Fifteen Years and Counting

February 27, 2013

We went to Goa for our honeymoon. Hard to believe it was fifteen years ago. I remember it because passions ran high in that holiday – and not all in the way you are thinking. Two things stand out. Well, alright, three, but we’ll keep this decent and talk about two. The first was, how angry I was when, as soon as we reached the hotel, Amit went to bed. And went to sleep! When I, his beautiful bride, was moping around alone and extremely impatient.

You see, I’d never seen the sea before. And we were in Goa, so naturally it was a situation I was eager to remedy. Being in bed was not the way, not even on one’s honeymoon. After all, we had all the time in the world to sleep (and other stuff, ahem), but only a few days to spend at the sea. And I love swimming. And did I mention I’d never seen the sea before?

So matrimonial bliss didn’t last very long. As soon as Amit woke up – or perhaps he was woken up by me – matrimonial bliss ended.

Not that there had been too much bliss upto that point. Weddings are tiring business, especially for the prime protagonists. All that dressing up, jewellery and makeup. All that food. All that smiling! Phew! No wonder they invented honeymoons… you really need the time to stop being a smiling beauty and go back to being your own everyday selves.

We finally went to the sea. And then we went for dinner. And as we sat across the table with a strongly coconut-oil-flavoured pork vindaloo between us, I remember thinking, with something akin to dawning horror: what on earth am I supposed to talk about with this guy? It’s just us now. For a long, long time. Ohmygod!

We’d had a long-distance romance. We were neighbours for a while when we were 16. Actually, we were neighbours for a couple of years or so, but by the time we started talking to each other, fate had only a few months of togetherness left in store for us. Then we moved away and maintained a long-distance relationship in the era before email and mobile phones, when mails were sent via the postman and long-distance phone calls were a luxury reserved for birthdays. In a way, viewed with the rose-coloured spectacles of a good, long time, they were good days. I have fairly sweet memories of whispered conversations late at night, with the lights off, everyone else at home snuggling under the sheets, or possibly under blankets, and pretending not to listen.

But a phone call once in a way does in no way prepare you for a lifetime of togetherness. Phone calls maintain a discreet distance. You are spared each other’s bathroom habits and nose-picking – to say nothing of snoring habits and morning faces.

In the long run, it turned out, conversation was mostly not an issue. I had plenty to talk about, Amit didn’t need to do much to fill the silences. Nowadays, especially, it seems that many important agenda topics never get a hearing at all – they are usually drowned out by the clamour of the kids, the chatter of a phonecall, or the clatter of laptop keys. Most days, we do ask each other, how was your day – but for everything else, there’s Facebook.

I guess no marriage is perfect. We’ve had our ups and downs. But all said and done, fifteen years on, we’re still together. Around the time we got married, I worried about what I would do if we ever broke up, if I ever decided to move out. I needed a financial safety net, I decided. So I stashed away some money – when we moved to the US, it was supposed to be enough to buy me a one-way airfare to India. Well, that safety net has been growing and growing and I haven’t used it yet. Let’s hope it survives intact the next 30-odd years as well.

Meanwhile, to celebrate, we both took the day off. We packed the kids off to school, forgot to drop their change of clothes off at daycare, and took the metro to Taj Residency (as it used to be called, Vivanta now) for a long, leisurely, extravagant lunch at the poolside coffeeshop. This was where we spent our first evening in Bangalore, right after Amit picked me up from the airport, fifteen years ago.

This time we weren’t dewey-eyed newly weds, of course, but it was still nice. And I was relieved to find that, even after 15 years, we still haven’t run out of conversation.

It Leaks!

February 22, 2013

Have I bragged yet about the many ways in which we conserve water? Well, I’ve told you about how we rush around to capture – or at least avoid losing to the atmosphere – the water that is vented by our rooftop volcano. I trust you know about our rainwater harvesting system. I’ve probably mentioned how when I go for a shower and a blast of fairly frigid water streams out for the first three minutes or so, I collect this water in a bucket to put to use later on for mopping the floor or watering the plants or even washing the cars. You might have heard that our kids use only about half a bucket of water for their baths, no shower except on Sundays to get the shampoo out. You might even recall from a previous post of mine, that if you turn on the taps in our house to their fullest extent, you would not get half as much of a gush of water as you’d expect, because the control valves are turned to the almost-off position. And of course you know that the water used for mopping the floors does not go down the drain, but instead goes directly to feed our water-hungry lawn.

