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Farewell to Our Garden in Calcutta

Recalling fragrant breezes, neighborly birds, and the cycle of the seasons in a redeemed backyard

O me, that was the last spring to come to my backyard in Calcutta. We had been there for two decades and were soon to leave the house for good and move to Delhi. The time had finally come to give the house, and the garden, a parting look.

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When we moved in, the backyard, or what was left of it, was an unkempt sight - abandoned to the vagaries of nature. Rose plants and jasmine bushes were in their last throes.

Two frail papaya trees, barren, stood startlingly etched against clear blue sky. Some sort of camaraderie had sustained them, perhaps.

Except for some green patches around the leaking water faucet, the grass had turned into a dried, tangled mass. Dead leaves and bird droppings covered the area. The gate's hinges creaked and its green paint was peeling.

I had seen the garden gradually become a blissful haven of henna shrubs, blooming roses, purple poppies, and meandering edges of pink and white daisies. Marigolds in many colors - yellow, orange, bronze - were a breathtaking sight when caught in the golden fire of the rising sun.

Incredibly, a seemingly dead guava tree had come alive and gracefully shouldered its burden of luscious fruit. The mango tree was tall for its years. It was precious to me because my dad had planted the sapling and nurtured it with zealous care.

The year we left, the tree had flowered for the first time, giving us little green mangoes as a parting gift. A cuckoo, an annual visitor to the tree, had never failed to delight us with its sonorous warbling. Here, during Calcutta's short-lived winter, I had often sat on a rattan easy chair basking in the mild sun amid a silence broken only by the scampering of squirrels or the rustling of leaves.

The backyard garden had made our visits to the vegetable vendors less frequent. There was always a modest harvest of cauliflowers, cabbages, and carrots. Eggplants, tomatoes, and beans waited until the crop of winter vegetables had passed. Then some peppers, okra, and gourds would see us through to the end of the year.

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Early in the morning, when the sky was lightly dusted with the first colors of dawn, the shaded foliage would come alive. Leaves were like little mirrors reflecting the heavenly light. Parrots, mynas, and friendly sparrows flew down, hopped from branch to branch. They held lively discussions and treated us occasionally to a little concert. We could walk right under the whole show.

Moist and redolent breezes blew now and then from the backyard into our dwelling, carrying deep into the house the musky smell of spring flowers, ripe fruit, and freshly mown grass. Chased by their mother, restless children romped about in the untamed process of growing up.

Pangs that every parting brings overwhelmed me then, left me dazed for a moment. Who will water and prune the plants, I thought. Who will protect them from frost?

And above all, who would watch the cycle of changes in my backyard in years to come?

I wonder if I shall ever set foot again on that soil where I spent 20 memorable years. But in my extravagant imagination I see the garden continuing its wondrous annual cycles unabated, and with the new occupants of that house, an old movie is being remade with a different cast.

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