Arvind stood on the front porch of his house, one shoulder snug against the door frame, his eyes glazed as memory supplied a lush greenness to offset the drab colours of reality. A brown and white striped cat perched regally on the porch railing, her tail wrapped around her like a statue in an Egyptian tomb.
A dot appeared at the end of the street and slowly resolved itself into a drone. The day’s milk delivery was here. As the drone neared, the cat unwound herself, jumped down and gently scratched Arvind’s leg.
His stupor broken, Arvind bent down, scratched the cat’s head and murmured, “Hungry, are you?”
The cat gave him a look and he laughed. If she had been human, he’d bet his life’s savings, she had raised an eyebrow and looked down disparagingly at him. A queen indeed, he thought, as Kannagi the cat stalked towards her bowl.
The drone landed. Arvind picked up the milk and went back into the house. This Kannagi might not burn down Madurai* but his furniture was in for some rude treatment if she didn’t get her milk on time.
He poured most of the milk into her bowl, reserving a small amount for his morning coffee. As he heated the milk and got the filter going, he scrunched his nose, trying to inhale as much of the coffee aroma as he could. Memory overcame him once again, as he remembered the small coffee shop next to work where he had his daily morning coffee; the aroma of fresh roasted beans mixing with milk and sugar in that ubiquitous Tamil preparation called degree coffee; the warmth of the stainless steel glass as Sundari Akka handed him his coffee; the sacred silence that followed as he took his first few sips, gearing himself for the day ahead; the stray bits of gossip Sundari Akka would bestow on him; and in the end, the Poittu vaanga, which always felt like a benediction; as if instead of just saying “please return” as goodbye, she actually meant the words. Plain “goodbye” somehow didn’t have the same magic.
He smiled as his words echoed down Time to his mother’s voice, gently chiding and asking him to use the traditional words of greeting. She’d been worried that, caught in the rapidly Anglicising world, her children would forget their heritage. They hadn’t and neither had the vast majority of the population, although small things, like greetings and mode of dress, had fallen by the wayside. They had had too many disasters to face like climate change and flooding of major cities. But they’d done it, somehow, by the skin of their teeth, they’d stopped it from getting worse. The planet had stabilised.
And we’d lost interest then, he thought bitterly. He remembered the early 2050s, when he had been young enough to participate in the protests which had helped revamp environmental laws and given the department authority to strictly enforce them. In this sector alone, people had been scared enough to stop giving or accepting bribes. And that, in and of itself was nothing short of a miracle.
As he sat and sipped his coffee; a far cry, he admitted to himself, from the ambrosia Sundari Akka served; he continued to reminisce. A longing grew within him for the heady days when his passion rode him night and day, occupying every spare inch of his mind. He had done things once, been useful, he thought melancholically, and with more than a smidgen of self-pity.
Kannagi, sensing her human’s mood change, let out a warning meow. Arvind, hypnosis broken, grinned his thanks to Kannagi.
Less than a month after retirement, and you’re already a mess, he thought. All his life, he’d always been fighting, working towards something. Nearing the end of his career, he had eagerly awaited retirement, but faced with the reality of no goals to work towards, his mind spun in circles.
The day spun out slowly, as did the rest of the week. His longing gnawed at him as his past flashed frequently before his eyes, even invading his dreams.
One day, he was making lunch and ruing the lack of taste in the tomatoes when inspiration, a veritable brainwave struck. His hand paused over the half-cut tomatoes as the idea swooped and chittered in his head. He knew what he had to do.
First, his habit-ingrained mind reached for the data. He went through his budget and calculated his spend on food. He tried to identify the exact items he’d bought. Then, he researched the soil surrounding his house, the climate, the plants that would be the easiest to grow, and even hydroponics. He calculated his initial investment, the probable profit from the reduction in his food budget, the overall reduction in carbon footprint from both the growing plants and the reduction in use of transport. The numbers looked good.
