Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In which Mian and Chicu astound themselves

G warned me a couple of weeks ago that our bees would likely swarm this month. Apparently, they do that after a year in the hive.

'Mine, all Mine. And they will stay that way', said I and sent him off to 'borrow' a hive box from A and D.

And then I left for a week-long workshop in another state.
I got back yesterday and noticed that the box had arrived. I decided to spend the next afternoon cleaning and mending it.

The bees had other plans.  As Mian and I sat drinking coffee today I noticed a lump on a peach tree. A curiously vibrating, shimmering lump. Our bees had swarmed!
 A cursory search on the internet revealed that this is when bees are most docile. Apparently, it is easy enough to drop them into a box. When I called G to share the good news of the swarm and our plans to capture it, he was adamant. 'You absolutely will not do this, Madam. I will send someone.'


I busied myself cleaning the borrowed hive of all the muck of its neglected past. It was washed, dried, sunned and still no bee whisperer.

In the meantime, Mian had done his research. We decided to go ahead with capturing the hive.
Now in the mountains, women are not supposed to touch a hive. But of the two of us, Mian has far stronger biceps. So he got the job of holding the hive box under the swarm while I scraped the bees off the branch using a stick. They fell in one mass with a plop, accompanied with a smothered yelp from Mian. He got  stung on the forehead. But considering both of us had minimal gear- sun hats (no veil) and gardening gloves, I am  impressed with the single sting.

And after that, it was sit and wait while we made sure the queen was in the hive and the swarm was content. As of now, they seem to have accepted their home.

Our tasks today?
Move the hive into the fenced garden after sunset. Replace the panels. Remove old wire from one entrance. Secure the box lid with wire.
And I am so very very proud. Think of it. Beekeeping here has a mysticism. there are three bee-whisperers in the area, and they are the only ones who handle hives. And here are Mian and I, amateurs sans gear, who managed to hold on to a swarm. I am happy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A mulch of money

After I wrote the last post, I emailed it to my family, sat back, and waited for congratulations. They did arrive eventually, but the first reply was not what I expected 'you spent 40K and don't even have walls', she said.

Ouch. 'I wanted it very much' , I replied. And then I thought about it.

The photo that started this chain of thought
 My reply must have seemed arrogant It probably was.
I definitely do not regret the toilet. It gives me great pleasure, it feeds my garden, it has removed a lot of tension over water, and I get a major kick just dreaming of all I will do with the compost. I would do it all over again, and happily.
But that conversation got me to thinking about my spending on the garden. Is it too much? How does one estimate whether spending on a hobby is justifiable?
This amazing display, all gifted by a friend from her extras
 As far as possible, I am a DIY person. The 'make do or do without' philosophy is entrenched in me, or so I thought. But now I wonder.
I don't spend on frills. My garden has no tchotkes, none of the fancy gear that is considered indispensable. My bird table  is a plank wedged into a tree. I propagate my plants. I handwater using a can and a pipe.
But the list of what I consider 'not-frills' is increasing. I spend a lot on labour. I got the patio-wall resurfaced, the veg garden fenced in, the upper fields ploughed. When Mian goes to the States at Christmas, he always goes accompanied by a list of seeds. Not all of them survive.
My seed stash. Part bought, part collected. Mian doubled this stash with his annual spring gift
 I now am in contact with a supplier of bulbs in Kalimpong and 'treated myself' to an embarrassingly luxurious order last fall.
Part of my luxurious bulb order- on the resurfaced patio wall
 I want a golden azalea, I have decided. I want a proper rose arch, not my current jugad one. I want a proper path down to the house. I want garden furniture to sit in. I want. I want.
The 'jugaad' rose arch I want to replace

But the rose couldn't care less. Definitely a 'want' and not a 'need'
And there are two things running through my head now. One is from a book  I am currently reading, which says that gardeners who don't have creative capabilities try to cover up deficiencies with 'a mulch of money'. And the other is what a friend had told me once, when we were discussing the concepts of 'high maintenance' women. 'You are the worst of both worlds' she said. 'You look low maintenance, but are high maintenance'

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The bestest toilet ev-AH!

 I rapidly grew tired of throwing away water and of losing nutrients. Especially when we were short of water, the idea of flushing away excellent compost fodder began to grate on me.

