Off-Centre Society

Garden city, Stygian stream

Choked: The Vrishabhavathi river in Bengaluru.   | Photo Credit: Sampath Kumar G.P.

My grandfather’s uncle chose a fertile piece of land next to the Vrishabhavathi river for his farm. He fenced off enough land for himself and started cultivating and rearing cattle. The river waters were fresh, the fish and crabs plenty. He planted several fruit trees, ploughed the soil, harvested ragi, corn and other grains round the year. Wild animals frequented his farm and occasionally took away his cattle, but he wasn’t alarmed.

When my grandfather grew up and was appointed as a primary school teacher in a nearby village, he invested his salary into making the farm a more habitable place. The water from the wells tasted sweet, and the crop rotation went perfectly round the year without a single failure. All was well.

A decade or so later, all the wells had dried up. There was barely enough water for domestic purposes and none at all for farming. And the river? The smell of sewage rose from it now. Fortunately, the rains filled up a lake nearby. Its water levels kept fluctuating, but it never dried up when my mother and her siblings were growing up. Eventually, they were able to install a borewell without drilling very far, thanks to the lake. Water was no longer a problem. But my grandfather was secretly scared.

Childhood idyll

The sandalwood trees attracted poachers, while the farm attracted wild birds and animals. Apparently, a very brainy leopard stayed on the farm for about three years. I was three and a half years old when it stopped visiting us. The forest officers had failed to resettle it in the forest. After multiple attempts, they gave up. So, we wove our lives around that of the leopard.

My grandfather had now retired from his school. He, my cousin and I would pet our favourite cow and take her to graze around the farm. While she fed, we would spread a mat under a drooping mango tree and eat the fruit from its laden branches. My grandmother would make tongue-smacking pickles, sweet mango milkshakes, and cool lemon juice.

When she had a few minutes to spare, she tended to the various floral and ornamental plants in the backyard. My uncle would climb coconut trees and we’d drink the water from tender coconuts with papaya stalks as straw.

After dinner, my cousin and I would jump along with a dozen or so frogs in the veranda. Finally, we would nod off to the soothing voice of my grandmother as she narrated a story or sang a song.

More wild animals started visiting the farm during summers. Whole herds of elephants at a time. They destroyed crops and plantations, and scared away the cattle. They came all the way from Bannerghatta because the surplus water near our farm attracted them. The water from the lake, not the river. It was hard even to make out the latter, buried as it was beneath the plastic bags that plastered the surface. But we could smell it, and it smelled disgusting, so we steered away from that part of the farm. My grandfather finally voiced his worries.

Faint stench

My grandparents built another big house in the middle of a village and shifted there, while my grandfather’s younger brother, a devoted farmer, stayed in the farmhouse with his family. We would visit whenever I had holidays, but these summers were different. Less fun.

By the summer of my 13th year, a decade later, the lake had dried up. My grandmother’s ornamental garden had disappeared, our favourite cow was sold, and my grandfather’s favourite mango tree felled. Coconut trees drooped, looking dehydrated.

Next summer, a faint stench of sewage welcomed me. They had fixed motors near the river and pumped water from there. The farm looked greener, better than last time. But I wasn’t offered tender coconut this time as drainage water had been used to keep the trees alive. The farmhands walked around in ugly black boots and wore giant gloves while working on the land.

My grandparents and uncle spoke casually about the neighbouring villages selling away the fruit and vegetables irrigated by drainage water to markets in the city. But the villagers were careful about what they ate. They bought fruits and vegetables from farms that used “good” water. My uncle even joked about the water used to grow the fruit and vegetables that I ate. I was a resident of Bengaluru, after all.

Uncomplaining river

Initially, I found this selfish. But I later realised that we, the city people, had pushed the farmers to this dead end. That I, along with every other Bengaluru resident, had polluted the Vrishabhavathi, snatching away the livelihood of innocent people.

Next summer made me shiver. Life on the farm wasn’t easy; most of the people had grown bony and fragile. It looked like they had long abandoned their boots and gloves, oblivious to the stench, the dangers. The soil looked extremely unhealthy.

The summer after, there were no farmhands on the farm. It was just my great-uncle and his family. His eldest son had landed a modest job at a nearby factory, in Kengeri. The industrial waste from this factory was released untreated into the uncomplaining Vrishabhavathi.

The river flows on like it always has. The farmers have stopped working on the fields, repelled by the smell, their lives, the river.

My grandparents stay safely in their semi-rural house, while my uncle drives around central Bengaluru, persuading rich men to buy land. His kids play a game where they hold their breath when their father drives across the bridge beneath which the bad waters rush past. The person who holds their breath long enough for the stench to have gone unnoticed is the winner. Their young faces go red as they try to win.

The writer is an awkward 19-year-old obsessed with graphic novels.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 2:22:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/garden-city-stygian-stream/article33632726.ece

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