Calling All Rebel Gardeners : A short story by Rebecca Winslow-Pandey

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Calling All Rebel Gardeners : A short story by Rebecca Winslow-Pandey

From the shortlist of the first Short Story Competition organised by Bengaluru Review.

The message came on our apartment building's message board about two weeks into the lockdown. Jai was taking a break in between sessions, so he'd shut off the white noise machine and come out to entertain Tara long enough for me to make lunch. One hand stirring a pot on the stove, I used the other to pull out the phone and read him the message.

Calling all rebel gardeners. At the municipal park behind Happy Goods Store. Bring any seeds, gardening tools and of course a mask! Anytime between 3 and 6pm.

“What do you think a 'rebel gardener' is?” I asked Jai.

Jai shrugged, “Hell if I know. Why don't you two go down there on your walk this evening and find out?”

“You don't think they're dangerous, do you?” I asked, trying to make it sound like I was joking.

Jai seemed to be considering my question seriously, but after a moment he shook his head, “Dangerous people don't tend to advertise on our apartment building's message board.”

He pulled Tara on top of him, kissing the side of her neck until she started squealing.

“Except when Mrs. George sells her Christmas cake. That stuff is a danger to public health."

On the walk to the park, Tara fidgeted with her mask, pulling on the elastic until I had to snap at her to stop. We had no gardening implements but I brought a pair of our sturdiest scissors and some dhaniya and lauki seeds I had gotten from my mother last year. My mother tended to give aspirational gifts; the seeds had been accompanied by a lecture on how we should start a balcony garden. The year before, she had sent me a book for identifying trees and birds in our city, though I had never shown an interest in botany or bird watching. However, recently Tara and I had begun carrying the book on our evening walks. There are only so many times one can walk around the same streets, and see the same things before it starts becoming mind-numbingly boring. Our colony was not big. One main street down the middle of it, with a handle full of spindly, half-paved lanes that dead-ended in small flats and even an old house or two. I'd never be able to tell my mother, but I did find a joy in recognizing a sunbird or an almond tree. Tara could already recognise pigeons and papaya trees (her favourite fruit).

We turned down on of these small lanes past Happy Goods Stores where I saw the the brick and iron fence design that signified a city municipal park. Such parks dotted the old parts of the city. They had been created by an environmentally minded mayor a generation or two back who wanted to ensure that the people of the city always had green spaces to call their own. In recent years, however, many of these parks had fallen into disrepair. Foraging animals made their way through broken or rusted gates and decimated the grass and many of the young plants. Weeds and other invasive species took over, choking off light and nutrients to other plants. Some industrious trees had even begun to assert their dominance over the dirt walking paths that ran the perimeter of these small parks, by growing up straight through the centre.

This particular park was no less. The metal gate was warped but some thoughtful person in times past had tied the two bent edges together with a rope, so cows hadn't been able to get inside and lay waste to the plants. The park was a long skinny piece of land between two apartment buildings. The front half, closest to the rusty gate, still had a vaguely green lawn surrounded by a number of flowering plants and bushes. I undid the rope and went inside after Tara, pulling the metal gate closed behind me as much as was possible. Once inside the park, I pulled down my mask and took a deep breath. A solid, green earthy smell entered my nose and seem to settle over me like a blanket. I saw a small patch of night blooming jasmine, its white blossoms now mostly scattered on the ground. Tall eucalyptus trees ran along one wall, rising up to the second floor of the neighbouring apartment building. Near the entrance was a large plot of bamboo that I suspected hadn't been planted, but rather inserted itself here as bamboo is wont to do. Past the bamboo, the back half of the park had seemingly sunk into utter neglect, the grass was mostly brown and patch of hardy green vines spouted among some sturdy acacia trees.

It was then I noticed the woman, standing near the back of the park, watching us. I waved a hand in greeting and pulled my mask back up into place. She responded with a wave, but one calling me over to where she stood. Taking a firm grip on Tara's hand, I walked over towards the woman, stopping about two metres away. She was a tall woman, taller than me and maybe even taller than Jai. She had deep brown eyes, made to seem slightly bigger by the round glasses she was wearing, and long brown hair that she wore tied up on her head. She was wearing a mask, but I could see her eyes crinkle in a smile as I came closer.

“I'm Maya,” she said, with a small wave, her other hand held a small shovel.

I told her my name and Tara's. She nodded, “Are you here for some rebel gardening?”

“Yes!” Tara said, jumping up and down.

“What exactly is 'rebel gardening'?” I asked.

“Basically, it's an underground, non-sanctioned food growing operation.”

“Mama, I'm going to go run around,” Tara said, pulling her hand from mine and zooming off across the expanse of grass.

Maya and I looked at each other and we both laughed, then Maya continued, “It started when I was pregnant. I had so much energy, did you experience that? And I was growing everything I could on our balcony but we were running out of space. So I found this park and...” she shrugged, “it kind of got away from me.”

