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Mina’s Dream

Published onOct 26, 2023
Mina’s Dream

The garden was Mina’s piece of heaven. After the tragedy of her husband’s death, and the children all grown and flown abroad, it was the only way to go on. After a few weeks of learning the basics from the gardener, she started working on her own. She read up on nontoxic ways to grow plants and went to an organic nursery to get supplies and advice. The gardener argued with her, to no avail. Although he’d grown up in a remote village in the Himalayas, he had been convinced early in his life that the vilayati way—with the pesticides and the ruthless control of weeds—was the best way. Despite his disapproval the garden grew lush and thick, and the shrubs of jasmine and the two young mango trees started to take up lawn space. After a while the garden began to escape the confines of the boundary wall—a bird dropped a seed, and a red silk cotton tree grew up right at the edge of the road, tall and proud. The gardener grumbled that the shade from all the trees would kill the grass—look at the perfectly manicured lawns of the neighbors!—but Mina had decided that approaching old age was sufficient justification for eccentricity, and she remained adamant. And the grass got patchy, and the local street dogs, who knew a sucker when they saw one, took up residence on the lawn. They would jump the high brick wall, their lean bodies arcing over it effortlessly. On hot days they dug up the lawn and laid in cool beds of mud. At first she tried half-heartedly to stop them, but how could you deprive such noble beings of small comfort when the heat was so intense? In the shade of the trees she placed a flat-bottomed terra-cotta container filled with water, and the birds came—mynahs and babblers, barbets and tree pies—along with the local squirrels. It gave her inordinate pleasure to look out of the window into the haven she had created, and see the animals enjoy it.

In the upper-middle-class suburbs of Delhi, there is little tolerance for departures from the norm. The neighbors muttered, the residents’ association sent cold, clipped letters, but the garden grew wider and wilder, creeping ever further beyond the boundary wall. No imported plants here, but instead parochial natives, hardly distinguishable from weeds, and barely any design, unless the seed-dropping birds could be said to be designers. Two mango trees, a neem, a lemon tree, a desi kikar, a shisham, and the red silk cotton together formed a community that huddled through hot afternoons like gossiping grandmothers. Mina sipped tea and watched from the windows.

One day, she saw a man lying under the shade of the shisham, close to the road. The neighbors had warned her that if she didn’t build a fence right up against the street, squatters would arrive in no time. But this man—a young fellow in tattered pants and a grimy t-shirt—seemed to be a laborer needing a bit of a rest. So she let him sleep, although one of the neighbors texted her later and told her to call the police. Mina muttered agreement, set down the phone, and sent the cook out to see what the man was doing.

The young man woke and scrambled to his feet in agitation. There was a hurried conversation, and the cook returned to say the fellow had only meant to stop a moment in the shade because it was so hot, and could we give him some water? It turned out the man was from a village that had been relocated for a mining project, and since the stony ground of the new land yielded no crops, he had come to the city to find work. What could he do? Anything—studied up to class eight, could do odd jobs, grow vegetables. So she took him on to grow her a vegetable garden and plant some fruit trees. He moved into the room above the garage, then sent for his wife and two children. The old gardener was incensed, but she calmed him down by promising to keep the newcomer confined to the vegetable garden.

The young fellow was a marvel. Vegetables sprouted from the window boxes: tender greens, tomatoes and brinjals, capsicum and hot peppers. They grew in profusion in the garden, between the shrubs and in the beds under the trees at the edge of the road. The young man asked Mina if he could extend the vegetable garden to the empty, litter-strewn plot of land between Mina’s house and her neighbor’s to the right, and Mina said: why not? But we don’t need so many vegetables! We can sell them, said the young man. No, no, Mina said. Make profit out of lands that are not ours? Let’s give them away.

So Mina’s garden spilled over to the empty plot. The labourers working in the intense summer heat on the houses in the next square happily took the excess vegetables. She gave some away to neighbors. The walls of Mina’s house were, by now, festooned with vines of various kinds of gourds and pumpkins, and she had consulted an expert and added a rooftop garden as well. Everything grew with great enthusiasm. When there were summer power outages, Mina’s house remained cool. In the afternoon, she had a table set up by the roadside with cool lemon water for anyone passing by who might need it. Often, there were piles of vegetables to give away, and so Mina accumulated the thanks and good wishes of multitudes of strangers.

Mina’s haven became a thing of its own. The carefully designed gardens of her neighbors looked so poor and pale in comparison that some started wondering whether they should succumb to the new trend. An article in a glossy magazine declaring that lawns were so twentieth century in an era of climate change did the trick. One neighbor came to Mina for advice, then another followed. Soon, green extravagance began to spill over boundary walls. Mina had a local animal-rescue group come and vaccinate, spay, and neuter the local street-dog pack. Mornings were loud with birdsong, deafening at times, but each day brought little shocks of joy. A jewel-like ladybug on an orange pumpkin against emerald-green vines, just outside the window. A paradise flycatcher on a jasmine tree in the pale light of morning. A neighbor’s son came over to take photos for a school project and stayed to talk about gardens, history, wildlife, and the coming end of the world. Except, he said, I don’t get that doom feeling around your house. His mother was the last in the little square to finally give way.