Finally I wrote to a friend asking him where I could find me a compost toilet pan. 'I'll send you one' he said, and he did. The village post service being what it is, it was many months till I came across the pan lying in a neighbour's garden.

And then the building started. I did not want it just for me, but I also wanted to share the concept with the village. A suitably prominent place, next to the village path, was chosen. I wanted it to be pretty, we decided on bamboo.Prakash, Bhuvan, Ganesh and I were all learning how to build it. Many measurements were taken, and many mockups assembled. We all blushed furiously as I tried to explain in my hindi just what the various holes were for and how they worked.

The cost? It came to around 40K, excluding the pan. I still have some material left over, and we pay a premium to truck stuff in from the nearest town. For the pan, I'd add another 10K including transport.

Would I do anything differently? Not for myself, I think it is perfect as it is.But as a demonstration unit, I'd go with a pan cast at home rather than one procured from outside. It would make it seem a lot more doable.

But now it is ready and it is stunning. Seriously. I have not seen a prettier one. The walls are bamboo, the roof is bamboo overlaid with tin. There are tall slits in the walls upto waist level to let in plenty of air and sunlight. It sits below an oak tree, and soon grasses will be planted along its base. The floor is prosaic concrete, but sprinkled with glass beads.

But  don't just believe me. Here are pictures

View from the front.We have a curtain instead of a door, which G rather disapproved of at first

This is the view from the house. Soon, I will plant grasses along the base.

The inside. Note the sparkly floor and the rustic TP holder!
I started off with dried leaves in the base.Not necessary, but I thought the carbon would do my compost good!
Here's a detail of the 'door' (hung on a sunflower stalk) and the 'windows'

Friday, February 10, 2017

Not a cakewalk

'Aunty only loves me, she doesn't love you' the small boy jeered. 'She gave me cake for my birthday, you got a great big Noo-oo-thing' he continued while his sister blinked back tears. It was all my fault of course. I had gone off to my mum's last year and missed G's daughter's birthday.

And so, this year, I had to make up for it. As per custom, I baked and frosted a birthday cake. My guilt for the last year led me to make a tall, tall layer cake. It was when I was making a swirly pattern on the sugar tower that I realised that 1.5km of mountain road lay between me and the birthday girl.

So the cake was on a plate, which was on a baking tray, which was in a fruit box, which was covered by stiff paper, which was taped down.

Which led to this contraption:
The first rest-stop was needed before I walked 50 metres. The others followed at similar intervals
 As we slowly made our way to G's house, Madhu and I picked up a little band of merry followers. I am not vain enough to think the kids adore my company, but I thought that Madhu was the attraction. And then I heard one child call out, 'Is the cake coming?'

Priorities, the kids have them sorted out.

Our walk back was blissfully carefree. And we received the gift of a moonrise.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A bitter story

When a good friend ran out of bitter marmalade, she called me. I was the only person she knew who could be trusted to give her traditional marmalade. An acquaintance had gone on a trek last year, in the course of which he dropped in to visit Mian. His chief memory of that long day is that he had eaten whisky-laced marmalade at our home. In a few hours, two young men are coming over home so that I can teach them how to coax lemons into marmalade. So I have a bit of a reputation for making the stuff. And I make a LOT of it.

Which is  why it is surprising that I do not enjoy the jam-making process. Is it the tedium of chopping and stirring, you wonder? Is it the hours spent over a stove knowing that if you look away, the gloopy mess will suddenly burn? Is it the dipping of hands alternately into cold lemon pulp and hot water with disastrous results? Ye-es..all of that does have a place, but the real reason is different.

I detest marmalade-making because the process is the equivalent of the nosy neighbour who visits to pass judgement on your housekeeping. Marmalade making is the pious uncle who discovers that you used your 'no-aromatics' chopping board to cut onions because all the others were in the sink; the  aunty who spies the mustard seed you spilled into the sugar the day you were juggling chai and khichidi; the other uncle who points out that you have 12 jars and 8 lids; and worst of all, marmalade-making is the pesky brat who announces to everyone that you miscalculated the recipe and tried to cover it up by stirring hot water into half a jar of marmalade.

