It’s 6:30 am and the air is refreshing and cool. The streets of Raja Park are still fairly empty at this hour as Shammi Nanda and I ride down towards Suraj Maidan. We arrive and Shammi pulls out his ever-growing key ring and opens up the park gates, unlocks the water tap, pulls out the hose and starts watering. We say hello to Avinash, and he and I head over to trade my cycle for the three-wheeled transport cycle rickshaw that belongs to the neighbour. The work day is about to begin.
Five years back, Shammi and his neighbour Raman had discovered some little mango trees growing out of the compost pit in Shammi’s backyard, and decided to do a little bit of “guerilla gardening” and plant them in the park across the street, called “Suraj Maidan”. Just as a small seed invisibly holds within it the magic of a whole forest, little did they know at that time what would blossom from this simple act.
Sadly, none of the original mango trees are left today, having succumbed to climatic conditions unsuited to the flourishing of a plant that grows best in humid, tropical environments, and to the treacherous kite strings which are strewn throughout Jaipur in the winter season. Coated with crushed glass all the better to cut through a neighbours kite, releasing it into the sky and creating victory for the flyer whose kite is flying fastest, the strings often get tangled around birds and young trees. But the spirit of those first mango trees lives on in the now nearly two hundred saplings and young trees that grow in their place, scattered around the walking path that runs the circumference of the park.
Avinash hops on Shammi’s cycle, allowing me the pleasure of riding the cycle rickshaw up to the market. It takes a little while to get used to, turning corners and avoiding potholes, but once I am comfortable I have a burning, secret love for moving around on it. When I ride the rickshaw, I imagine my instant acceptance into the brotherhood of those who keep the city running under the steam of their own thighs. All around me, they are moving air coolers and overstuffed jute bags, pyramids of 20-litre oil cans, precariously piled sheets of tin and rebar that threaten to slip off the back of the cart. We cycle past the ice man, his cart filled with three giant slabs of ice. A bold defiance of the ever-increasing morning heat.
We arrive at the first stop: the sugar-cane juice shop at the market. Unfortunately, today, the juice-wallah hasn’t kept the cane fibers in the jute bag in front of the machine. Instead, we cross the road and park the cycle rickshaw in front of the market dump, and set to work loading the cart with the fibers left behind when the grinder has squeezed out all of their juice. It’s a strange sight for most people, a middle-class-looking Avinash and a decidedly videshi (“non-local”)-looking Stephanie walking through the market waste on the road and loading it by the armful into a cycle rickshaw. Sometimes they stop and ask, sometimes with amazement, sometimes with disgust, what we are doing – other times they just stare. My vocabulary expands from these conversations, learning the key word “khad” (manure) to explain mulch. Somehow it seems to satisfy people enough to know that the waste is going for mulch, though the other questions must remain unanswered in their heads – why are these people bringing mulch to a public park?
We ride back over to the park, push the rickshaw up the ramp through the gate and onto the walking path, and start distributing the mulch around some of the young trees, wherever we think it needs it most. It’s amazing to notice the difference in the quality of the soil underneath the layers of mulch we’ve laid over the last week: damp and rich with bugs and insects of all kinds. Most of the park is a sandy desert, appropriate for cricket playing and relatively comfortable for the volleyball team to play their daily morning game, but not much else. The walking path, filled at this hour with aunties and uncles who live in the surrounding areas getting their morning exercise, is in most places exposed to the sun and burning hot by 8:30 am. But that is slowly changing: some of the young trees are already providing shade, and the temperature difference between the areas where we’ve planted and those which remain barren is noticeable.
It’s simple work now for us, throwing the mulch down, watering the plants with the hose and saying hello to the aunties and uncles. But the groundwork which makes our seva possible has been laid slowly, painstakingly over the last five years, one conversation at a time. At the beginning, the mali (gardener) didn’t like us using the hose and instead would fill a tank with water, and we would walk around the park with buckets, watering the saplings one by one. If Shammi was in town for a few days and went to put some mulch around the plants, the mali would take it away once he was gone, as it was deemed an eyesore. Now, Shammi has won the trust not only of the mali, who has given him a key to the water tap and the front gate to let us bring in the rickshaw-loads of mulch, but of the whole community: the volleyball team pooled money together to buy new benches for the park, and even spent one morning cleaning out one of the water tanks that had become filled with garbage. They’ve even hired a second mali whose only job is to water the trees when Shammi isn’t able to come.
That’s not to say that there aren’t still some frictions. When we made a batch of amrit paani, a fermented cow dung and cow urine mixture which does wonders for the soil’s effective microorganism content, some of the morning walkers were not exactly thrilled with the smell. People may still think Shammi is a bit crazy, but his dedication, openness and commitment has won them over. These days, he can barely get through a round of watering without someone coming over to ask him about what changes they should make to their diet to help with their diabetes, arthritis, extra weight, heart problems, etc.
We head out for our second round of compost, this time to one of the neighbourhoods nearby where people have extensive lawns and gardens. Avinash says, “this area never disappoints.” There’s always some pile of leaves or cut grass we can bring back to the park to cover up the sugar cane mulch, a small nod to aesthetics. Swati and Aditya are there when we return, helping Shammi to water and distribute the last few buckets of amrit paani to some of the smallest trees. When the rickshaw is empty it’s time for the first break of the day – we wash up and slurpingly devour slice after slice of the watermelon that Shammi has bought the day before. Just when the Jaipur heat becomes most intolerable, so dry that when I cycle and try to have a conversation my mouth becomes chalky in moments, the local varieties of watermelon start appearing to quench our thirst : nature gives us the most wonderful of treats.
After our snack is our favourite run of the day – Avinash and I head over to what Shammi has crowned as “the best sugar cane juice shop in all of India”, conveniently located only a 10-minute cycle away from Suraj Maidan. The uncle (respectful name for any adult whose name you don’t know) who runs the shop gladly lets us empty his jute bag of scraps on to the rickshaw, and we sit down for a taste of heaven. Most sugar cane juice is made with ice of dicey providence, so at any other shop we always have to order it bina barf, without ice, to avoid spending the next day at the toilet. But this uncle makes the ice himself, in his own freezer, and brings it from home, so I get to enjoy the luxury of the delicious, minty sweet drink served chilled. We fill a bottle and bring it with us to share with the rest of the team back at the park.
By the time we return, the volleyball team have finished their game, the walkers have completed their last rounds, and the park is empty save the young cricketers, who seem immune to the sun’s harsh glare. We distribute the last round of mulch, roll up the hose, lock up the tap and the gate, return the rickshaw to the neighbour and head out to the fruit shop to fill the basket on my cycle with mangoes, and discover what the rest of the day has in store.
The experience is written and shared by Stephanie Childs, who is visiting various organic farms in India and participating in various community building activities around the world.
Avinash, Swati and Aditya are friends from Jaipur who also helped Shammi in collecting mulch.