Humor – father’s vegetable garden – My childhood nostalgia series – Chapter 1
“I spotted a pair of huge cobras at the backyard! Oh my God! How are we going to survive in this wilderness?” My mother’s voice was shrill and shaky when she came virtually running into the house from the backyard.
More than fear, there was a sense of curiosity and a shade of disbelief amidst us, five children, aged between seven and twenty, when our mother narrated her experience with more vivid details of the anatomy of the cobras and their rather exaggerated linear vital statistics!
“Are they still there? Come on, we will go and see!”
When I said so, mother vehemently protested. “No! It’s not safe for you little children to go there alone. Let father come from the school in the evening and let him handle this matter.”
When our father, a teacher at the local high school, returned home in the evening, he was least impressed with our mother’s histrionics about the cobras. “This fear about cobras is deeply etched in your psyche, I suppose” he chuckled. “You should know; rat snakes and cobras look almost alike from a distance. There are paddy fields behind our backyard where poison-less rat snakes normally roam around. But cobras? Very rare in these residential localities” he concluded with his usual self confidence born out of years of country living.
But the truth was that our back yard looked just like a jungle with a lush and dense wild growth, studded with a few coconut, mango, and tamarind trees; we little children would have loved to believe if mother had said she spotted tigers there! But as regards snakes, we have known all along that anything that wriggles on the ground is a “sarpam” (poisonous cobra) for our mother and a “saarai” (the harmless rat snake) for our father!
It was hardly a week since we had shifted to this new house some fifty and odd years ago. This was the third house we shifted within a span of one year. This house was pretty old; it remained unoccupied for almost a year previously. But my father had strong reasons to immediately fall in love with it. The difference between the previous two houses and this one was that it had a very huge backyard, some two hundred feet by forty feet, in addition to the house that had an equally impressive plinth area. The rent in those days was too cheap to even make a mention. Typical of a village house those days, there was no toilet (water closet or flush-out) in the house!
Using bamboo sticks and coconut leaf thatches, our father constructed a make-shift toilet just close to the entrance of the back yard near the house’s rear wall. A four feet deep pit and a pair of wooden planks to sit were the facilities available for us to answer the call of nature. Mother and my elder sisters would visit the place purely out of physical compulsion, fearing about the appearance of the cobras, mumbling “abha sarpa sarpa…” a sanskrit mantra which is supposed to chase away poisonous cobras out of vicinity!
Within the first week, our mother reported several encounters with the snakes and at one time she said one of the snakes was resting at the foot steps of the rear entrance and as she walked up without noticing it, it gave her a lash at her legs with its tail! Somehow, the snakes were too shy to show their hoods to rest of the family members!
Our mother had such a strong faith in the efficacy of the “abha sarpa sarpa” mantra that she got it written on the rear walls of the house with a chalk piece. Myself and my elder sister would cut jokes about it saying, “The snake will enter the house, read the mantra and then mumbling “Oops! this is no-enrty!” they will backtrack!
After settling in the new house, the gardener itching to reveal himself inside my father was too eager to get on with his job, cobras and tigers notwithstanding!
The next morning, after coffee, father called out. “Who is coming with me to survey the backyard and have an encounter with the cobras?” I and my immediate elder sister lifted up our hands.
Armored with a strong cane and a sickle, our father strode into the back yard, cutting and clearing his way through the stone laid path across the back yard. The smell of the freshly cut leaves and bushes was captivating to us. The soil was mildly moist on account of recent raining.
“Appa, Do you really think you can raise vegetable garden in this jungle?” my sister asked doubtfully, knowing pretty well of our father’s intentions. Father said “This is a virgin soil. no proper planting of any plants have taken place here. If we do it right, we can get excellent yield from here”.
From tomorrow onwards, the work starts. Who is going to volunteer?” he asked. “Me!” I said. “Me too, if you assure me there are no cobras here!” said my sister. “Cobras? Forget them; your mother always exaggerates”.
The next one month was hectic. The rustic villager in my father was busy both in the mornings and evenings at the back yard. Single-handedly he cut, clipped, dug, excavated, weight-lifted, sawed and mowed. We little children gave him company and did whatever little we could – carrying the cut bushes away, digging the soil and removing small weeds and making a bonfire out of dry leaves and bushes. My mother and two elder sisters were magnanimous enough to grace the backyard after one month, once it was abundantly clear that cobras had no place to play hide and seek there!
The phase two of our father’s toil started immediately. Using a soil shovel, he systematically dug out the topsoil and turned it over to expose to the sun. This time, my elder brother too chipped in to contribute his labor, taking pity at my father’s single handed struggle. He neatly arranged small embankments to crisscross the entire stretch and father earmarked spaces for growing different types of vegetables there.
