Barefoot in the Garden


As lockdown laid bare the unpredictability and newness of everyday, my life seemed indistinguishable from an ordinary March day to the other. One early morning, my eyes followed a rather talkative bird in the garden. It was scruffy, bluish-black and pecked at some seeds that I may have spilled during my gardening endeavours. The bird was a starling. It noisily chirped and hopped about the hedges. As I continued to trowel the soil, some wood pigeons flew above me, cooing. A chaffinch joined in from the roof of the garage. I sat still on the ground with peaked ears. Listening out for birdsongs quickly became a favourite part of the lockdown.

I like nature. For some time now, I have been teaching myself about the birds and trees commonly found in British gardens. I live with a historian who writes on family and kinship in Victorian Britain and is an avid gardener. Behind her house, there is a paved garden full of trees and shrubs, and a garage that on occasion have doubled-up as a greenhouse. We discussed planting a kitchen-garden this spring. She had large planter boxes in which she had raised vegetables before. We rounded up what we had and purchased more seeds as the country went into lockdown. The public at large were asked to exercise voluntary restraint and cautioned against traveling outside our homes for more than once a day. The parks nearby had sprung into a riot of colours and I felt sad to not test my slowly growing knowledge on springtime blooms. All over the world death and disease came to be a part of daily conversation. Alongside those, the garden became central to our quotidian lives.

April is the cruelest month, wrote Eliot. But it is also the month to sow seeds. Every morning I deadheaded the rotten leaves, cleaned cobwebs off the branches that rattled the sparrows who sat on them. I set up small seed starter-trays, measured the compost and soil within which seeds were buried. I labelled and watered them, placed them in the shade of the garage and waited. I stole two roses peeking from above a neighbour’s garden. I told myself, every garden needs roses. By then, only the cherry tree and the daffodils had flowered, the garden appeared more brown than green. I wore gardening gloves for the first time and cleaned the pots in which seedlings were meant to be placed in. I practiced my shearing techniques on the forsythia which I was told grows as fast as weeds. On the third day, a bee stung me and died. The next day I clobbered a paper-thin moth. In the absence of rain, I took to watering the garden at sundown.

For many months now I have been forced out of active public life due to a severely injured knee. In the UK, hospitals postponed all non-emergency surgical procedures, that included my arthroscopy. I continued to walk with crutches. My right foot could not fully balance the weight of my body. I hobbled to the stores to for essentials every week. Sometimes, I was given way before the others. In the queues, we breathed uncomfortably inside our masks, muttered to ourselves, listened to the screeching of a hundred trolleys before distancing ourselves further. After one such expedition-for-essentials, I dumped my bags in the garden and chided the carrots to grow faster. That would be one less thing to queue for.

Birdsongs were sometimes accompanied by sirens of ambulances. In May they sounded ominously closer to us and were more frequent. There was a sense of foreboding but also a vestige of theatricality – I never paid attention to the sirens before and now every time they rang out, it reminded me of new forms of death. The silent waiting of a medical van outside our doors to drive my neighbour to his chemotherapy sessions is what I reckon an act of normalcy. The sudden flourish of the arts on social networking and video-sharing sites too became the new normal. Since nowadays one needs to be seen in sharing a sense of solidarity, I coaxed myself to dance for the camera. The garden transformed into a practice space on one day, a site of dance on another. Relearning some movements have been slow as I could not trust my right foot completely. But it was a joy to move under cloud-laden skies, with curious magpies amongst the thriving plants that I have come to nurture. My bare feet picked up mud and mulch, I squished a large snail during the shooting of a video and carried on as nothing had happened. I felt compelled to not stop in reverence for an absent audience. I picked out broken bits of the shell from my feet – it was not uncommon for me to have stepped on nails and shards on stage. Nor was it unconventional to dance amidst nature. But to dance barefoot in the garden in the times of a pandemic made me feel angsty and redemptive at the same time. I felt I must process the pulse of dance while still being a part of it, while my feet still allows me to be on the ground. What if I never gain full strength in my legs?

Weeks have passed. All this while, I knew I had to stretch my savings very thin. In the outer world – medical, economic, political, environmental problems have begun to manifest in inequality and prejudice in healthcare, acute shortage of food, racially motivated attacks and resistance, aftermath of natural disasters. Most events alerted and disturbed my conscience but did not affect my existence at large. I have had to check my privilege. I have had to switch my phone off and retreat deeper into books and gardening. As I read Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, interconnections of precarity of livelihoods, interdependency of bodily and social lives became sharper. The surge in creativity ebbed for a few days. At the cusp of spring and summer, one single petunia bloomed in a cracked pot. I nudged the roots out and transplanted it into a fresh vessel. Within a week it died of shock. The roots could not acclimatize to the new surroundings. Or perhaps I mishandled and injured them. The pea-shrub was growing rapidly; as soon as little white flowers came on the vines; they were tied to a sturdy set of sticks. The carrots have not quite caught on, but if all goes well – we might find ourselves with several radishes.

On a whim I bought a waist-high bougainvillea from a nearby garden centre and hung it on a trellis. It reminded me of pink summers in my old university in New Delhi. The rosemary from previous season was prospering well. We shifted five large pots of fertilizer-rich soil with tomato seedlings into the garage. Some coriander and bok choy rose above the soil. I remembered to keep them well-drained lest they bolt. Gardenias in many different shades have been blooming along the flower beds. They have no fragrance. I renewed my energy towards plucking/stealing some roses and dousing the stems in rooting gel before placing them in the soil. It is now June. I had gone over to trim the hedges in my neighbour’s garden. High up on a ladder with a protective mask across my face and glove-covered hands, I ran the shears in every direction possible. My knee wobbled, and I fell sideways and hung on to the fence that separates our houses. The smile on my neighbour’s face said I had done an okay job.

Recently I plucked some courgettes from the planter box. They were deep green, thick and would not fit in my hand. I tossed them with herbs that have grown over the past few weeks. It was a meal made from our homegrown produce. The garden in its constrained splendour have helped me adjust and calibrate me to a quieter, more sensitive place. The crises are not unique to me, it has cut others deeper, harder. It is not bad here yet. My days that flit between isolation and solitude are made beautiful by a couple of redbreasted robins singing to the apple tree every day. It will be heavy with fruit come autumn.