“Gardens are not made by singing ‘oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.”
At Matrikunj, the gathering area for workers and visitors is a stone table that sits under the veranda. While working or eating lunch at the table, I would always look wistfully at the building’s dingy, chipping walls and dream of how nice they would look with a fresh coat of light yellow or green. The lushness of the surrounding gardens seem to make the buildings look even more decrepit.
So last month I decided to go for it. I mean, I had done smaller house painting projects before, how hard could it be? The bad news was that every available surface had been coated with grey and white lime, which meant that it all has to be scraped off and sanded before we could apply paint. Me and my crowbar have been at it for about 12 or 13 days now. My triceps hate me, but I love that my hands and feet are starting to get that tough farm girl feel.
But of course, it hasn’t been all work and no fun. Last week we prepared hundreds of dried coconuts to press into fragrant coconut oil. Chewing chunks of the sweet meat, I sat with the workers for hours and sliced the round nuts into thin strips that were then sundried on large tarps. Have you ever tasted a coconut sprout before? It looks like a snowball and tastes like an airy, tart macaroon. This month the jackfruit trees are fruiting, so I was awarded the duty of harvesting a few of the the massive, thorny things, their nightmarishly sticky white sap impossible to avoid. The yellow fruit is delicious, sweet and slippery. We ate the large jackfruit seeds cooked in curries and once I helped make a jackfruit and sweet potato chutney that tasted like roasted chesnuts.
Yesterday I clambered onto the roof to put back the styrofoam sheeting that had flown off the roof in the December cyclone. Today we fixed the rope on the worn-out steps of the machan, Baburam showing me how to tie the rope very tightly. We also pulled out a small drum that Baburam had so that we can play music in the evenings like people used to before there was television.
The ashram farms in this area sit beside a large lake called Ossudu Lake. The ashram ‘lake land’s’ birthday is May 1st, with an annual performance and celebration, where the lake land workers sing songs in Bengali, Tamil and Hindi. As usual, Baburam is performing with the group. The workers and I always hear him in his room singing softly to himself, practicing.
I stop for tea in the afternoon with the farm workers, four Tamilian women who gossip and squabble with each other all day. They do all their weeding, planting, and heavy lifting in saris, which will make you think twice before you complain about the heat. Even though they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Tamil, we still manage to work together, tease each other and goof around while Baburam, caught in the middle of our translation issues, laughs at us. Spending all day with them inspires me very much to learn their tongue. I am learning a few words slowly, daring to defy the impenetrability of local Tamil.
At the end of the day, when the sun is starting its slow goodbye and everything below turns a sparkling gold, the sprinklers are turned on. That means work is over and I take off barefooted through the spray, crisscrossing through the eggplant, the dripping starry leaves of the papaya trees, the squished little orange tomato plants that are on their way out. I crouch down under the spray and pretend I am something green and thirsty, so grateful for this daily shower at the end of the day’s punishing heat. I close my eyes and pretend it is raining, warm and sweet. Sometimes I score a green papaya for dinner or an overripe eggplant whose seeds can be saved for the next planting.
After a run through the sprinklers, I wash all the grime off with a bucket shower. The bathroom itself has its own ecosystem, home to a small multitude of frogs who watch me soap up through their enormous black eyes. They come inside to hide from the snakes. Like the French, the Matrikunj snakes love a tasty frog. The frogs are all very cute, brown and mossy green, with enormous black eyes. They perch on top of the toiletry rack, the window sill, the toilet flush handle. They hide in the sink drain and the toothbrush holder. They crawl up and down the tiled walls with their enviously-effective webbed appendages. They especially like to compete to see how many can fit behind the top of the bathroom mirror. I’ve counted at least ten. Plus they eat mosquitos! So they can stay.
In the evenings I enjoy the pink sky by the lily pond. Some days when I am really tired, I take a grass mat to the Cajurina grove and lying on the cushy ground in the dusk, I listen to the subtle whoosh of the branches’ limbed music. Last night I was reading on my bed and accidentally fell asleep at 7 pm, not waking until first light.
Besides a bit of curd and dahl from the ashram dining room, I eat mainly vegetables and fruit from the farm, lots of eggplant and tomato, custard apple and sweet potato. Today for dinner I had starfruit curry, beet and papaya salad with neem flowers and a coconut laddoo. Wouldn’t you?
I now happily spend about 95% of my day outside. The power cuts in and out every few hours, and I wake up when my fan shuts off in the middle of the night. I now use the natural outdoor breeze instead, which never dies or runs out of battery. I hung a mosquito net and a mattress on the machan and haven’t looked back. Baburam strung a corded light bulb to the machan so I can read before bed. As I wait for sleep to descend I can see the flickers of the neon fireflies weaving through the palms. My two furry bodyguards lie nearby on the veranda, keeping watch over the dark of the garden.