Next, he got down to proving it. He roped in one of his friends, Sarita and her husband, Dhruv, both of whom were engineers. With their help, he designed and built his showpiece. The standard solar panels on the roof were rewired into an umbrella shaped structure, while ensuring that the legal criteria for minimum number of solar panels per square foot of land was maintained.
Then, he built troughs and watering systems for the plants and installed them on the roof. The plants that thrived in the sun were planted near the roof edges while those that preferred shade rested under the solar panel umbrella.
His house looked like it had sprouted a shiny mushroom on its head. Curious neighbours tried to peek and see what was happening — but with Arvind’s house being one of the tallest in the area and all the roofs closed by solar panels, most had to be satisfied with what little they could make out from their windows. Arvind was happy; curiosity would make them more approachable when he finally put forth his idea.
For weeks, Arvind worked his garden. Instead of emptying his food waste into the weekly composting pickup, he began to compost it himself. As he spread his compost on his plants, some errant seeds from the compost grew into viable plants. Soon, his initial crop of lady’s fingers and broad beans were interspersed with tomato, chilli and melon plants. He let them all grow together. Pests came and he used a combination of neem oil and garlic to ward them off. The garlic also kept Kannagi away; she had taken to swatting the plants lately, in reproof as Arvind spent more and more time in his garden.
Soon, he branched out into plants he remembered from childhood but had rarely seen since. He visited nearby farms and villages to gather seeds and cuttings for the purple berried manathakkali, the tart gooseberry and many of the green leafy vegetables he had once enjoyed like agathi and seema ponnankanni.
The tastes of his childhood flooded him with happiness. Not only were the plants he grew more nutritious, they also tasted better than the ones he found in the shops.
His garden flourished and he began to grow more than he could ever eat. The local plants like ponnankanni grew so fast that it seemed like he could harvest the leaves every day. So, he bought a drone, built an app and launched his home-grown produce business. Every morning, he would put up pictures of available produce for sale and within minutes, it was purchased. He limited his deliveries to within a ten kilometer radius to ensure the produce was delivered fresh from the plant.
Almost a year passed. Arvind now felt that he had sufficient data to proceed. He drafted an extensive proposal document detailing his research into home-gardens, the results of his experiment, the estimated saving trends extrapolated to the entire population; and his solution.
If every tax payer had a home garden and maintained it to the extent that it either comprised five percent of their total food expenditure or an equivalent value saved in carbon footprint by growing GHG absorbing plants, a 0.5% reduction on their income tax was to be provided by the government. For each 5% saved, the government could reduce the tax rate by 0.5%. The citizens would benefit from more nutritious food and significant savings, while the government would, without spending exorbitant amounts on infrastructure or planning, instantly create more green cover and reduce carbon emissions.
Arvind published his document online and soon got a fervent response. His customers were his most avid supporters, followed by local and state level NGOs. Some people, inspired by his experiment, created their own home gardens. As their success stories percolated through to multiple social media networks, more people joined in, first for the possible savings, then for the sheer joy of eating what they’d grown.
The government also started taking notice as the popularity of the aptly nicknamed Solar Umbrella project grew. Pressure from citizen’s groups forced the government to add Arvind’s suggestions to the latest budget. The bill was passed successfully.
Since there are few people who don’t like saving tax, the Solar Umbrella project exploded into the mainstream. The government carved out a sub-department to help citizens create home gardens. Gardening websites and apps mushroomed and almost overtook cat videos at the internet’s center stage.
Arvind was now a celebrity. But, he hated the limelight and so, distanced himself from Solar Umbrella. He’d done all he could. He thought, Just running my small business would be excitement enough.
The day he retired for the second time, he looked back to the beginnings of Solar Umbrella, to his disappointment with his coffee and tomatoes. Eureka, that finikiest of beings, struck again. He had managed to get tomatoes he liked, but coffee didn’t grow in his hot tropical city. Maybe hydroponics would help, he mused as his mind swept itself away into the future.
He grinned. He might just get to retire a third time.
*Kannagi was a legendary queen who took revenge for her husband’s wrongful execution by burning down the city of Madurai.
© Indira Reddy 2020