She gestured around the back half of the garden where we now stood and I realised that what I had though were neglected weeds, were actually vegetables. The curling vines were in fact pumpkins, their green-yellow fruit small and not yet ripe. Against one of the brick walls, the tendrils of beans and peas climbed up, assisted by a simple trellis fashioned from bamboo. A rather large patch of what looked like carrot, and maybe beetroot was by our feet. Curling around it was the largest karela plant I had ever seen, with a half dozen fruit hanging off it and the bright yellow blossoms that suggested more to come.

“The karela is just really happy here,” Maya said, with a shrug, “I can't figure out why. Beans are over there,” she pointed at the very back of the park, where a handful of Malabar chestnut trees provided some shade. “And potatoes are next to them. The potatoes have been coming nicely too.”

“Oh I have seeds,” I said suddenly into my pocket, and pulling out the newspaper packets I had wrapped the seeds in before leaving the house.

“Lovely!” Maya said, clapping her hands. “What are these?”

Lauki and dhaniya,” I said, feeling a little sheepish of my meagre contribution in the face of all this bounty.

“Very good. Lauki is hard to sprout too, so more seeds are always welcome.”

I placed the seeds on the edge of one of the short brick walls. Maya waved me over to a green patch that on closer examination, I realised was spinach and mustard greens, “Take some.”

I shook my head, “I don't want to take your...”

She cut me off with a shake of her hand, not rudely, but though preventing me from saying something embarrassing, “They're not mine.”

“But you did all this work...” I trailed off, unsure if to keep protesting would seem too rude.

“It's all his doing,” she indicated with her chin upwards. For a moment I thought perhaps her husband had played some role in this then I realised she meant God, “This food belongs to anyone who wants it.”

I protested that I didn't have a bag to carry the greens, and she cheerfully replied that I should simply stop by with a bag the next time I came to the park. “Even if I'm not here. Just take whatever you want.”

It was another two days before I could get away with Tara to return to the garden. I had asked around in our building and elderly Mrs. Sheel had offered to lend us her trowel and two pairs of gardening gloves. When we arrived at the park the gate was slightly pushed open and Maya was crouched down in the back half, bent over one of her plants. As we got closer, I noticed that Maya had strapped her baby to her back using a long piece of cloth, like women did in villages. She noticed us, straightened up and waved, and Tara and I waved back.

“We come prepared today,” I said cheerfully, indicating the gloves that Tara carried and the trowel in my left hand.

“Excellent,” Maya said, then spoke to Tara, “Do you want to help with weeding?" Tara nodded vigorously.

Making sure to stay a safe distance away from us, Maya pointed to the long, thick grasses that popped up between some of the carrots. “We want to pull out as many of these as we can, because they suck up the water we need for the vegetables. But you must be careful to pull out the roots, not just the top of the plant.” With a seemingly expert twist of her hand, Maya pulled one out and held it up to show Tara the roots. Tara nodded and eagerly went over to corner of the patch and started pulling out grass. I though I should keep an eye on her, to make sure she didn't start pulling the vegetables in her childish exuberance, but Maya didn't seem concerned and waved me over in another direction.

“I've sprouted your dhaniya seeds,” she said, opening a small plastic container. The little brown seeds had indeed started to sprout, I could see the tiny white beginning of the plant to be poking out from the top. Although I knew of course that the fresh dhaniya came from seeds like this, it was still somehow glorious to see the industrious little herb bursting forth into new life.

We cleared some earth around the edge of a patch of dirt with a healthy looking pumpkin plant growing in the centre. My daughter, living in that constant fear of childhood that your mother is doing something exciting without you, had run over to see what I was doing. I pointed out the pumpkin to her, and Tara knelt down to gently touch one of the fruits.

“Can we take one?” Tara asked, prodding a pumpkin with her foot.

“Sure,” Maya said, “but you should wait a week or so if you can, they'll get a lot bigger than this.”

Tara's eyes grew wide. No doubt these pumpkins were already bigger than anything she'd ever seen in a store.

I had brought a reusable bag with me and, despite my protests, Maya filled it with not only the promised greens, but one of the bigger karelas and a number of green onions.

A few days after I had brought home the first veggies from the park, Mrs. Sheel was complaining to me how she couldn't find good bhindi in the market, but she had been hoping to make it for Mr. Sheel's birthday. I mentioned this to Maya and that day she sent me back home with a bag full of bhindi and instructions for her to ask me for whatever other vegetables she needed. Slowly, word spread and people began coming to visit the garden. Mostly older women, with no children left to raise and long hours spent at home. We'd sit in the garden, appropriately spaced from each other, and they'd pluck out grasses and thin the carrot seedlings as we'd yell back and forth. Maya seemed happy to see everyone but also never seemed annoyed out by the people who would stop by, take vegetables and leave without helping.

