Green Card

How we turned a barren plot outside Chennai into a jungle that is now home to leopards and civets

Over 20 years, fuelled by ideas and hard work, my husband and I have managed to achieve what we set out to.

At mid-morning, the furnace-grade heat bounced off the hard clay. I couldn’t see myself living here. My husband, Rom Whitaker, though, was excited. His eyes were not set on the barren and brown rice field but on the scrubby hillocks that bordered it. I couldn’t see what he saw. But I was a dunce from the city. What did I know!

I had to grant one thing – the convenient location. As filmmakers, we flew to work and the airport was less than an hour’s drive away. Rom was the director of the Madras Crocodile Bank that was also within commuting distance. And I was only an hour south of my parents who lived in Chennai city.

We bought five acres of land in 1996 and began building our house. That winter, when the rains came, Rom coordinated a massive tree-planting operation. He had full-grown neem trees uprooted from the Crocodile Bank and planted them around the construction site. The staff were experienced at this, but as I was to discover later, previous efforts had been made along the sandy coast, where they had worked well. After we moved in early 1997, I examined the trees daily for fresh buds. But they seemed to have no such plans. When early summer heat sent its tentacles, I grew anxious. Would we have any shade?

“You cannot tolerate the heat here,” said our neighbours, sensing my discomfort and rubbing it in. “You’ll become black and run away.”

What the farm looked like 20 years ago.
What the farm looked like 20 years ago.

Many small creatures – centipedes, scorpions, treefrogs, toads, scutigers, pipistrelle bats – sought refuge in the house, blurring the line between indoors and outdoors. Their predators – birds and snakes – followed.

Soon it became apparent that the neem trees had given up the ghost rather than take root in this hostile soil. I almost did the same in the fury of that first summer.

“What are we going to do?” I whined.

“Give me seven years,” Rom replied.

Our neighbours predicted that the heat would drive us away.
Our neighbours predicted that the heat would drive us away.

An idea takes root

That was a lifetime away. Besides, trees take decades to grow. Who was he kidding? But what choice did I have?

As a member of the Palni Hills Conservation Council and a leading spirit at the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society, Rom had been a part of forestation efforts over hundreds of acres of land. He’s a tree-planting nut and ought to know what to do, I consoled myself. We made seed beds and planted seeds. We picked up saplings from nurseries in Auroville and the women’s society. The young things didn’t stand a chance. The hot summer breeze sucked the life out of them.

“We need to plant pioneers,” declared Rom. Pioneers are hardy species that can even grow in hell. He bought saplings of an Australian species – the earleaf acacia. Unlike the eucalytus’ water slurping ways, it is a force of good – putting nitrogen into the soil and creating shade and a windbreak that could shield native saplings.

We transplanted full-grown (surplus) trees from the Croc Bank.
We transplanted full-grown (surplus) trees from the Croc Bank.

We planted hundreds of acacias. Summer tried hard to break their will to live, but their green heads rustled like laughter in the hot breeze. Watering them once a week sent them sprinting skyward, and in the second year, they stood taller than Rom. Time for the real planting to begin. This is when I started to believe we might have a forest after all.

We planted youngsters of many fast-growing deciduous species – katva (Albizzia lebbeck), pungai (Milletia (Pongamia) pinnata), kadukka (Terminalia chebula), thani (Terminalia bellerica), naaval (Syzygium cumini) and several others – between the rows of acacias. Young bamboo culms lined the fence, in ditches we created to hold water. We focused all these efforts on one half of the land, and I thought wild seeds would root by themselves in the other half.

Even before we could rest from this effort, we bought four more acres adjacent to our home. As we did with the first chunk of land, we planted half the area and left the rest for birds to do their thing. And then we bought three more acres. We were gluttons for punishment.

This is what the land looks like now.
This is what the land looks like now.

