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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII NO. 21, February 16-28, 2013
Oh, for those gardens!
Pradeep Chakravarthy recalls old T'Nagar

More power to all those who relentlessly fight for preserving the great landmarks of Madras! May their tribe increase, but in our fight to keep the big buildings let us not forget the quiet residential streets that also contribute to the beauty of this city.

With a 4-year-old to keep occupied, I have begun walks around the streets of T Nagar – routes I traversed as a child but which I now find overwhelmed with a rampant apartment culture, I am all for apartments. After all, we live in a society that seeks to be as inclusive as possible. But I do wish apartments had greater aesthetic appeal and greenery. What I miss the most about the apartments are the gardens.

Grandfather built our house in 1950 and, being a thrifty man who came from humble beginnings, the first photo of our house shows a level piece of land in front. He would have certainly spent no money on luxuries like plants but grandmother must have got her way and a few "useful plants" were added. The porch had two jasmine creepers, the front garden reflected the Art Deco love for straight lines and intersections, compartmentalised into four squares. Each intersection had a gooseberry tree ("useful for pickles"), a parijata (flowers for worship), a rare jackfruit type that had a small fruit that could be cooked rather than eaten ripe (this was so close to the road that not once did we get a fruit, with walkers stealing them!) and then coconut trees (always in odd numbers). Finally to the side was an enthusiastically flourishing bush of Manoranjitham – it flowered rarely but the fleshy flowers had an intoxicating fragrance. The backyard was surrendered to a mango and a curry leaf tree and several places where we unsuccessfully tried a champaka tree. I don't remember my grandparents, but these plants that meant so much to them gave me ideas of how they may have looked and the kind of personalities they had – all of these being fanciful imaginations reserved for boring afternoons!

Before we moved in, the house was rented out to a Gujarati couple who smothered the garden with colocasia. It's a pity we took all those out later and missed out on making Patra, that yummy dish!

In the 1980s, gardens in our road of elegant art deco bungalows hadn't changed much, all of them presided over by gardeners who kept pesky flower plucking kids at bay and believed gardening was all about copious watering and occasional lashings of cowdung manure provided by the milkman down the road.

Among the 24 houses on road, our garden and our neighbour's garden were representative samples. Our neighbour's home, built originally by an Iyer who had made a fortune belonged to Krishnan Mama from Kerala, an engineer by profession and a plant lover by habit. The faç├žade was hidden by several trees and the porch was entirely made of two massive bougainvillea creepers, each several inches thick. Underneath them were the plants of Madras that have disappeared faster than our built heritage – the once ubiquitous, but now rare crotons! If plants resembled their owners, Krishnan Mama's certainly did, each one tall and lanky searching for the few rays of sunlight that penetrated the thick cover of trees. To the side was a jackfruit tree that bore fruit at its base, but the piece de resistance was the massive mango tree at the back, possibly much older than the house. Unforgettable was the swing made of thick coir and a piece of a coconut leaf base – if there is one reason I love this city and will live nowhere else, it is the memory of the swing, especially in the summer months!

Our house in the 1980s was still the rigid crisscrossed squares. An exhaustive search of several nurseries revealed that even the plants of my childhood had dropped out of favour! One was a yellow flower plant that had long stems with long leaves and the other one that had yellow flowers and bloomed in the afternoon. Those were the days of leisure. Our maid worked only in our house and Vijaya had her own favourite in the garden – kanakamaram (Crossandra) for her hair and "December poo" (Barleria) that set out its mauve, or white flowers in winter. I got high marks in school for my Bryophyllum, a fleshy leaved succulent that sprouted new leaves whenever the leaves touched the ground. Our home was screened by the other old favourite – the false Ashoka (Polyalthia longifolia) – the Sri Lankan Mast tree. The speciality of the garden was, of course, crotons. We had only seven varieties but they were lovely. Their leaves varied in shape – big, small, thin, wide and even twisted (the wiggly-wiggly plant of my childhood), and their colours just as diverse. Many happy summer afternoons were spent trying to discern "paintings" from the blotches of the leaves. It is a matter of regret that hardly any of the nurseries has even one today. An uncle in Mylapore had more than 25 different ones and during visit there every Deepavali I got experimenting with propagation, and though I never succeeded, I never lost hope.

Later in the 1990s, Mother visited Cottingley and fell for the new craze of raised beds, or undulations as they were called. We couldn't afford the charges of 'Black Rose', a garden designer of those days and did it ourselves. At that time we introduced Money plants and widdelia and they ensured that in a few years every other plant was overrun!

Every other garden in our road went through similar life cycles and many of the owners exchanged plants freely, one of them even willing to share cuttings of the more than ten different "table roses". As I walk down our road today it is heart-wrenching that many of those houses have become completely concrete floors with no space for even weeds. Fortunately at least one home in Nair Road still has the old garden untouched by the 1980 modifications. This one has a more conventional border with a lawn – the old crab grass one and not the 1990s' craze of Korean grass. Another house, in Jagadambal Street, lies vacant waiting for a fairy to bring it back to life; at least, it has space for a garden to be revived. Others have a few of the plants that survived because they were next to the wall, the popular Pisonia-Acalypha combination is still there, and some surely planted in the 1970s. Everywhere else is concrete and, maybe, the odd coconut tree – infinitely uninteresting – but if the home is gone, then, what use is a garden?

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In this Issue

A crawl to list heritage sites
Now, a glass-fronted building in the heart of heritage!
Tamil films – alive and kicking
First Indian doctor with foreign degree
From kanji thotti hospital to one of excellence
Oh, for those gardens!
'Pop' goes the soap bubbles

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