“Let’s do what we can!” It was a moment of Déjà vu. Only, this time it wasn’t the voice of Aaji, my grandmother, telling me excitedly that we could use the broken shelf as a vegetable bed on the terrace of the block of apartments we all lived in, a family of six then, in a one bedroom apartment in the concrete jungle of Mumbai, in India. But, being in my adamant teens, I was keen to have a neat garden, right out of a story book, there on the terrace, so that I could boast about it to my friends. Instead, Aaji was telling me to help her upturn the old shelf to recycle it as a bed. We didn’t have the space or time to have my dream garden, she said, and I knew she was right. In the end, we had the shelf on its side, propped up on pieces of bricks that we found lying around because of what seemed to be perpetual construction work in the same complex. We filled the shelf with soil and manure and Aaji, with her nimble green fingers planted seeds of okra, chillies and tomatoes. We harvested a few fresh vegetables and marvelled at the colour of those which looked so wonderfully different from the ones Aai bought from the market. But the most exciting part of the whole project was the shining tin watering can Baba got for me from Pune to water this little garden! It was the most precious belonging I had ever had!
This adventure lasted for about six months. The excitement dulled over time when I got busy with school and found things which seemed to be more interesting for my teenage spirit then. But the seed was planted and the words stuck to me forever…”Let’s do what we can!” And these words, I realise, after so many years, have been the most important driving force to take up very unconventional projects, let it be doing a part time fashion designing course while working full time, or barging as a business owner into the all-man industry of import of decorative stainless steel sheets.
After the little garden on the terrace, I did work on some random plants in small pots, and planted cilantro in the little patch at Adur, my native place, where we went for our holidays every year. But for majority of life, I had had no real connection to the real world of growing food. It was only when a feeling of emptiness gnawed on me so strong in my thirties that I realised there was something missing and it was only when I started dreaming of trees in the forest calling me that I knew what it was….it was a voice within me, telling me, I was born to do something else, something I had seldom thought of doing… of nurturing a garden where Nature would dwell in peace.
We decided we could not break free from the ties with the city especially because it was where all our dear ones lived and having enough space to plant a real tree would be a dream we could never fulfil in the very expensive city. We ended up buying a piece of land three hours away because that was only what we could afford to buy! It was an overgrazed pasture and without any top soil left because of erosion. But oh! The view was beautiful! Even in the scorching heat of the summer in our tropics, the dam waters touching the land gleamed, radiant with the sun smiling over the mountains which would have waterfalls in the monsoon and the nights blessed us with cool breeze with a star studded sky which, to me, looked like a dark sheer dupatta with a delicate sequence of diamonds. All paper work done, and it was then when it dawned on me, I didn’t know where to start! After spending a ridiculous amount of money on getting the land designed by a landscaper, I realised that this is not what I had been dreaming of. I had not dreamt of a manicured lawn and hedgerows with roses pruned to perfection. Rather, I had dreamt of just the opposite. Sure, there was grass, but it was a meadow with wild flowers peeping here and there. Berry bushes instead of the neatly pruned hedge rows, with jasmine and hibiscus smiling in between. But this idea wasn’t very exciting to the landscaper and finally I decided to learn myself. If anyone could do it, so could I.
Deciding to design a garden myself was more easily said than done and it was only when I opened the monster of an internet that I realised I had a real long way to go before I could sit on my very special seat under the very beautiful mango tree and it depressed me sometimes to think that maybe, I could never do it in my lifetime! But I shook myself up and decided well, “Let’s do what we can!”
Browsing on the internet for hours for gardens and after looking at one image after the other of manicured landscapes, I stumbled upon the image of a very wild looking garden, and then, a video of a beautiful place where a smiling lady spoke about ‘Sustainability’ near a pond with white and pink lilies. This, I would discover later, was Robyn Francis’s Djanbung gardens in Australia. It was like seeing my dream on screen, only, this time, I was wide awake! ‘Permaculture garden’ it said and there started my journey which would never end…Pages and pages, articles after articles, images after images took me deeper and deeper into the magical world of Permaculture on the internet and I realised this was what it was meant to be! The people (who seemed a little weird then!), the gardens, the farms, the animals, the bees and birds were the jigsaw pieces, which, when fitted together was exactly my dream!
I went on to attend a workshop and then to complete a PDC with Rico Zook and Jeremiah Kidd with Steve McGrane as co-teacher in Bali. It was an amazing experience. I was the only Indian student but though we were all from different countries, backgrounds and cultures, we were all bound by one single thread, the bond of Permaculture. Each one of us had a story to tell and it was very uncanny how close I felt to these wonderful strangers whom I had never met before! Since those days, I never looked back and still carry the memory of those nineteen days very fresh in my mind and heart.
Back from the PDC and straight I went to our small bit of paradise, which we had named ‘Chaitraban’ (the spring forest) and worked ceaselessly on sheet mulched beds for growing vegetables for ourselves. It was hard work over the weekends, especially because we had our full-time jobs in the city. Many a time, in the absence of a roof over our head in the hot summer (we had not built our house yet), tempers rose high and there were times when I wondered if this was really worth it. However, looking at the children, happily playing in the brook in the monsoon and sleeping under the lone Neem tree made me realise that what we were doing was what we wanted our children to have, as a cherished memory of their childhood.
The day we saw our very first tomatoes we forgot how tired we all had been and slowly, over time, we started growing poison free food for ourselves and to share it with friends. One sheet mulched bed after the other we built, one tree after the other we planted and slowly Chaitraban looked green. Slowly, we had ducks and chickens, dogs and goats and an occasional wild pet come to be rescued and cured of injuries or a sickness. We were blessed with lizards, frogs, snakes, and mongoose. Even a python made its home in the numerous rock bunds we had on the boundary. We experimented with one permaculture technique after the other, and more than once I learnt from mistakes. Type 1 errors were expensive to correct but we would slowly get there over time.
Having poison free fresh fare on the table was not the only thing that happened to me over the five years journey. I Iearnt more, met more (wonderfully weird!) people, experimented more and read more about Permaculture over time. I travelled to places, in India and abroad, volunteering and holidaying in the world of Permaculture. This not only brought me closer to the true world which was very different from the plastic world I had known before, but brought me very close to my own being. I came to realise how important it is to discover our own selves first even before we begin to understand the outer world. I rediscovered my childhood talent of writing poetry and painted my dreams and things in life that went wrong, in the verses. I pleasantly discovered that, at Chaitraban, I could sit quietly for hours and there was always a conversation to be had with myself and with the trees and the birds and bees and now finally, my very special mango tree. I discovered every little thing and every little being in this world is here for a reason and be it the rain pouring to quench the thirst of the parched earth after the dry summer, the tiny ant rolling mud, three times its own weight to make its home or the earthworm digging deep into the soil to air it, each one doing their best to prove their intrinsic worth. Also, finally, here was I doing my own bit, slowly but surely.
There are many obstacles in the way, very limited time and energy to spare and sometimes hard work does get better of me but still, today I remember the words of my Aaji and they hold me strong in my place, more than ever, and I say to myself, instead of fretting about what is difficult to achieve, “Let’s do what we can!”
Today, after five years of enjoyable hard work, in the monsoon, I am able to sit in the rocking chair on the veranda at Chaitraban, sipping coffee, looking at the bright sky and the view of the dam waters with the very green mountains beyond.
To come from a background of what is the very typical urban life to designing natural sustainable landscapes has been a very long but enjoyable journey.
And it all started with Aaji’s garden in a box!