Since we moved into this house, we’ve been running our water pump manually, so we pretty much know how often we run it and how much water it pumps. If we fill our 500 litre overhead tank to capacity, we can go 48 hours without running out of water. So clearly, we use about 250 litres a day. Even our rain water goes directly into the underground sump now, and has to be pumped up, so there’s no way we could be using any water from anywhere else without being aware of it. At 250 litres a day, we should be going through 7500 litres a month. Let’s add in some buffer for weekends, occasional white-water use for the grass, or whatever. Let’s say 9000 litres a month.

Imagine our shock when we were quietly presented a bill for 42,000 litres of water used in January! That’s about 1400 litres of water per day!

Even in our previous residence we never got such a high water bill – and there we shared the water with another family who lived on the ground floor and were not particularly careful in their use of water. So how?

We pulled out previous months’ bills. 22,000 lts, 24,000 lts, 25,000 lts.

We searched our consciences. Had we been consistently emptying out the overhead tank almost every day? We had not. Besides, even if we had, it would amount to only 15,000 lts in a 30-day month. To consume that much water, we’d have had to run the pump more than once a day.

So we decided there were three distinct possibilities: the bill was wrong, the meter was faulty, or our sump was leaking.

The last two were truly dreadful options. If the meter reading were wrong, it would be simplest to verify, and hopefully not too troublesome to fix. If the meter itself were faulty… we had no idea how to go about remedying the situation, but surely it would not be easy. And if the sump was leaking… heaven help us.

We verified the meter reading first. It tallied.

Then we looked at the sump. When water was coming, it filled up merrily, the meter spinning like a miniature roulette wheel. When water was not coming, all was quiet. However, though all was still quiet when we checked again the next morning, there was an ominous water mark on the side of the sump and the water level had visibly dipped overnight. And no, we hadn’t run the pump that day. Our hearts sank along with the sinking water level.

Amit, with his usual military-precision approach, did the observation, calculation, and interpretation, by kneeling at the edge of the sump several times over the course of two days, using a measuring tape to check the rate of leakage. Left to itself, the water level reduced at the rate of several inches in a whole day. If we filled up the almost-empty overhead tank, approximately 500 lts reduced the water level by approximately two-and-a-half inches. Once the water level had reduced to a certain extent, the leak slowed down and stopped. Therefore, it was a big leak (not good) and it was near the top of the tank (good). The thing with it being near the top of the tank is, when the water level is somewhat below maximum, it won’t leak. But – we had a 15,000 lts tank built for a reason – so that we’d have sufficient water stored up to tide us through a dry period. If we couldn’t use the top so many inches, then effectively we were working with a much smaller tank. Besides… the inflow of water into the sump is controlled by a ball-and-cock arrangement. If the ball were low enough, water would come in. We can turn it off manually, but that’s clearly much too much headache.

There’s no option but to get it fixed.

You’d think that since the leak is near the top and the water level has already sunk below the leak, it should be easy enough to fix. Apparently, it’s not so. They will waterproof the entire tank, which means the entire tank must be emptied out. By our estimate, there must be about 7,000 lts of water in the tank even now. That’s almost a month of water. We could take a chance and finish the stored water in the normal course of events and then get the tank fixed, but that’s living on the thin edge. It could take more than three weeks to finish the water, even if we use it “freely” – by our standards. By that time, if the water supply situation turns bad, we can look forward to a long summer of tanker water. Right now it’s a little safer. The water board has been kind enough to supply us 42,000 lts in January. If we can get this work done in the next few days, then we only need 24,000 lts or so to give us a one month supply of water and fill the sump to capacity again.

So what we’re planning to do right now is, we are going to empty the sump. We are going to use as much as we can, store as much as we can in the overhead tank, a 300 lt supplementary rain water harvesting tank, and the 16 sq ft, 5 ft deep gray water tank, and run the rest of it out into the lawn. If we do this on Monday, as planned, it will be about 5000 lts of water going into my grass. The grass should be happy – if it doesn’t get flooded. Amit, of course, is in agony. He’s thinking about all sorts of ways to store that water for a couple of days. Buy another tank? But it will hold only 500 or maybe 1000 lts and where on earth will we keep it? Call for an empty water tanker and fill it up? But how do you get water into a water tanker? We’d have to use the pump to pump it all up to our overhead tank and then use the garden hose to draw it out of a tap in the garden. 5000 lts? Sounds crazy, right? And no water tanker is going to agree to wait around for 48 hours till our work gets done. Amit even thought of giving it away, but to whom? Our immediate neighbours get as much water as we do and are visibly far more wasteful of it, so why bother? Conserving water only makes sense if everyone works at it – if not, whatever we save is extravagantly wasted by the next person down the line.