Natural kingdom

In seven years, the three-storey-tall acacias crowded around the house obscuring the hills that captivated Rom so much. We took the Aussies out. The other trees closed the gaps and the canopy, now almost native save for a gulmohar and raintree, shaded our yard that was a few degrees cooler than the open areas. Through all this tending, I put my own roots into this land and it became home. Others seemed to agree. Indian grey mongooses, ruddy mongooses, black-naped hares, palm civets, spotted civets, porcupines, bonnet macaques and peacocks wandered among the trees. Our initial list of 50 species of birds swelled to more than 100.

In 2006, Karadi, my German shepherd, disappeared. A leopard had moved in. We pruned the lower branches for visibility, so we could see the cat if he was in the garden. But Rom argued vehemently, when I wanted to thin trees to gain a view of the hillocks. We couldn’t even see the full moon. Wherever we went, if Rom appreciated the vista, I taunted him, “Let’s plant trees so we can’t see it anymore.” I was mean but the tactic worked. We hit a compromise – we took out as few trees as possible and I was content to catch a glimpse of a slope here and there.

A leopard moved into our forest.
A leopard moved into our forest.

To study more of the leopard’s behaviour, we set up a camera trap. Our morning entertainment was to review the memory card’s chronicle of the comings and goings of various creatures.

In the meantime, seedlings stubbornly refused to take root in the vacant lot. No one looked forward to watery bird excrement raining down as much as I did in those years. I wondered if perhaps birds couldn’t poop in flight and need perches. But that wasn’t the problem.

Although the hillocks around us were severely degraded, at one time they would have had tall, stately trees of the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest. The thick crowns of these species luxuriate in the full force of the sun, but their seeds are delicate, germinating only in the shade. Our open field was too exposed to the elements – the soil too hot and the light too bright. These species wanted the company of other trees. I learned all this from our tree-planting friends in Auroville. There were no shortcuts. We had no choice but to go through the whole planting exercise again.

A jungle cat and her kittens became our visitors.
A jungle cat and her kittens became our visitors.

As the canopy extended across the whole farm, we came upon evidence of the leopard’s nocturnal hunting exploits – the guts and quills of porcupines, heads of hares and monkeys. Our garden was now a jungle.

Part of the whole

In order to truly integrate it with the remains of the surrounding forest, we had to up our game. I said to Rom, we ought to create a nursery of evergreen species – satinwood, ebony, bulletwood. There was also another reason to phase out the deciduous trees – the seasonal leaf shed. Starting in March, katva, banyan, pungai, kadukka, bamboo, teak drop their crowns. Raking our yard became an everyday chore during the hottest months of the year. Rom was burned out from all the planting if not from the raking and didn’t want to do more.

“They are so slow growing, they’ll take a century to reach my height,” he scoffed.

Common toads make themselves at home on our bookshelf.
Common toads make themselves at home on our bookshelf.

He was right, of course. One evergreen tree (Lepisanthes tetraphylla) didn’t seem to grow even an inch over several years. If that was the average rate of growth, we wouldn’t have a full-fledged evergreen forest in our lifetimes. It was a nice idea and so it would remain.

A few years ago, we set up solar panels to run entirely on renewable energy. Some trees have to be cut if the cells were to convert the sun’s rays into electricity. But Rom wouldn’t hear of it. Despite the expense, the system operates at half its potential and we continue to rely on the grid. I could nag him until he relents, but I choose my battles.

Now, 20 years after we moved here, ebony saplings grow in thick clusters in the shade. To our surprise, they seem to be in hurry to join the canopy. One youngster grew a foot within the past two summer months. Finally, the birds are taking over our role as tree-planters. The ebony doesn’t need anything from us – no mulching or watering. Just the shade is enough. Maybe in another 20 years, we’d have an evergreen ebony canopy.

All images courtesy the author.

The writer has chronicled her adventures with wild animals and neighbours in her books My Husband and Other Animals and My Husband and Other Animals 2.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.