A Punjabi Garden, Part I
A California gardener used the farming wisdom of her native India to create a suburban paradise that restored her soil--and sustains her soul.
By Patricia Klindienst
“I told my father, ‘I will be poorer in America, but my conscience will be free.’”
I write the words on a paper napkin and turn it to face her. “Is this right? Is this what you just said?”
“Yes. I did not come to America to trade my cultural heritage for money.”
I take the napkin back and write the second sentence as well. Her words are so striking that I do not want to rely on memory alone to record them. Ruhan Kainth is telling me why she left Indira Gandhi’s India in the late 1970s to come to the United States.
I first met Ruhan, a middle-school science teacher from Fullerton, Calif., and her husband, Atma, an engineer, in New Haven. They were visiting colleges on a crisp and shining day in early autumn, and they were looking for a place to take their youngest son, Hunar, to lunch. From Atma’s turban and the steel bracelet on his right wrist, a kara, I knew that they were Sikhs. I tried to think where the nearest Indian restaurants were.
“My son would like some pizza,” Ruhan said.
The handsome boy with dark, shining eyes, his thick black hair pulled up in a rishi knot, looked up and smiled.
I explained their options—Naples Pizza, just around the corner, or Pepe’s or Sally’s, across town in Worcester Square.
“We would prefer to walk,” Ruhan said. “Would you join us?”
While Hunar enjoyed his pizza at Naples pizzeria, I asked Ruhan why she had come to America. She came for freedom of conscience, fleeing India during a period of intense political repression. And then I asked if she and Atma had a garden.
“Oh yes!” Ruhan said. “We have a beautiful garden. And I have a tree that is rarely grown outside of India. It is called the neem tree. In India, the neem is a sacred tree.
Late the following summer I fly to Los Angeles to see Ruhan’s Punjabi garden. After a long, slow drive from the airport, the van drops me in front of the Kainths’ house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the sprawling suburb of Fullerton. Ruhan, slim and striking, her long black hair coiled in a chignon, comes out to greet me and introduces me to her two older sons, Koijan, a senior at Berkeley, and Daraspreet, a junior at Stanford. Both are members of the U.S. national field hockey team. When I arrive, they are unpacking new gear in preparation for an international competition. They step over the open boxes in the driveway, each extending a hand in greeting, then carry my bags into the house, where Ruhan offers me a glass of juice made from passionfruit and strawberries freshly picked
When we go out the back door a few moments later, the first thing I see, standing just beyond the terrace, is a pomegranate tree laden with huge dark red orbs. Native to southwestern Asia, the pomegranate is as familiar to Ruhan as an apple is to a New Englander. However extravagant the tree is in its beauty, though, it is by no means the most extraordinary citizen of this garden.
On less than one eighth of an acre, Ruhan Kainth cultivates 50-odd varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The thick canopies of the trees and the densely planted beds of herbs and flowers dampen the drone of traffic and block the view of neighboring houses.
“For years, nothing would grow here,” Ruhan says. “The soil was dead.”
I turn to her in disbelief. Later, when I peer over the fences that divide one yard from another, I see why. On one side, a perfectly weedless lawn mowed to uniform height rolls from the house to a row of dark green shrubs lined up in strict symmetry against a stockade fence. Decades of use of lawn chemicals to maintain the iconic suburban American landscape have destroyed the structure of the soil here. What little grew when the Kainth family moved in relied entirely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
To bring the soil back to life, Ruhan began to plant tiny trees, which was all she could afford. As the trees’ roots threaded their way downward, they loosened the soil and slowly began to add organic matter. “Then the earth around them would begin coming to life again,” she explains.
Until she came to America, Ruhan had never been able to make her own garden. How, then, did she know to plant trees?
In India, her family, members of an educated and prosperous elite, lived in Delhi, where they had a beautiful formal garden. They also owned a farm in the country two hours’ drive away, where sharecroppers worked the orchard and grew sugarcane. As a girl Ruhan would go to the village with her father, walking through the fields chewing cane, sucking out the sugar, then throwing the husks on the compost pile. She drank freshly made jaggery from the press worked by oxen; the juice was boiled in a great caldron to produce a crystallized brown sugar akin to maple sugar candy.
When Ruhan’s father became the private physician of the prime minister of Nigeria, which took him abroad for long periods, he put her in charge of supervising the farm, an unusual role for a woman. Her brothers were at Eton and Harrow in England, so the task fell to her. “Once a month I’d go out to the farm,” she says. “They all welcomed me, but they’d be very amused, because they were not used to seeing a woman coming to do that. But they were very respectful.” Even the fact that she drove there by herself made her remarkable.
As she learned to manage the farm, Ruhan studied the methods of the peasants who worked there. From watching them she learned the principle of returning everything organic to the soil. “Nothing goes to waste in those Indian villages,” she says. The lesson has stayed with her. As has something else. “Those were times of great peace,” she says, her voice soft as she remembers. On the farm, Ruhan stepped beyond the constraints of her caste, class, and gender.
At home in Delhi, the family garden was full of roses, fruit trees, and flowers. Peacocks roamed the grounds freely. Though she longed to work in the garden, Ruhan was expected to do no more than stroll and admire. She was not supposed to work with the soil. “We had a full-time gardener who would come to work in the evening. During the day he worked as the supervisor of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which had once been the residence of the British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten.” He became Ruhan’s mentor. “He would treat me like the little granddaughter. I would follow him around the garden, asking him how to do things. ‘Could you show me how you graft the roses?’ I would ask. ‘Little baby,’ he would say, ‘do you want to see this?’ And he would show me. I can still see myself standing there. He would say, ‘See, baby? See how you do this?’ I learned so much from him. He would say wise things. Once we saw a mother being very angry and harsh in her discipline. So he said, speaking very gently to me in Hindi, ‘A child is just like a plant. Just as a gardener might tie the branches to make it lean a certain way, the mother is like the gardener, and the child the plant. She directs her child.’”
Ruhan knew this man only as Mali, which means “gardener” in Hindi. He and his wife, who worked with him, were elderly. While he clipped, pruned, weeded, and grafted, his wife would carry the waste to the compost heap. Each evening, when their work was finished, they would take home some of the branches for firewood.
“He was of a caste who did not have the opportunity to go to British schools,” Ruhan explains. “He rarely came in the house. And when he did, he would not sit down.”
If he remained conscious of the expectations of caste indoors, she felt the strict limits of her gender and class in the garden. “I would go pick up the spade and maybe plant a seed or something, but nobody would ever see me digging.” Yet she longed to. It was not considered appropriate for her to mingle with gardeners. As a female, she was not supposed to do such dirty work.
“Was there any other way to learn what I wanted to know?” she asks. “No—only from gardeners, only from the laborers.”
Read part II two of this story here, and part III here.
Comment on this article here.
Patricia Klindienst is a master gardener and an award-winning scholar and teacher. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut, and teaches creative writing each summer at Yale University.
Excerpted from The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic America, by Patricia Klindienst. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Klindienst. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Beacon Press, Boston.
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