I, of course, being a shallow and selfish person, have no problem letting the water go into my lawn. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to, but since we do have to, it’s as good a use of it as any.

If anyone has a better solution, I’m all ears.

The Problem with the Solar System

February 21, 2013

As I’ve mentioned earlier, though we had planned to run most of our household appliances on solar power, it hasn’t happened yet. Solar power is not economically sensible. By the time you recover your costs and achieve break-even when compared to commercial rates, a good fifteen years may have passed and who knows what kind of maintenance might be required by then. There is a government subsidy for those installing solar power at home, but, as with all things governmental, it is a cumbersome, paper-heavy process designed to defeat the best intentions. So far, it’s succeeding.

Solar water heaters, on the other hand, are easy. They quickly turn out to be cheaper than using electricity to heat water and they have been around for quite a while. They are also now mandated by law for new buildings. Consequently, our solar water heating system – solar system for short – has been in place since a few days after we moved in.

The good thing about the solar system is, you get hot water around the clock and it doesn’t matter if you are in the middle of a power cut or not. This is a huge relief. On several occasions I have been stuck in the morning, unwilling to shower in cold water and unable to get hot water until electricity comes back. Now that doesn’t happen.

You’d think that getting hot water early in the morning would be a problem, considering the sun went down a good twelve hours earlier, but in our case, that’s not a problem. Even when there was a cyclone visiting town – or at least, the side effects of a cyclone, since Bangalore is not exactly coastal and doesn’t get hit by cyclones directly – and we had a gray drizzle for one week without a break, we still got hot water out of the solar system. Apparently, some kind of subdued daylight is good enough.

So obviously, if some kind of subdued daylight is good enough, ten hours of direct blazing sunlight is much too much. And that, my friends, is the problem with the solar system. Too much sun.

I know – you’re thinking, how much of a problem can that be? If the water’s too hot, just run some cold water and mix it, right? Well, yes, that’s what we do. But the thing is, this water is really scalding hot, even first thing in the morning. You could get burnt if you aren’t careful. Ok, we’ve had enough time to figure that out by now and we are careful. But in this aspect, the old-fashioned storage water heater was easier, more predictable. Run it for five minutes and you know you are going to get lukewarm water just the way you like it. Every time.

Still, that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the volcano effect, also known as the hot water geyser.

In our house, we have several skylights in the ceiling. These are covered with glass. Soon after we moved in, we noticed that sometime in the middle of the afternoon there would be this extraordinary drumming sound coming from the skylights on the first floor. We rushed up to find water bouncing off the skylights.

Water? On the skylights?

That was when we figured out what was going on. The water in the solar system was becoming so exceedingly hot that it was being spewed out the top like steam from a pressure cooker. If we had only put some chicken in there, we could have saved on cooking gas!

Remember what a fanatic Amit is when it comes to water conservation? The thought of all that water turning into steam and escaping into the atmosphere, and of precious water cascading down our skylights and lying on the roof to be lost to evaporation was completely unpalatable. First he called the solar system guys, who said this was completely normal and nothing to lose sleep over. Yeah, right. They had, of course, previously assured him that the water would not get hotter than 70 degrees Celsius, which now only exposed their ignorance. We pointed out that from a lay person’s perspective, it appeared the water was boiling, and they didn’t have an answer to that.

The next thing we tried was to cover a part of the solar panels that trap the heat. We only had some old curtains to cover them with, and I’m pretty certain the curtains have since been blown away.

Next, we called an aluminum fabricator and asked him if he could erect a structure that could be swung across the panels to cover them when it was very hot, and easily removed to expose them when it was not so hot. Sure, he said. 20 k.


The best thing would be to reduce the capacity of the entire solar system by permanently removing some of the panels. But there’s a catch. This is not the panel-type of solar panel, it’s the pipe-type of solar panel. So the elements that trap the sun’s heat (photovoltaic cells, do they call them) are in the shape of pipes that cold water goes through, absorbing the heat as it goes. Removing some of the pipes would involve re-plumbing the solar system, not just removing some plates. Also, once you’ve removed the pipes, what do you do with them? If you leave them lying around in the sun, with no water flowing through them, presumably they’d keep heating up and perhaps overheat or somehow destroy themselves. And then, if you needed to put them back on again, say if your hot water usage goes up when you have visitors or something, then it would be a big hassle.