Thankfully, all these jars have lids..
For me, the source of distress all of last year was the case of the  Ginger-Garlic-marmalade. I had opened a fresh jar and immediately smelt it- ginger and garlic where there should have been only lemon and sugar. Hastily, I shoved it to the back of the fridge and opened another jar.

Many months later, Mian reached for a new jar and I watched his face change as he uncapped it. 'Oh is that the garlic one?' I asked blithely. 'That's for when we make sweet-and-sour pork.' Mian, bless the man, did not ask any more questions but put it back in the fridge. As our stock diminished, that jar became more and more prominent till I finally emptied it out, popped the contents into the freezer,and washed the jar.

For this year's batch, I had learnt my lesson. I used two buckets of hot lemony water to scrub every surface and every utensil in sight, I boiled jars and jar lids, I did not eat or cook anything till everything was sealed away. I even used a new dish sponge for the occasion.

One of the 5 batches..plain lemon and lemon + cocoa
And today I opened a jar and there it was..ginger garlic marmalade. Turns out that particular  jar is haunted by the spirit of Kimchi past. I had made it once, and it's ghost lingers in the plastic lid. I had to toss that. Thankfully, it is just the one jar and after 5 kilos, I have declared that marmalade season is Closed.

I've barely made a dent in the tree

A friend has bought me 3 kilos of cabbage. They want to try my Kimchi, they say..

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

I, damsel in distress

It was when I was already at Dadahu that I realized what I had set myself up for.  Even worse,  I had not called up the hotel and let them know I was coming.  

Sitting in the bus then I began frantically to look for their  number while willing the Internet signal to stay strong enough for this most essential of searches.

Head down, I was staring at my phone when someone tapped at my window.  it was the bus conductor.
'quick,grab your bag and follow me' he said. 'I found you a bus that will take you to your hotel.'

Not only did he take me to the bus, but he also handed me over like a registered parcel to a group of men and instructed them to make sure I got down at the right place.

These guys instantly took me under their wing. They gave me a seat and fussed around me. When I pulled out cash for the ticket, they told me on behalf of the conductor,' you hold on to your money. He won't charge you for such a short distance'. 

At my stop, I got help with my bag and many good wishes.

And the next morning, I met the kindest truck driver ever. But that is another story.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Chasing pumpkins

This begins, like most of our stories do, with Madhu Bhaloo. She had been waking me up several times in the middle of the night, and with good reason. There were ominous rustlings in the pumpkin patch. I went out several times with a flashlight, but saw nothing. Alone, I sat and fretted.

That pumpkin plant, and the one in our kitchen garden marked a turning point in the life of our garden. Since we moved in, Mian has been bringing  home the seeds of sugar pie pumpkins for me to sow. Every year, they have failed. Our soil has been too poor to raise a crop, the critters have been faster than us, we did not know enough about raising pumpkins.

But all this time, our garden was falling into place. We got chickens which provided us with manure, we set up a rainwater fed irrigation tank, we fenced in our kitchen garden, we learned.
And this year the pumpkins rewarded us. The sugarpies flourished magnificently and gifted us 8 pumpkins. It was the volunteer that the village was oohing and aahing over though.

This seed, probably thrown into the compost, grew till it took over the slope facing our bedroom. First there was one, and then there were six large pumpkins.

These were what the mysterious visitor was after, and concern for them was  keeping Madhu and me up. Mian saw me online late one night and asked me what was the matter. 'Something is chasing our pumpkins' I said sleepily. After a short pause, the gentle Mian tried to reassure me, 'well, it can't be very fast then, can it?' We laughed long and loud then, but today I was vindicated.
The 'pumpking' when still a young one

The giant pumpkin broke its stem, trampled the supports we had placed around it, and disappeared. Madhu, I, G, two men who are presently tilling fields for rye, and one woman who was cutting grass for our household all joined in the search. We found it at the very bottom of the orchard, miraculously not shattered to a pulp, but cracked enough that I could not store it for the winter.

This made me a little sad; I had been looking forward to seeing it gently ripen on our roof. But no matter. I cut it up and shared it with all who had joined in the Great Pumpkin Hunt. There was enough for all..the pumpkin weighed just under 9 Kilos. And I was not perfectly fair in the sharing out, our fridge has a 3.6 Kg wedge of the finest (if not quite ripe yet) pumpkin waiting for Mian to return.
Everybody else's share
Our share