Fifteen years ago, when my parents built this house and moved in, there was nothing. I know, because yesterday I took out all the old photos to remember what this place looked like. My memory did not serve me well in this instance – I didn’t remember it as anything except an always green spot but I was wrong. Fifteen years ago, our house looked raw and white, unsoftened by any green because every one of the trees we now take for granted were little saplings being carefully nurtured. In the fifteen years that followed, the garden would change shape many times but at least some trees were left to grow and grow.
All gardeners know this: that there is no room for sentimentality in their work. We plant borders, watch them shift, change colour with the season, wilt and die when the time comes. We sacrifice one thing for another all the time: the paku tree was cut down because its roots were choking the drains; the white Bauhinia and the cherry because the one was too close to the house and was growing too big for safety and the second because of a disease. We even plan the rearrangement of our spaces as we would the moving of a bookshelf or the choosing a new curtain – with pleasurable anticipation.
All these years, when my mother has asked me to take photographs of her garden, of this flowering bush or that arrangement of pots, I have silently groaned and wondered how anybody could tell the difference. After all, everything looked green and colourful and pretty and I did not like taking pretty photographs. Yesterday, looking at those old photographs interspersed between other ones of faces that I couldn’t even recall, I remembered with astonishment, every rearrangement of the garden, exclaimed over forgotten trees and plants and named each one as I would an old and cherished friend.
Why is all this happening, you want to know.
When we moved to this place, we were one of three houses on the road. For the longest time, there was our house, the house opposite ours and two rain trees. The third house was up the road from us, hidden by a curve or some other topographical oddity and never impinged on our consciousness. People worried that we had moved to the back of beyond and asked solicitously after our safety and whether we ever felt lonely in this place that was supposed to be in the city but seemed so out of it.
In the last seven years or so, the city has shifted to accommodate us. Suddenly we find ourselves in its midst, with the entire unwelcome bustle nearly at our doorstep. Gradually, we were no longer the only two houses on the road, with the third a little further away. People came and built what looked like palaces, raising their houses to several feet above road level and erecting solar electric fences.
But the trouble really began with last year’s monsoon. Every time it rained, the water would run down the road and into the drains that could no longer take the additional burden of sewage. Because what we have in this area is not a proper drainage system, but a septic tank that is inadequate for so many houses. And because we didn’t know we would need to build our house on a small hill, and because we are at the bottom of the road, all the back pressure from the overflowing septic tank meant, all of the last monsoon, that our drains overflowed inside our house.
Having spent the last six months writing several letters to the people concerned, we finally came to the reluctant conclusion that the only way out for us was to withdraw from the municipal sewage system and have a septic tank all our own. We thought with dread of one more year of toilets backing up, of the front of our house flooding with dirty water, of the calls every other day to the sewage board, the waiting for the truck that would clean the area septic tank, the uncooperative neighbours who would see no reason to share the cost since they were unaffected.
Though the photographs make the garden look rather large, it isn’t, really. The front is all we have and we’ve crammed it with as many plants as our greed dictated. Once this is gone, there are a few trees remaining that we will not sacrifice: the mango, the two tall silver oaks that are the tallest trees in the area, one champaka and two frangipanis. That leaves the plants along the walls.
The roses have already been transplanted. The other plants that will certainly be buried under the unearthed soil have been rescued. The bench will be broken. We will have to move the pot with the guppies somewhere else.
This morning the men will come and dig up the garden to start building a septic tank. In a month’s time, there will be a large, square cement structure with two or three large pipes leading up, in the place of the cupias, roses, jasmine, begonias and cosmos.
Somewhere in my head I know that this is just another change, that large cement structures can be concealed by potted plants that will cover the grey with green. But somehow this change does not feel like the organic shifting that I’ve become used to. This change feels permanent and final: an exhalation of sour breath mingling with the sweet smell of mango flowers in the early summer morning.