So for now we haven’t done anything. But in the middle of the afternoon if the volcano begins to erupt then whoever is home rushes into the bathroom to turn on the hot water tap. At first, cold water comes, then nothing. Then there’s the gushing sound of air running through the pipe, then spurts of boiling water begin to follow. Of course we can’t let all that water go down the drain. We collect it in buckets. Doing this forces a fresh supply of cold water through the system and brings the eruption to a gradual halt. In the process, we end up with huge volumes of hot water, which is usually allowed to cool down and then used for mopping the floor or watering the plants the next day. But it’s a headache. There are days when no one is at home, days when the water collected this way is just too much, too heavy to lug around. This clearly can’t be a long term solution.

But neither can this.

Good Lord! He Really Meant It!

February 18, 2013

We decided years and years ago that if we wanted to do our bit for the environment, what we really needed to do was to invest in solar energy. For two or three years, Amit insisted we were going to get solar power to run our lights and fans, so we didn’t even buy an inverter and suffered through a couple of summers of interminable load shedding waiting for the solar energy to come.

It didn’t.

Then we built this house and of course we planned to have solar energy for everything – except maybe the fridge and washing machine – from the day we moved in.

It hasn’t happened yet.

So when Amit started talking about a composting toilet a couple of years ago, I tried all the usual strategies. I ignored it and waited for it to go away. When it didn’t, I put my foot down, firmly. When even that didn’t squash it, I threw a tantrum. And finally, after all else failed, I agreed to a compromise. We had planned four bathrooms in this house. Three would be normal. At least three.

Naturally, along with living room furniture, procuring a composting toilet was left to Amit. Actually, it’s not that I wanted to leave the living room furniture to Amit. Quite to the contrary. I was all excited about going to all the major furniture shops and picking out a medley of stuff, hopefully spotting a nice plush purple velvet sofa along the way. But our man here wanted restored genuine teak furniture, lovingly hand-crafted and made to last for several generations. Well, we’ve been here five months now and we haven’t seen hair nor hide of that teak wood furniture. So I was expecting the composting toilet to go the same way. But no. A mere five months after we move in, before we have the spiral steps in place to access the rooftop or the railing in place to prevent errant children from falling into the basement garden, we have a composting toilet in place. It arrive yesterday and it hasn’t gone away yet. I guess it’s here to stay.

In case you have not had the pleasure of prior acquaintance with a composting toilet, let me introduce you to the concept. Basically, it’s a means of conserving water. In fact, as a means of conserving water, it’s extremely sensible and highly laudable. After all, using clean white water to flush is a criminal waste, if you think about it. You take unimaginably vast volumes of clean white water, pour it down the toilet and then, once it’s irredeemably dirty, send it out to via drains and rivers all the way to the sea to pollute that as well. There are ways to purify sewage (black water) even to the extent that it can be used for all purposes including drinking… but nobody wants to do that, it’s undeniably yucky. Or we could at least purify it to the extent that it could be used for other purposes – watering parks and lawns, for instance. And we could also use gray water, instead of white, for flushing with in the first place. But generally it’s not done, and definitely not at an individual household level.

When we were constructing this house, we did discuss with our architect the possibility of emptying our black water into the earth. It sounds yucky? It’s not, actually. It’s a more natural way of giving back to nature. Human waste is a pollutant in rivers and the sea, but in the soil, it’s fertilizer, nothing worse. Yes, it can contain diseases, microbes and besides, it might be smelly, right? But if it were to be discharged into the ground, it would go a long, long way down where the diseases and microbes would eventually die and the water and nutrients would enrich the soil and provide nutrition to any plants that happen to be growing above. But our architect said it wouldn’t work – we would need a much longer phytoremediation bed, and we would have to be careful that kids (and pets, if any) didn’t go anywhere near it.

So our toilets flush the normal way, and our sewage goes out the normal way.

And that’s why Amit insisted on this wretched composting toilet.