The houses in the square were now covered with greenery. Native trees, some fruit-bearing—jamun, mango, guava—vegetable vines, wildflowers, shrubs riotous with color at the waning of winter, and vegetable gardens for families, friends, and strangers. People spent so much time in their gardens that they used less electricity, and solar panels opened on rooftops like strangely winged birds.

One day, Mina’s car was at the repair shop, so she walked to the market and back. It felt strange at first—she could have sent the cook, but a mood was upon her because a pre-monsoon wind had been blowing that day. She didn’t much care for the fellow at the repair shop, a large, oily man with a large, oily stomach who’d been grumbling about the lack of business. Walking back, she was nearly run over by two cars and a bicycle, but apart from that it had been magical—the cascades of vines over boundary walls, the trees in the gardens filled with birdsong, the voices of people sitting in their verandahs and sipping cold lemon tea—and she got another idea. After much discussing, arguing, and persuading, eight months later, the road around the square became barred to cars except for one that was kept there for emergencies—which worked on a rotation basis. For a modest fee, the car repair man agreed to keep everyone’s cars in his lot, and clean them every day; he and his family lived there, so they could keep an eye on the cars. People started walking to the market and to each other’s houses. With a new metro station nearby, some realized their cars were a liability, and sold them.

Then came the next big change, when the small park in the middle of the square became a place not only for morning yoga for the elders, and for kids to play games in the evenings, but also for cooking. Three households donated solar cookers. They started with one block party a week, but they enjoyed these so much that it became two, and then three times a week. There were only three dishes each time, but each was so well flavored and so redolent with fresh, homegrown vegetables that they got eaten very quickly. Mina insisted that the domestic staff of each household join these festivities, and bought another solar cooker to accommodate the additional people. Now people spent much less time staring at computer screens after they got home from work or school, and instead spent time together, and invented their own peculiar festivals. One of these was the Bird Migration Celebration. During the time when thousands of winter birds fly over the Himalayas from Siberia, they made ponds on the rooftop gardens for the birds to drink from, and although not many stopped at these modest places of succor, some did—once, a stately and rare Siberian crane spent a few minutes on Mina’s neighbor’s roof, to that perpetually status-seeking lady’s infinite gratification. The neighborhood got written about in newspapers and magazines, and was vilified and praised after getting an international Mother Earth Award from an obscure foreign foundation. The neighbors decided by consensus to name their little square Hariyali Bagh.

Hariyali Bagh might have remained an elitist, upper-class, upper-caste green island in the vast desert of resource-hungry civilization, if it hadn’t been for something that happened soon after. A leader of a youth climate movement, who was a friend of one of the teens in the square, asked to use the park for a meeting. The committee agreed, and the meeting was held, with the solar cookers producing an aromatic rice pulao, a thick, savory daal, and a mouth-watering curry. The youth leaders’ passionate speeches gave Mina and her neighbors the first inkling of what their experiment might mean in the context of the unfolding planetary disaster.

“We cannot stay ignorant of these things,” Mina said. “We must educate ourselves more deeply.”

“Then you must be willing to learn from those who are the most oppressed in society,” said one of the youth leaders. “That will be more difficult than greening your gardens, because you will have to face your own role in the rampant injustices behind our crises.”

“I have only a couple of decades of active life,” Mina said, “so I might as well learn all the world has to teach me, hard though it might be. Otherwise, what a waste!”

So the little square park became a place for people to come and gather and learn. They hosted a gathering of Adivasi thinkers and activists, and Mina’s neighbor’s Adivasi cleaning man joined the queue of guests being served food. The status-seeking neighbor lady’s be-ringed hand, holding the serving ladle for the daal, paused for a moment, but there was a magazine photographer nearby. She was a quick thinker, and recognized the snob value of performative humility. So she served her cleaning man, albeit with a ghastly smile, and her photograph appeared in a praise-filled article in her favorite glossy.

By now the young gardener’s children were going to highly rated schools with Mina’s help, and they spoke English quite as well as the other children. They had the run of Mina’s house, so it was confusing for the status-conscious guests—were they to be treated like servants, or like real people? These disruptions of the hierarchical order were exacerbated by every teaching circle and gathering in the park, and inevitably gave rise to conflict and debate.

A turning point was a panel discussion, organized by the youth climate movement. It featured, among others, an Adivasi climatologist sharing her calculations that cast a critical eye on official carbon-emission figures, a Muslim ecologist describing the destruction of the Aravallis, just a stone’s throw away, and a Dalit oceanographer pointing out problems with the government’s deep-ocean mining project off the east coast of the country. These speakers brought the cold eye of official scrutiny to Hariyali Bagh. But by now, there were Hariyali Baghs in other places also, and their members were beginning to talk with each other in online forums on a regular basis—so the social-media storm that followed the subsequent police questioning of children of the households prevented, for the moment, any further action.

