Anannya Uberoi

The Secret Garden

Ulsoor Lake is visited by hundreds of river herons in the spring. By the end of June,  the summer is peaking in Bangalore, and the lake is pigeonholed into clusters of black and spotted billed ducks that wade alongside the herons. They perform small routine acrobatic feats that are silhouetted against the setting sun. Beside the lake is a small two-storied house set apart by long curtains of chained vine-like leather flowers that fall onto the ragged edges of its walls. Contemporary Indian houses pressed into busy cities seldom have space for yards or lawns. The small house by Ulsoor Lake is striking to all passersby.

My father was born in Bangalore, the city by Ulsoor Lake. Of his numerous friends, “Aunt Jade” was a neighbor with whom he stayed connected for over fifty years. Not surprisingly, she invited me for tea when she learned that I was to stay in Bangalore for three months on a summer assignment. Her house was landmarked by an old church and the lake itself, but what stood out was the chain of tendrilled flowers that graced her walls. Her house, I felt, was hiding in a mass of trees somewhere. It was as fresh as the basket of mangoes on her kitchen table, ready to be cut and enjoyed after dinner. Not long into our conversation, she told me fond tales of her secret garden. I was not surprised. She chuckled as she led me through a rounding fleet of stairs to her terrace.

I nearly let out a muffled cry, “My, you do have a garden!”

The terrace was lush with vegetation, fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers in a strange, jumbled orderliness. As I studied the plants, I realized they were bunched onto two floors of a terrace, positioned for maximum use of the area. Up a hanging staircase, a small block of land was used to grow guavas, melons and starfruit. The staircase itself was a trellis for creepers and climbers; all with many-leaved stems facing the sky.

“Well, thank you,” she replied, “it hasn’t been here very long, though. I started only two years ago.”

Later that evening, Aunt Jade and I took a walk down the street, circling Ulsoor Lake. We entered a small alley of several older houses where we were greeted by her father, who I remembered vaguely from my visit to the city several years ago. There was no “garden” at his house though, only potted plants and huge labeled bags of different colors stacked by the walls of a small yard. Most of the houses had consumed the front spaces as extensions, building additional rooms. But the old man’s house remained pristine; as untouched as my father had described the city of his youth.

Nearby, a young boy and his mother were working with dried leaves and kitchen waste to make compost. The mother told eloquent stories to her son, simplifying the concept of biodegradable waste management and compost. I pulled out a chair to listen, open-eyed in childlike wonder. Aunt Jade made eggplant curry with her father in his kitchen.

On our way back to her home, we stopped at Aldi’s Garden Shop, a small corner store. Aldi, the garrulous shopkeeper, seemed flattered to see us. He introduced Aunt Jade and me to a young, newly-wed couple who were venturing into gardening. They were curious about the bare essentials to start a garden and Aunt Jade answered many of their questions, with pleasure. The conversation lasted twenty minutes and they exchanged phone numbers so the couple could join a small chat group of budding growers.

Aunt Jade invited me to stay with her for part of my stay and I packed a stack of summer clothes. For a little over a week, we read in the garden. I would bring my pens and notebooks, scrawling a poem about the dance of the parakeets in the water bath, or the whir of butterfly wings around the blossoming begonias. Other times, we would sit in silence – me, absorbed in my work, and she, stemming coriander leaves for dinner.

A year later, Aunt Jade’s initiative in building a community of dedicated, consistent gardeners in Bangalore was recognized by the state’s municipal organization. Over two hundred households around Ulsoor Lake have sprouted rooftop gardens, spring scented and air packed. They spread goodwill and the promise of a greener tomorrow to the residents of the neighborhood and the birds in the lake who continue their dancing at the setting sun.

© Anannya Uberoi

Anannya Uberoi is a software engineer based in Madrid. Her poems and short stories have appeared in Jaggery, LandLocked, Deep Wild Journal, Tipton Poetry Journal, Lapis Lazuli, Marías at Sampaguitas and are featured on The Delhi Walla and The Dewdrop, among other literary blogs. She has won the Ayaskala Literary Magazine’s National Poetry Writing Month challenge.

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