So this toilet is basically a bucket with a toilet seat on top of it. It looks ok, no complaints on that account yet. You “flush” it by adding a lot of dry matter like sawdust or cocopeat after each use. In theory, that keeps the smells away and helps everything to dry up. And I’m totally alright with it in theory. The trouble is, I didn’t agree to have this device in any of the main bathrooms – the ones attached to the bedrooms. So it’s gone into the powder room. Now the powder room happens to be fairly close to just about everything else in the house. It’s close to the stairs, close to the guest bedroom, close to the dining room… If this area starts to stink, much of the house will become unlivable in. And I’m not at all convinced it’s not going to stink. I also am not quite prepared to go to the bathroom on top of so many other installments of… well, you know…

It’s not that I haven’t used toilets like this before – it’s common practice in Ladakh, where the village folk don’t dirty the rivers and don’t mind raking out the waste and using it as fertilizer. But I didn’t like it there, either. In the mountains, the toilets are often built on a slope, such that the platform is several feet above the repository, and it’s usually dark and dingy inside so you can’t see anything anyway, but those places still retained all kinds of smells. Shudder.

I guess the next time you come to visit – if you do come to visit – you might want to bring a big bunch of roses along.

Is That Stealing?

February 14, 2013

The thing with plants is, they grow slowly. And the thing with me is, I’m short on patience. When I want something, I want it now. Right now. Not six months later and definitely not six years later. I’m all about instant gratification and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

I think those builders and developers who put the trees in place before they have the roads tarred, or even those somewhat despicable ones who lay down brilliant, emerald-green slabs of Mexican grass outside a barely constructed apartment and surround it with obscenely colourful flowers… have the right idea. Nothing makes an ugly building more appealing than being surrounded or set off by fresh, vibrant greenery.

Ok, ok, ours is not an ugly building. Even I’ve grown to be quite fond of the rustic simplicity of an all-brick exterior. Still, there’s no denying that it is dull, even if in a slightly pretty way. But the very fact that it is a little “rustic” means it looks even more suited to be nestled in greenery. I’ve seen other, older mud-brick buildings where plants have had a chance to make their presence felt and the effect is really quite nice.

Now grass is all very well, and it is beginning to look like a nice expanse of green, but it tends to stay on the ground and not quite dominate the environment. So here come the bougs. Did I mention I love bougs? Only half a dozen times or so, I guess. So our three baby bougs have been lined up along the front boundary wall and instructed to grow over it and cover it with a zillion flowers in half a dozen colours. Doesn’t help that we have planted only two colours – standard purple-pink, and white. I planted an orange one this Monday, but it’s looking pretty dead. Must be the rock foundation of the wall that it doesn’t like. The other three babies are fluctuating between various stages from drooping and shedding leaves to perking up and growing flowers. I’m watching them carefully, but they seem impervious to all that and continue to fluctuate according to their own whims and fancies.

Meanwhile, the house next door is lying vacant. The rumour mill has it that it has been vacant for years due to some tragedy. It’s not haunted, though, and there is a caretaker and occasionally someone drops in to spend a night or at least a few hours. This caretaker is an elderly gentleman and he seems to be the hardworking sort. Though I often see him sitting in the late afternoon sun and reading a newspaper, or chatting with the driver next door, I also often see him clearing out the yard, stockpiling dry leaves, and so on. There is no grass on that side of the fence, but you know the saying – the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. In this instance, it’s not the grass so much as the boug and it’s not just greener – it’s bigger, thornier, flowerier, and greener. It’s tall and wild and untamed. There’s this huge branch that shoots ten feet into the air before looping down under its own weight and it’s still growing, with arms springing out at regular intervals, covered in bright pink “flowers”. (Actually, I believe, the bright pink part of a boug is also leaves, not flowers; the flowers are the tiny white things inside. But it’s just easier to refer to the bright pink parts as flowers.)

Now see – nobody lives in that house except the caretaker… and what does he care? And on the other hand, here am I, just waiting for some colour to invade my world. And we share the wall and it’s a hole-y wall anyway – I mean, it’s this slightly ornate wall that has these curvy little pillars. And it’s their wall, I’m not even laying claim to the wall. All I want is the boug.

So, I armed myself with a rejected length of water pipe, which happened to have a convenient arrangement of bends (and was recently pressed into service to recover the showerhead thingy from the gray water tank, remember?) and I went up to the wall and reached over it and pulled the tall, straggly, untamed branch over. It was, of course, tangled up with various other thorny offshoots, but, ignoring a few scratches on my arm, I managed to disengage it and pull it across the wall and then thread several of its arms through the curvy little pillars of the wall, ensuring that at least some of the flowering parts were facing our side. With some luck, when the next monsoon arrives (and it’s true that it’s still several months away, but that’s not too bad) this handsome fellow will claim the entire wall and declare it home.

The best part is, the roots are still in our neighbour’s house and the caretaker gets to water the plant. I’m sure he will keep doing that, he doesn’t seem to be a mean and nasty kind of guy. While we get to enjoy the fruits – or at least the flowers – of his labour.

