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When we were last in Munshiari, our son was not yet born, and Zanskar was a day short of five years old. He shared a birthday with Premila, so we found a candle and lit it atop a Britannia sliced cake, in the little stone cottage that was Mallika and Theo’s home.
Mallika and Zanskar left the next morning, and with Theo already on a field trip, we had the home to ourselves. It sat on a terrace just above a large meadow, far removed from the homes in Sirmauli village below. When we bathed by the handpump behind the house, the forest and the snows of the Panchuli range were our only witnesses.
Now the house has been extended to the rear end of the terrace, and though large glass panes still allow the Panchuli peaks watch you bathe, the bathroom is enclosed, and water runs warm in the taps.
Last weekend, we parked our car at a bend above their house, and walked through a forest rich with mulch and ferns, nurtured over the 25 years since our first visit, populated with fine specimens of walnut and horse chestnut, maple and rhododendron, several species of oak, and the feathery bamboo that we know as ‘ringaal’.
Three fences later, we emerged into a paved garden, fringed with spring blossoms, and potted begonias in several hues of pink and red. The meadow below was now ringed by mature trees, screening the homestead from the habitation that was creeping up from the Madkot road well below us. Mallika and Theo were in a village meeting, so we lazed in the meadow, my long form draped across the grass, Premila dozing in the shade of a deodar approaching adulthood, Hanumant and Mo fielding phone calls before they embarked on their walk into the high mountains.
When Theo emerged from his meeting, he walked us to the edge of the meadow, where he had channelled a stream into a narrow pond, stocked with carp, and regularly fished by their domestic feline. A blue carp had apparently survived, and grown to well over a foot, but we couldn’t spot it in the shadowy water.
After lunch, a langar for the village gathering, we drove to our lodgings for the night, intending to return to this gorgeous setting for a sundown drink. But the rain came down all evening, and we snuggled deeper into our blankets. The drive home from Munshiari is long, so we left the next morning without visiting Mallika and Theo; over the phone, though, we did tell them how moved we were by the beauty they have wrought in their neck of the woods.
We spent much of the day driving through the summer heat of the valleys between Munshiari and our village of Satoli, along slopes of browning pines and doughty lantana, through the cascading habitation of Almora, to the quiet of our own pond at dusk. The ducks were dozing under the willow tree, bills tucked into their feathers, their heads turned backwards. One untwisted its head, opened an eye, decided nothing was amiss, and sank back into the grass.
The plums, green when we had left, were acquiring a gentle blush. On the terrace below, the apricots were turning to gold, and in a few days, our fruit bowl would spill over with ripe fruit, our living room fill with their aroma.
Hanumant and Mo would be tramping the ridges and high valleys of northern Kumaon - how much my heart aches for those visions of untrammelled beauty, those rolling pastures, those carpets of forest spread out below a pass. But, there’s more to a garden than consolation for a fading trekker.
A garden, especially a garden in the mountains, is a conversation between nature and nurture. Our home was crafted out of abandoned marsh land, where tree stumps had rotted, and thorny shrubs had colonised the soil. We excavated the marsh, a few shovels at a time, till the lower half of our land was a vast slope of oozing mud. Eighteen feet deeper, we found a tiny spring, now liberated from hundreds of tons of soil. A mason, working on the foundations of our cottage, said this was shubh, a blessing. Now that we have this enormous cavity, can we build a pond, I asked him. On a hillside starved of water every summer, this was an audacious thought, but the master-mason’s eyes lit up under his pebble-thick spectacles. Let’s.
There was a stub of an oak tree at the edge of the pond, which was now slowly filling. We buttressed its roots with freshly hewn stone, and curved the steps to our verandah around its base. On the far end, now denuded of bramble and brush, we planted a weeping willow. Into the deep stone walls of the pond, we created a shelf of flower beds, planted to hydrangea, which should enjoy the moisture. On the terraces that climbed away from the pond, towards the forest, we cut back the brush and the dry pine, creating room for oak and rhododendron.
Gradually, the old roots in the soil found the confidence to emerge into soil that was protected from predators and marsh. As trees grew, they created shade for lilies and fuchsia, for azaleas and deep red poppies.
Then the birds came, the barbets and the laughing thrushes, the shy blackbirds, and the lampuchiyas, the orange-billed Himalayan magpies, whose tails are as magnificent as their cry is raucous. A family of swifts built their bottle-shaped nest under the rafters of our verandah, and in the bright light of mid-day, butterflies dance in the buddleia bushes that sowed themselves into the friendly soil of our garden.
This year, thanks to a long and moist spring, clumps of blindingly white daisies had sprung up in clumps across the land. Like the dragonflies that adopted our pond, they need no invitation to join the kaleidoscope outside our windows, this play of light and shading leaves, of petals and butterfly wings, of tart berries and plums dripping with juice.
Last week, I heard the flowers speak to the rain, give thanks with an effluence of fresh colour. Every evening, the frogs announce the passing of the day, and if you wake at night, a Scops owl punctuates the dark silence. As a garden matures, like wise parents, you step back, let it discover itself, relish its conversation with nature, the journey of life that you once seeded.