“I will make a vine yard closer to the house” declared father. ” We shall grow all the creepers – the bitter gourd, the snake gourd, the saber beans and cucumber there. Normally we grow pumpkins still closer to the house so that they can climb up the roof and safely yield there”. He earmarked the space closer to the well for growing spinach and bananas at the fag end of the gutter. Likewise, he planned spaces for lady’s fingers, egg plants, tomatoes and all other familiar sundry vegetable varieties of the rural origin.
After consulting the almanac, father chose an auspicious day for the seeding ceremony.
On the auspicious day, I and my immediate sister started planting the seeds. Pick a seed, make a dimple in the watered and wet soil, push in the seed gently in and close it with the soil. Spinach and coriander seeds (mildly broken) were simply sown by swirling them in the air and spreading them uniformly. Our father and elder sisters too joined to plant the seeds, after we little children did the inauguration. If my memory is not wrong, I believe our mother flatly refused to handle the snake gourd seeds and my elder sisters did the planting of seeds at the vine yard!
My brother was busy with his own farming experiments in a corner of the garden that he had reserved for himself: Planting potatoes, onions and apple seeds. He had even kept the crown of a pineapple fruit and planted it.
As I rewind and think of these happenings that took place some forty five years ago, I could clearly recall the joy we derived in every little activity that was associated with our vegetable garden; the joy of intimacy with the mother nature; the joy of watching the plays of nature enacted stage by stage right in front of the insatiably curious eyes of little children.
In those days, as soon as we woke up, finished brushing the teeth and drinking our cup of milk, I and my sister would take a sprint to the back yard ignoring our mother’s shout to do our home work.
It was a thrill to see the tender stem of the ladies finger plant to reveal its whitish back like a hook worm from the soil on the second day. It was a wonder to see the two thick and green, leaf-like splits of the bean seed propping up erect from the soil on the third day.
The appearance of the first leaf, the first bud, the first flowering – everything was a mini celebration for us. When flowers bloomed, we saw honey bees in close quarters for the first time. Why do they gather pollen grains in their legs? “They will use the pollen to build their honeycomb” father explained. Father elaborated to us about pollination and fertilization of plants. He described how honey bees make honey. Honey bees suddenly became too interesting creatures for us to study.
Father said “I heard the local municipality has got trained people to guide you to set up “honey bee farms” right in your garden. Hopefully we shall do it next year. You can watch how honey bees work in close quarters; but mind you, if you are not careful, they will sting you”. We were thrilled. And it became a reality in the next two years. That’s a different thrilling story altogether.
The garden soil was hopelessly fertile; the need for fertilizers proved minimal. Father was constantly at the backyard in the mornings and evenings, tirelessly fetching buckets of water from the well to water the plants. We children helped him in carrying the water in little pots around the garden. He weeded out unwanted growth and watched out for pests. The raining was timely and right. Climate was conducive.
The next three to six months proved beyond doubt about our father’s statement on hitting a gold mine. We had bumper crop on whatever seeds we planted. Though my brother’s experiments with potatoes and apples failed, we had the surprise of getting an unexpected yield of onions. The pineapple plant was a huge surprise even to our father. The odd shape of the plant with its thorny and sword-like leaves not withstanding, the plant did yield very huge fruits, the size of which we had never seen earlier!
From children’s point of view, the bumper crop rather proved to be an anti-climax. The overdose of vegetable delicacies repeating at monotonous regularity at lunch and dinner was a big put off and our father was too strict a disciplinarian to allow any escape from them!
Relatives visiting our house those days were sent back with their bags stuffed with vegetables irrespective of whether they liked those varieties or not.
The numbers and the sizes of the pumpkins that occupied the roof were indeed “owner’s pride and neighbor’s envy”. As they were carefully brought down and stacked at the kitchen, time became really auspicious to bring the first marriage in the family. My eldest sister aged twenty one got her engagement and true to the prevailing practice at the village those days, the marriage was celebrated right at our huge house.
The house, being a sprawling one, had indeed been designed to celebrate marriages. It had provision for “Kottai Aduppu” (Long pits lined with brick to make a furnace by burning logs of woods). Though our father was always thrifty, he somehow decided to engage Kumbakonam Raju, a chief cook belonging to the “premium class” who was much sought after in those days.
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Our father profusely thanked Kumbakonam Raju who did a wonderful job of preparing mouth-watering dishes to the guests during the marriage feast. “This is the first time I had access to so many varieties of home grown vegetables for use in our preparations; you have definitely made good savings on this count. Nothing like fresh, home grown vegetables” complemented the chief cook.
Pausing a while, he said “I should specifically thank you for the access I had to the cucumber plants at your garden. You know, we cooks never enjoy what we cook ourselves. The heat makes us too tired to enjoy a good meal. Oh! What a relief I had this time. The fresh and tender cucumbers that I could pluck and eat from your garden were so heavenly; they gave such a cooling effect that they were like “amirtham” (ambrosia) to me! My special thanks to you on this gift to me!”