the house, to keep goats and cows from straying in. She employed an old man who came before sunrise and worked in the yard until late noon. They spent a month digging and turning the soil to loosen it, removing stones and rubble that was buried when the house was constructed — cement chunks, rotting pieces of wood and glass shards. The yard was resoiled, with a cart of clay, sand and manure emptied in.

My grandmother planted lime, neem, coconut and banana saplings. These perennials held the prime space; then the flowering plants: hibiscus, oleander, rose, ixora and jasmine. In her vegetable patch she grew tomatoes, chillies, brinjals; creepers of bitter and snake gourds were trained on bamboo trellis. She labored the whole day with the gardener, and shared with the family her concerns about the deviant behaviors of her plants — their recalcitrance, waywardness.

The lime tree grew a stout trunk; the leaves were a luscious green and spread a dense crop close to the ground; the tree never gained height. My grandmother dug a furrow around the tree and shored the scooped up earth to form a depression. She briskly walked everyday between the tap and the tree and poured buckets and buckets of water till the water stood in the depression like a pool. She looked worriedly at the tree that refused to bear fruit. There was a time in my school years when I was filled with gloom because of this tree that possessed so much vitality, but would not give me a lime fruit.

Nyctanthes arbor-tristis belongs to the jasmine family. The flower of this shrub has a translucent red orange stem that stains into the pearly, white-lobed corolla. My grandmother got a sapling of the shrub from a sprawling garden that had about half a dozen coconut trees, a couple of high-breed mango trees, guava and papaya trees, besides creepers and flowering plants. The sapling from such a garden held promises. The shrub grew well, and within a couple of years bore buds. But the flowers, to her alarm, were small, pygmy-sized. My grandmother quickly came to the defence of the flowers: “Who cares about the size! They smell like heaven.”

I live in an apartment that has a large private terrace where I have created a garden with over hundred pots and tubs. Here I coax the plants to dream of the earth, to dream of the whispers of worms turning the soil, to dream of tendrils of roots kissing and hugging as they run miles down into the earth’s core. Every time the roots knock on the walls of the tubs, I tell them that the sky is ours, the breeze and the sun is for us. Rain bears the smell of the loam, butterflies rub their noses on the soil and alight on my plumeria flowers. Transactions of my plants with the earth are not subterranean but terrestrial — through the breeze, the pollen dust, and the smell of algae from the sea. These constitute the sap, infusing life in the plants.   

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