I watched my father-in-law poke a few holes into the bag with the screwdriver. He left it in the corner, and turned around to find me in a happy daze.
Here I was fretting about the lack of an actual ground. ‘One can’t possibly compost without a hole in the ground,’ I thought to myself. And there he was, coolly collecting all the kitchen waste into a plastic bag to make a compost bag in our tiny apartment balcony.
After my in-laws returned to their home, we continued to add kitchen waste to this make-shift compost bag, excited about harvesting compost.
But something wasn’t quite right.
For starters, it smelt bad. Very, very bad.
And it was super soggy – dripping brown smelly liquid wherever we kept it.
And then there were the maggots. Lots of them.
I was sure that I wanted to compost waste, and was determined to do so. But was it to be as yucky as this? Neither of us had any idea. And so we shot the question out into the electrical void – the internet.
The internet informed us what was going wrong. The short answer: our compost was out of ‘balance’ and had too much moisture*.
To solve our immediate composting crisis, we added shredded newspaper, and left the bag slightly open, in the furthest corner of our balcony. Next step: we decided to get a proper composter.
Fast-forward a couple of months, and we welcomed our Kambha.
The Kambha is a terracotta composter made by a Bengaluru based NGO, Daily Dump. There really isn’t much to it: three earthen pots with holes on the sides. While the top two had a rope mesh at the bottom, the third one was closed at the bottom. They stacked up neatly. I marvelled at the simplicity of its design.
We watched the instructional video and transferred our (now utterly disgusting) waste and added some of the ‘remix’ material supplied by the organisation. The ‘remix’ material and the terracotta absorbed the excess moisture, and within a couple of days the compost stopped smelling.
As I learnt soon enough, the compost pile is as much a living organism as you and me. Needing a well balanced diet, breathing in oxygen, and exhaling carbon dioxide. And if it is malnourished or there is something wrong with its digestion, it emits a foul smell.
As for the maggots, they stopped bothering me. The composter was now a self enclosed eco-system. The compost pile was its earth. And a host of creatures grazed on its lands. With the plastic bag out of the way, the air around the compost became more breathable, and the fruit flies joined the maggots. Soon the land sprung shoots of large fungi, and even a sapling here and there. And the fungus gnats appeared. The maggots slowly reduced in number, as the competition for food grew. And then came the spiders – the top of the food chain, preying upon the insects.
All the while the kitchen waste continued to reduce. What was first green, yellow and purple slowly turned a rich, dark brown colour, and it smelt sweet – like Mother Nature.
Minha stood in front of me. Surrounded by her parents, and standing close to her baby brother’s pram, she waited in anticipation for the writer who had written her favourite story. In her arms was a colourful hard-bound book, eagerly waiting for Mussourie’s most famous resident to sign it for her. She held it close to her, as if she wanted to hug every word within its pages.
She wasn’t alone.
When we arrived at the book shop, an hour ahead of scheduled time, the queue was already 15 people long. It was the Saturday before Easter, and the hill-town was brimming with tourists from all over the country, and the world.
“We were planning to return to Delhi by 10 this morning,” said Minha’s mother. “But this little one was quite insistent upon meeting Ruskin Bond. And so, here we are.”
“If we wouldn’t have lingered on at the restaurant for the second parantha, we’d have been at the beginning of the queue,” Minha’s father playfully teased her.
“Minha read this story, The Cherry Tree. And in it, she read that Ruskin Bond lives in Mussourie. She’s been wanting to meet him ever since.”
Ruskin Bond planted his Cherry Tree several decades ago. As it grew, it delighted him. He shared his delight with his readers, and they loved every word of it. His words delighted me. And they continue to delight young readers like Minha.
In that little girl standing in front of me, I saw a reflection of myself. I must have been about her age too, when I harboured the dream of meeting Mr. Bond, because of those lines in every book I read, “He now lives with his adopted family in Landour, Mussourie.”
But my reflection ended at precisely 3:30 pm, just as a vehicle pulled up beside us. Even as Minha’s mother excitedly pulled out her phone to snap a close-up picture of the writer now amidst us, I stood dumbstruck.
He waved and acknowledged his fans and then disappeared into the bookshop. Minha had the biggest smile on her face, as she peered into her mother’s phone. Her mother, in turn looked at me with excitement, and then exclaimed, “Oh come on! Don’t cry, yaar!”
Tears rolling down my cheeks, I tried to hide my face from the young girl. “Keep it together, there’s a little girl in front of you – what will she think,” I repeatedly told myself. Minha smiled innocently, but something told me she wasn’t judging me. And I silently thanked her for it.
Within a few short minutes, my twenty-year old wait ended.
“I remember this… It’s one of the earlier covers.”
In Mr. Bond’s hands was my favourite book – which had been in our house ever since I can remember.
For over twenty years, it has been my dream to meet Mr. Ruskin Bond, to tell him how much his writing has meant to me; how I read and reread the stories in the book “The night train at Deoli”.
And yet, when the time came to express my sheer joy and excitement at meeting my hero, I struggled to contain my tears. I simultaneously smiled and choked. Eventually I stammered the words, “this book is as old as I am.”
Mr. Bond held the book; my book; my family’s book; his book. He recognised the old cover and said, “You have preserved it well.”
After he had signed the book, I meekly placed the other old book I had brought with me: The Children’s Omnibus. It was one of the first books I asked my parents to buy for me, when I was about 10 years old. And I remember the sequence of events surrounding that purchase: the Scholastic mail order form, choosing the books, the anticipation, and receiving the books in class.
Mr. Bond pointed to his portrait on the yellowing cover of the book and said, “I was much slimmer then!” And then we burst out laughing. I felt a little bit at ease.
There was a long queue of fans waiting to get their turn. I couldn’t hog his time for long. Mr. Bond returned the signed books and said, “I can’t initial or write messages…” I would like to believe he wanted to write me a comforting message. I’ll never know.
That night I cried my heart out. And continue to cry every time I think about it – even now. I cannot explain these fits of crying – except perhaps as an indication of immeasurable joy, that is too much to comprehend without being overwhelmed.
But I also wonder, are these tears of regret? The things I wish I had spoken about – how much I adored his stories; how much his style of writing influenced me; how, like him, I loved nature, and walking, and collecting feathers and stones and coins and seashells… instead I stammered and stuttered.
Today, as Mr. Bond turns eighty five years young, he is launching yet another book. The whole town will, no doubt, be there to wish him. I wonder, if I were there today, would I be able express my gratitude to him? Highly unlikely.