Last Saturday as I returned from my round of tennis, I saw 2 JCBs standing at the end of the road, ominously. Post-lunch (theirs) they started. They began ripping out the road which hadn’t been repaired in 8 years and had gone to a state of no-return. We stood guard to ensure that they never got to our water pipes that were passing 6 inches under the road cutting across it. Thankfully, their work was only at a one-inch level.
They got past the neighbour’s, two houses down, and spared the (illegal) fenced garden outside the house. We were slightly relieved. A few minutes later, the contractor came over and barked orders to pull down everything from storm water drain to storm water drain.
I rushed into our thota (garden), moved all the pots to the top of the covered storm water drain. The bird feeder was brought in. No birds had yet discovered it. The curry leaf tree(Murraya koenigii) was slowly dismembered of its leaves. I started breaking it down, taking more and more branches with their leaves inside. A visitor was given one branch. The workers stopped me as I passed them. “Inga konjam kudein?” (give me some, no?) they asked. I passed along largish twigs, enough to last a week for an average household. Some were distributed to the neighbours. The neighbour’s thota was reached. It was ripped out mercilessly by the JCB.
They came to ours soon and slowly brought it down. The flower bushes were pulled out – the pink hibiscus plant, the kakada bush, some turmeric. And finally the curry leaf tree. The tree was pulled out and flung aside easily, and the workers stopped work for a while. It was brought back, leftover leaves plucked out and distributed amongst themselves before being thrown away. The JCB driver called out for his share to take home.
They got to the red hibiscus bush after clearing the fencing. One worker asked the driver to spare it. “Has grown so well, and is close to the edge, why remove it, let us leave it”. They then got to the two trees standing inside – the Mango tree and the Parijatha tree(Nyctanthes arbor-tristis). “I’ll remove the Parijatha tree, and spare the Mango” the driver offered. The trees were a few inches apart, almost growing attached to each other. They were at least two feet from the drain, so I knew I had some convincing to do. The thing in my favour was that these trees were in the same line as the Sampige tree(Magnolia champaca) in the corner and 2 feet from there too. I told them that since they would be sparing that tree in any case, bringing down these two trees makes no sense. “It’s not like a vehicle can pass here!”
The driver’s argument was that his instructions were to pull down every tree that wasn’t BBMP’s! I pointed out that a tree is a tree, whether it is BBMP’s or not, and now that it was in the road, it hardly belonged to us in any case. Of course, it’s a different matter that the same BBMP doesn’t turn up to fight for its trees when they are pulled down when houses are being constructed!
After much convincing, and coaxing, he agreed to let it be. “If someone asks, don’t put the blame on us!” and he conceded the tree. The thechi(Ixora coccinea) in the corner was also pulled out and that was it. Then they began digging out the soil, to bring it to the same level as the road. “Bag irukuda?” (have a bag?) asked the workers. What for? “Mannu” (soil).
The thota itself was a “gift” from our contractor. He brought in 2 truckloads of red soil, created a barbed wire fence and left it to us. The parents planted the trees and the plants that they needed for their daily use. It was predominantly floral because of that. The mango tree came up by accident. After eating a mango, Appa tossed the seed in there, just to see if something comes up. Something did.
For me, more than the loss of the plants itself, it is what those plants meant. The hibiscus bush once hosted a nest of Red-whiskered bulbuls. Spring is heralded by purple-rumped and purple sunbirds chirping all over the garden. Tailorbirds bathed on the leaves in summer in the excess water from the overhead tank after it overflows. Great tits, Warblers tweeted and clicked around. The odd Signature spider turned up in August. Monsoons brought out snails, toads and slugs. Caterpillars spun their cocoons on the bushes and emerged as butterflies.
It wasn’t just a thota, it was an ecosystem in itself. Yes, it was illegal. We had taken over what was earmarked as footpath space. The road had three layers – the storm water drain, space for the footpath, and then the road itself. The current demolition of gardens is scary in a lot of ways. The storm water drain, which lies around 9 inches above ground is expected to serve the purpose of footpath. Never mind that it is barely a foot in width, and is 9 inches above ground. What used to be the footpath is now taken over by the road, so that people can park their cars outside. The glut of cars all over has meant that passing cars barely squeeze through the gap between parked cars. But this was on the perpendicular roads, where there were no gardens in the first place.
Yes, I try to justify the thota. It was illegal, on public property. I wish we had larger space to be able to make a thota inside the property, but that’s not possible. Pots don’t create the same wilderness as a rooted ground. But it was a green space, in a locality where trees are being cut down by almost every other new house, and if not, pruned by BESCOM as they continue to refuse to move electric wires underground. Trees now grow slanted, away from the wires, and in some cases, like a ‘Y’, letting the wires pass in the gap. Who said trees are not intelligent?!
I already miss the toads that used to hop all over the roads when it rained. The day after a rainy night you could see carcasses of toads littering the street, flattened by passing cars. There were also sparrows and babblers that my parents used to leave rice for. You miss a day, and they’d remind you, sitting on the grill, calling out. There were fireflies flitting around, occasional pulses of light in the darkness.
There are no sparrows left near my house. I see them in an older area as I walk to the bus stop. What used to be once a village, with houses that also have cattle sheds, where people sit outside washing vessels or combing each others’ hair. Sparrows chirp around while calves walk the streets.
I had left a bird feeder on the mango tree, it was untouched. The birds that visit come for the flowers and the bugs. I had hung out a bird house behind the hibiscus bush, but none came. At one point a neighbour remarked to my father – “Haven’t seen you in a long time, don’t see your house these days also.” It was covered behind bushes and trees.
Moving on, I hope to put up a terrace garden. But that wouldn’t have the kind of wilderness a thota has. The birds that visit won’t be the same. Once the road is done, I need to think up some way to grow some plants again, just for the birds, the bugs, the snails, slugs and the spiders. A place that they can visit. “Laws” be damned.