Large patches of shade speckle the fertile brown-and-black soil. Small, lime green shoots sprout from seeds thrown helter-skelter by strong gusts of wind. Lush, looming trees stand tall and seem to peer down at the people passing by. Perched precariously on the thin branches, holding on with only three claws on each foot, sits a jet-black crow eyeing its next target. Mounds of fresh earth shift underfoot as young worms squirm out of their burrows and shiver from the brief exposure to the crisp monsoon weather. They play hide-and-seek with the crows while making progress on growing piles of compost and overripe fallen fruit. Thousands of ants scurry to taste the sickly sweet flavor of the papaya and mango that lie on the moist earth floor, freshly wetted by the light rain from a few hours before.
A brick red wooden fence surrounds my grandparents’ house and separates the rich greenery from the dusty and crowded Kerala roads. Motor and pedestrian sounds are only faintly audible, allowing a feeling of serenity to settle down and match the pace of life in the area. Instead, the chirps and coos of koels and kites, the rustling of leaves, falling one by one onto the solid ground, and the buzzing of bees fill the air.
Suddenly, the lighted sky covers up with dark clouds, like a thick black curtain closing on a stage. The wind howls. The birds screech. Spiders, frogs, and squirrels scamper around, seeking protection from the rain wherever possible, whether under a massive tree or a tiny rock.
“Get under a roof,” my mom shrieks, “you’ll get sick.” Out of the corner of my eye I see Amu, my grandma, roll her eyes and motion for me to stay put.
“Ok, ok,” I mumble in response to my mom, knowing very well that the downpour is fleeting. Instead of taking cover, I immerse myself in the rain, allowing the raindrops to drip through my hair and down my back. The crisp cold water sends reverberating chills down my spine. My body shivers in a natural rhythm, following the quivering of the branches as the leaves, heavy from the rain, plummet to the ground.
The rain lasts only a few minutes. As quickly as the sky darkened, it now brightens. Suddenly, all the fragrances in the air are amplified. The smells emanating from the moss and grass overpower my senses. The heady scents of the dove-colored jasmine petals and mud-caked trees mix with the earthy rain. Lone raindrops slowly drip and accelerate downwards. They splash audibly and swirl around, while mixing into large puddles collecting on the ground. It seems like it will take an infinite amount of time for all the water to drip and soak into the ground, but within a few hours, the ground returns to its slightly moist state, waiting for the next rainfall.
On the first day of the monsoon season, our garden is teeming with life. The rainstorm is so intense that it seems likely to demolish trees with even the strongest root systems. The beauty of the ecosystem, however, is that the plants and animals have adapted to these conditions. Tiny shoots stand upright even after heavy showers. Animals go about their normal routines and work around pools of rainwater. However, the other handful of visitors sitting in the garden have glazed eyes and maintain a peaceful quietness. No worries seem to cross their minds.
Snapping out of my trance, I feel the plastic take-out box in my hand. It is filled with different seeds waiting to be planted in the fertile soil. Drawing relatively thin and even spaced lines about two feet long, I begin preparing the soil for planting, as Amu had taught me to do. The ground is just moist enough to begin, so I dig deeper holes at three-inch intervals along the length of the lines in the ground. Being careful not to break the delicate skin covering the seed, I slowly position it in the hole. Dark brown and black specks of dirt slide under my nails as I prod around and settle the seed into its new home. After planting, I use the soil that was dug out to cover the delicate seedlings and protect them from the elements.
Every time I plant something, I remember Amu. She has the greenest thumb of everyone I know. One day she came back from her garden with a pumpkin and told us, “I never remember planting this, but I found it near my compost pile.” Somehow, magically, the seeds she had thrown out began to grow, nurtured by the compost.
Looking at my family, it seems as if the green thumb genes skipped a generation. My mother would try to keep all her plants alive and she worked hard to nurture them. Every time we work in the garden together she tells me a story from when I was five years old. I was in charge of watering her ten-inch curry leaf sapling on the balcony. One day, after I was missing for half an hour, she came out to the balcony. Greeted with the unpleasant surprise of all the perfectly oval green leaves strewn on the hard and gritty concrete floor, she had a fit of rage. Thirteen years later, the barren sapling has grown into a huge tree that sits in our house, takes three people to move it, and leaves just enough room for people to turn sideways and wiggle past it.
Tending the soil and watching small sprouts turn into towering trees gave my 13 year old self a false sense of power, but after observing Amu’s haphazard gardening techniques, I realized that the key to successful gardening is the virtue of patience.
Squatting and planting my small feet into the flaky dirt, I feel myself sinking in. Lost in my thoughts, I imagine being buried neck deep in the garden soil and becoming one with the saplings I am caring for. While nature is bound to take its course, I as a gardener feel like the master of my plants by giving them life. However, I am nothing more than a mere caretaker.
Viewing the garden as its own self-contained and self-governed entity, I find that the ability to garden ironically boils down to doing the least to interfere with nature’s plan. Comparing my mother, a perfectionist who buys expensive equipment for the garden, with my grandmother, who ties vines up to random wires along the walls with scrap pieces of cloth, I see that the imperfections in the system are what make it more perfect. As I plant more and more, I lose track of the systematic process of gardening and rather focus my attention on the beautiful process of growth that allows something to become more than a thousand times its original size. One by one, the rules and structures I once followed lose their purpose and turn into a jumble, out of which emerges an opportunity for an intimate interaction between the plants and me, the caretaker, not me the self-crowned creator.
Closing my eyes, I ignore that I am wearing a white shirt and lie in the dark soil. The earth’s energy engulfs me and the landscape eliminates my stray thoughts as I let the garden take care of me just like the way that Amu taught me to take care of it.
In loving memory of my older sister Aarathi.
We pluck the most beautiful flowers first, and God has done the same from his garden of people.