As I write, a peahen is fluttering about the long western fence. She has nibbled at the Moringa leaves, and now she is looking for a non-vegetarian snack along the ground. Last week we saw a majestic adult male with a full tail.
Now that the fences are renewed, we have planted cuttings to strengthen the front hedge. Radhika’s black rooster is already scratching away the soil under the chain link to create a convenient entry. I argued him out of it this morning, but it is only a matter of time before he and his harem make a few holes, which stray dogs will then enlarge, providing a gateway for the wild boar. We will then be back to square one.
More problematic is the back, where there is now a clear view from the paddy field into our garden, tempting intruders to pick up fallen coconuts and firewood. It will take some time for the chopped vegetation to grow back, so I planted less-friendly cuttings to fill the gaps in the meantime—bougainvillea, Duranta, lantana, and the monstrous wild thorn that we don’t know the name of.
Planting along the back takes time because I have to keep climbing in and out of the deep ditch near the boundary, but also because the view across the paddy field often makes me forget what I was doing. Just over our fence is a rocky stream bed, gurgling white during the heaviest rain but dry otherwise. Then the field, which once waved with paddy and banana plants but is now mostly fallow. Only some patches are planted with root crops. On the rest, children play football and cows graze. Beyond that are line of houses, some with a sleek white car parked in a driveway paved to the last inch, and others with tapioca growing next to the motorcycle, and chickens and goats penned in a packed-earth yard. We can’t recognise anyone at this distance, but we often hear them chop firewood, slap wet clothes against their washing stones, or call “Ba, ba, ba” to their chickens.
Behind that lively picture rises a low ridge and then the triangular rock we call Kumma Para, or Turtle Rock. Like a child held so close to his grandmother’s knees that he can’t see her face, we are too close to the Kumma Para to see more of the Nilgiris. But on a clear day we glimpse a projection of the hills that loom beyond that rock.
One day a highway will run through the paddy field, we hear. Already the foundation for one house is visible near the present tar road. But highways grow slowly in Kerala, and we are grateful that this view will not abruptly change on us.
Saar deepened and widened one long ditch this morning, and I did the same with smaller ditches. We have had sunshine the past two days and the soil is just perfect to work on, soft and light. The ditches keep the water and soil from running down the slopes, and many of the deep ditches are still in good shape from the time of Old George, who sold us this plot.
Old George farmed organically by default, having no spare money to buy fertilisers and chemicals. He also had no well on this parcel, so he scrupulously dug trenches and piled up bunds to conserve soil moisture for his crops. He would work by moonlight when he needed to, though never on the Sabbath, and when there were elephant-foot yams in the ground he stood guard through the night, with a ferocious dog to alert him when wild pigs were approaching.
It was hard for George to leave this parcel of land after he sold it, and he was here for much of the year and a half it took us to build our house, telling us how to plant turmeric and ginger, how to tend and harvest pepper vines, and how to coppice Gliricidia for green manure. It went without saying that we would not add chemicals to his land and that we would conserve soil and water in the same way he had, but we had our differences. He scoffed at the ornamental plants I introduced and the paths I insisted on making through the garden so that I wouldn’t have to jump over ditches and bunds all the time. He couldn’t understand why we would travel out of town just when it was time to plant yams. He was heavy-handed with his advice, especially when Saar was away, and I was often defensive and territorial with him.
But George was at heart more than a farmer. He experimented diligently and he was a botanical democrat, judging a plant by its uses, broadly defined, rather than by its price in the market. All of that harmonised with our desire to live in a biodiverse parcel of land rather than run a profitable farm. One day he told me he had bought farmland elsewhere, a flat field with red soil. I was relieved that he would soon lose interest in our business, but I am always glad we bought his land and not anyone else’s. It’s a privilege to write into its rich history.
When I last saw Old George he told me his new farmland had not worked out as expected. It became a gummy mess in the rain and baked hard in the sun. Undoubtedly he had the skill to grow crops off a tin roof and he would have wrested a harvest even from that clayey parcel, but I think the fragile, shifting soil on our slopes and all the challenges of keeping water in the soil satisfied him better. He was ninety at the time and still talking about what he would plant next year, but he did not live to do it.
Latha Anantharaman is a writer, editor and translator now resident in Palakkad, Kerala. She has written extensively on ecology, rural living, travel, books and other subjects for variou periodicals. She has published two books, Tamil Nadu (Roli, 2007) and Three Seasons (Writers Workshop, 2015), and her short story was included in The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing (Niyogi, 2021).