Warrants were put out for the arrest of the three panelists on charges of sedition, and their homes were raided, but Mina offered them shelter, so they laid low at her house. Early the next morning, a frantic neighbor called to tell Mina that the police had arrived at his house across the park, under the mistaken impression it was Mina’s. So the three fugitives had to be quickly smuggled out into the back lane, and through a complicated process involving various groups across the country, they were taken to separate safe havens that had sprung up in response to the surveillance state. This event caused some schisms that could not be healed—one family across the square declared quite openly that they had called the police, as it was their duty as patriotic citizens. The next neighborhood meeting was a veritable Mahabharata of arguments, tears, and recriminations, and soon afterwards the self-proclaimed patriots decided to sell their home and move away. The committee, which by now comprised not only the homeowners but all who lived in Hariyali Bagh, made a quick decision to pool funds and buy the home of the family that was leaving, to forestall any problems with unknown and possibly hostile tenants. The new jointly owned property provided rooms and offices for the community to host visitors and to house a permanent urban ecologist.

In the wake of the panel, the warrants, and the conflictual aftermath, Hariyali Bagh became a movement, spreading and birthing multiple and diverse versions throughout the country. Some were pale imitations, founded mostly for show and self-congratulation, but others engaged critically with both their immediate locales and the world at large. Many of these were networked, sharing environmental data, resources, and tactics. Calculations compiled across Hariyali Bagh communities showed that the savings in energy, fuel, and food alone provided much-needed space for the impoverished in those regions to partake of the limited share of resources and ease their lives a little. The cultural shift helped shame the rich; social-climbing wannabes had to find other ways to show off, and in this respect Mina’s status-seeking neighbor became a well-known, if sanctimonious, advice columnist.

More than anything, it became apparent that the path toward a viable future must imply different connotations of wealth, separate from profligate spending, consumption, and energy use, and that a ceiling on such things was necessary for a just transition. Some of the more politically astute among the Hariyali Bagh movement’s participants pushed for laws that, for example, punished excessive electricity use and guaranteed free electricity to all up to a certain level of kilowatt-hours. Modest living became aspirational, and here the creative brilliance of those who were in the medium-poor category came into play, because they were experts in communitarian, low-consumption lifestyles. New festivals, parties, and gatherings were concocted; in one neighborhood, the emergence of fledglings from their nests became an excuse for bird-feeding parties, to the delight of humans and avians alike. New forms of fashion based on reused material became the norm in regions where the Hariyali Bagh movement took hold.

When she was quite old, Mina remained as vigorous as an aging body would permit an unquenchable spirit to be. One day she sat amidst the semi-wild profusion of her rooftop garden, gazing at the newly green patina on the distant Aravalli hills. Her house was, as usual, full of guests, and she needed a moment of solitude. She was going to give a speech tomorrow in the park, with the grandchildren of the current residents, and various dignitaries, intellectuals, and activists in attendance. They were going to give her an award that she didn’t need or want, but honor must be acknowledged honorably. What would she say in her acceptance speech that might echo through the generations? A koel called from the depths of the mango tree; a treepie answered with a series of musical gurgles. Clouds raced across the vast sky like urgent messengers, and the wind blew back her silver hair. From the street below came the high voices of children playing an invented game. In that moment, the words came to her.

“The project of freedom—of freeing ourselves from fear and hatred and greed, and re-entering true community with all humans and the rest of nature—is never over. We have achieved much, but never be complacent: our multiple paradises can be taken away, ruined, destroyed by those who have a narrow, self-seeking, hate-mongering view of the world. These are often our own people, sometimes people we love. We must continue to engage with those whose ears are still open, and show them that they need not be afraid of a world that is diverse and beautiful.

“Surrendering the delusion of absolute control, listening to the voices of multiple humans and nonhumans, being part of an egalitarian community instead of a hierarchy—this does not mean being pushed down, does not mean losing one’s voice, but, in fact, the opposite. I have discovered that my own freedom is contingent upon the freedom of others, that my own learning is enriched most by the experiences of those who are not like me, and that my own life is possible because of the lives and deaths of multiple others, from humans to the birds of the air and the worms of the soil, from the elephants and whales and tigers to the microbes that inhabit my body. We belong not just to our families and towns, religions and countries, but to the Earth herself, and through her, to the cosmos.

“So remember to listen, to notice, to think, to always hold in the center of your being the voices of those who, in our unjust world, suffer the most. Remember that we are entangled, all of us, with each other and other lifeforms on this beautiful planet. Remember that if you haven’t tasted true joy, the joy of connection and community that is as small as your neighborhood and as wide as the world, then you have missed the true essence of life. It is literally and viscerally true that we must find ways to love one another or die.”

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