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Earth in rest

Sumana Roy | Updated on April 09, 2021

On its own: The piece of ‘unused’ land allows one to breathe, and is quite like the full stop in a sentence   -  ISTOCK.COM

Sumana Roy   -  BusinessLine

To be that unassuming patch in the backyard that is under no pressure to produce anything ‘useful’

* This piece of land has mostly lived without human control, apart from the occasional planting of seeds by strangers

* It is ours and yet not quite. And, so, whether consciously or not, I have not turned it into what could have been a kitchen garden

* The ash gourds are tall now, some of them plump, some lanky, unpredictable, like teenagers

***

The boundary walls in our house are low — men and animals climb in easily: Cows eat the unkempt grass, stand, wait, and often leave behind cow dung as a return gift; the dogs play and sleep; the humans take away the datura and other flowers from the plants; some carry long bamboo sticks to poke the bananas to fall to the ground. Most of the plants and trees in the backyard have grown on their own — how I can’t quite say, just as I can’t quite say how I came to live in this house. From time to time we complain about the height of the wall, but there also seems to be a skin of contentment in seeing this piece of land, however tiny, being used by strangers. In the neighbourhood, this is the only piece of ‘land’ that remains uncolonised by buildings. Since it is almost at the end of a lane, I sometimes think of it as a much-needed full stop in a long sentence. This piece of ‘unused’ land allows us to breathe, like the full stop does, like a bed, whose unused space accommodates us — all of us.

I think if I were a bird, I might have seen it as the thalamus of a flower — everywhere around it are buildings, like petals, only less graceful, and this piece of land its centre. From the houses — all new apartment blocks, ours being the only one of two old houses that survive on this street — people look out on it at different times of the day. I have seen many treat it like a dump yard — they throw banana peels and mango seeds. I mention these two and not the plastic packets for a reason. When the other members of the family complain about the behaviour of our neighbours, I tell them that they also add to the quality of soil in the backyard. Let us not be finicky, I say.

Every year or so, a stranger will shout from the gate — “Didi, I’ve got a few chalkumro seeds from my village. Will you let me plant them here? I live in a rented room near Debidanga...” I’ll look around to be sure that no one overhears this conversation, and then I say yes. Months of watering later, not all of it by me — the rains take over from time to time — the person who had tucked the seeds into the earth returns. I don’t know whether they had been keeping watch, but there they are — the ash gourds are tall now, some of them plump, some lanky, unpredictable, like teenagers. We are given a few, even when we protest. The carrier of the seeds takes the gourds and the long juicy stems and leaves with him. This is how cucumbers and bitter gourds and okra have been grown on this piece of land, without our assistance.

It is ours and yet not quite. And, so, whether consciously or not, I have not turned it into what could have been a kitchen garden. There are plants in every room in the house — on the stairs, on the terrace, hanging from balconies like forgetful monkeys, in bathrooms and the kitchen, on window boxes and bedside tables. These we have nurtured in pots. In the backyard though, most of the plants and trees have grown on their own. I say this not to emphasise its self-sustaining economy but to ask whether it is this that makes it a place of rest. I once called it ‘fallow’ and corrected myself immediately. To let a piece of land rest after cycles of work and production is the consequence of calling it fallow. This unassuming piece of land has mostly lived without human control, apart from the occasional planting of seeds by strangers.

I have looked over it for hours in the lockdown year. Left anxious by the virus and relentless thoughts about mortality, particularly of my parents, I have, without becoming aware of it, linked my life with the career and destiny of this unevenly shaped piece of land. Flats have come up around it, real estate agents have knocked on our door, and, in anger and frustration, have accused us of turning the land ‘useless’. The economy, for all the talk of its ‘slowing down’ because of Covid-19, hasn’t stopped itself from asking us — all kinds of workers — to be ‘productive’. Our bodies are wrung, our minds choked, our hearts gagged... How long can we go on like this, trying to prove our efficiency in unending cycles, like land made to overwork with the use of fertilisers?

Just a little rest, to be allowed to be a land that does not have to produce things for the use of men...?

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree; @SumanaSiliguri

Published on April 09, 2021

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