“The key to gardening for me,” she told me one day about three weeks after I started coming, “is to put in 100% of your effort to the task at hand but to have nothing invested in the outcome.”

“But you must be disappointed when things don't come in the way you hoped,” I said, carefully snipping off the delicate green methi leaves with a small pair of sheers.

“That's just the thing,” Maya replied. “That's not real hope, it's foisting our obligations and anxieties on nature. We are simply one of many players in this natural world. Do birds get disappointed when the seeds they drop never flower? Or bees when the flowers they pollinate never produce? We play our part, we do what we can. Sometimes we get to enjoy the fruit of of labours, so to speak. Although sometimes that means we eat a lot of karela,” she said gesturing to the prodigious vine covered in the stubby vegetable.

We both paused for a moment to look out over the park. Tara stood in a patch of bare earth in the centre of the grass, examining a small mango tree. Maya had transplanted the tree from a sprouted seedling in her home and even now it barely came up to Tara's waist, but it's thin, light green leaves reached for the sun.

“We may never eat the fruit from that tree,” Maya said, nodding her head towards Tara, “but she might. The seeds we plant in the soil flourish even after we are gone.”

The next morning, Tara was up early so we had a quick breakfast before we walked down to the park. I was a little taken aback to see the orange and green municipal car parked in front of the park gates. A man in a pink shirt and dark wrap-around sunglasses was standing in the park near the gate, making notes on a clipboard. Maya stood outside the gate, her bright green mask strapped firmly in place, watching the man with dark, careful eyes. I stood two metres away, adjusted my own mask and indicated my head towards the man.

“What's going on?”

“He says the city is going to fix up this garden tomorrow,” Maya responded.

“What does that mean?”

She shrugged, “He won't tell me.”

“Hey, hey,” I yelled at the man until he turned around.

Annoyed, he walked towards the gate, “You're not supposed to even be outside.”

“What are you doing to this garden?” I asked. “You can't just tear it out.”

“Oh don't worry ma'am,” the man said cheerfully. “This garden is city property. No one is going to do development here. Actually, these parks have fallen into disrepair you know. Look,” he gestured to some tomato plants, the fruit a yellowish orange, not quite ripe, “someone has been planting vegetables in here!”

I glanced sideways at Maya but she shook her head almost imperceptibly.

“Why do you care now?” I asked, “This garden has been this way for so many months.”

“The MLA is having a small celebration here this weekend. Can't do it inside, I guess. Boss says we need to make it look nice,” he looked up at us and smiled, “it will be good for you two, once the lockdown is lifted. Nice pretty park, lots of flowers. You can bring the kids here.”

I opened my mouth to speak but Maya cleared her throat and shook her head. I walked a little ways down the road away from the park gate and she followed me at a safe distance.

“We have to do something,” I said in a harsh whisper. I felt tears welling up in my eyes and I realised how much I'd come to value the time spent coaxing these vegetables from the soil. “We have to file a complaint or talk to someone...” my voice trailed off, realising the futility of either of these actions.

“Meet back here in half an hour,” Maya said as she walked back into her apartment building, “he'll likely be gone by then.”

We spent the first day harvesting everything that could be harvested. All the greens and ripe tomatoes, the squashes and pumpkins, the gourds, beets and beans. We left it in large bins and plastic bags and I sent a message to our apartments' board asking people to take what they wanted. We spent the second day focusing on seeds, removing them from the plants or half-ripe vegetable and storing them in little labelled boxes. Jai put in for two days of leave so he could be with Tara at home while I spent all day in the garden. I returned both days hot, covered in mud but also feeling the bone-deep gratefulness of hard work.

The third day the man in the pink shirt returned with some workers and tore up the vegetable plants. Tomato vines, half-ripe pumpkins, the fecund karela plant, even the delicate mango tree that Maya had nurtured, were unceremoniously yanked from the ground, tossed on a pile and burned in the street. I went home and cried. The next day, I heard the music and loudspeaker speeches from the representative in the park. It was two weeks after we had first seen the man in pink when I returned to the park.

It was evening and a hazy pink gold glow seemed to hover above the trees. The sun was mostly set, but the air was still hot and humid. I stood outside the gate of the park, not wanting to go in. The orderly pink and white flowers that now lined the paths seemed soulless. The crunch of gravel made me turn to see Maya, standing a little away from me also looking at the gate. Her son gabbed away in his happy baby way, strapped to her back. She tossed me a plastic bag and I opened it to see envelopes full of the seeds we had rescued.

“Let's get started,” she said, and opened the gate.

***

Rebecca Winslow-Pandey is an American-born experiential educator who has lived and worked in both West and South Asia. She has studied Urdu shayri in the Old City in Lucknow, taught at a college in Sana'a, Yemen, lived in a village in the Kerala backwaters, and led student groups travelling and trekking in Nepal and Bhutan. She is also a writer who has published short stories and poems, and is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Hyderabad.

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