Here’s a picture of my baby boug and another one of my neighbour’s boug. Can you even tell which one is which?


Yeah, so this is obviously not stealing. All I’ve done is to help our neighbor manage his plants by taking his own boug and training it to climb over his own wall. That’s just good neighbourliness.
But… this same neighbor has a mango tree that overhangs our balcony and a guava tree that sort of reaches into our airspace. Both trees are laden with fruit – tiny, still raw, but holding out the promise of plenty.


So now, when this fruit ripens, if we help ourselves to a little… that’s still not stealing, is it?

A Garden Adventure

February 11, 2013

What a way to start the week.

It was an unusually hectic weekend – or maybe that’s the way it appears every Sunday night or Monday morning – and watering the lawn got pushed to 8 p.m. on Sunday. In the past I’ve sworn not to water after dark because you can’t see what you are doing and you end up with dry patches all over the place. But the way things turned out, on Saturday we left home at 5 and didn’t get back till 9.30 and on Sunday we left home at 3.30 and didn’t get back till 7.30, so there were no real evening daylight hours at home. And I didn’t want to delay it till Monday evening.

A few days ago, I’d bought a showerhead kind of thingy. You attach it to the hose and it turns the water into a nice spray of five different varieties, depending on the setting you choose. I hadn’t had a chance to try it yet. But I’ve already explained the set-up and tear-down process for watering the lawn and I didn’t want to add to it at 8 p.m. on Sunday night by introducing a new element into the picture, so I thought I’d keep it for next time. Amit, though, being much better now and able to move around quite well, decided it would be his undertaking to fetch the attachment from the dining room and attach it.

“But we’ll have to turn off the water,” I protested. “And that’s a waste of time. Let’s just get this done with and go inside and have dinner. I’m hungry.”

But of course it was in vain. He argued that we didn’t need to turn off the water and proceeded to attach the shower head with the water running, resulting in him getting a nice gray-water shower himself. I, of course, hid a good distance and an impossible angle away from the pipe and managed to remain clean and dry.

It was very nice having this new gadget on the hose pipe. I played around with all five settings and figured out which ones worked best for which stretches of grass. It also seemed to speed up the watering process (or maybe it was just more fun than otherwise) and to use less water. Great. Then, when we were almost done, the gadget suddenly, without much warning, popped off the hose pipe. Amit grabbed it from me, accusing me, as usual of being hopeless and of messing around with it too much and of being somehow or other responsible for it popping off.

“But I didn’t do anything, it just popped off,” I protested. “You shouldn’t attach it with the water running, it creates back pressure. Next time we’ll attach it before we turn on the water.”

But of course it was in vain. He grabbed the hose from me and fitted the shower head thingy back on, treating himself to another quick shower while I scampered out of the way.

A moment later, the gadget popped off again, this time while Amit was firmly in charge of it. And, what’s even more interesting is, he managed to drop it right into the 15-foot deep gray water tank!

Much to my credit, I resisted the temptation to get back at him (I was really hungry by then). “We’ll fish it out in the morning,” was all I said.

I don’t know how I really expected to fish it out. Ok, one thing I discovered was that our tank is not really 15 feet deep. We have this long plastic rod which is supposed to be used to conceal electric wiring. We use it as a dip stick to check the water level in the tank. The rod is just right in length – it stops right at the top of the tank, with its other end touching the bottom. Now when Amit held this rod up against himself, it was clearly shorter than him. So maybe our tank is only 6 feet deep – slight overestimation there on my part. At any rate, it’s too deep to reach the bottom with one’s arm, even if one happens to be as tall as Amit.

So on Monday morning, when we had packed the kids off to school, we stared down into the dark, slightly odorous gray water and wondered how to go about this. Amit was all set to just jump in, so to speak. Great, I thought. Then I can leave him there and go off to work. “How do you think you’re going to get out, with one leg still of limited utility?”

I expected this, too, to be in vain, but for a change, he actually thought about it and decided there was some sense in what I was saying.

“So what do you suggest?” he asked.

I went to the back of the house, where all sorts of interesting things are to be found. Amidst clods of unbroken red soil and hibiscus, lemon, curry patta and frangipani saplings, are compost pots, rakes, endlessly long garden hose pipes, two bicycles, sacks of compost and cocopeat, and sundry bits of tubes and pipes. (I imagine all this is much as it is in anybody else’s back yard. Right?) Anyway, I found what I wanted, a long, strong, thin plastic pipe, nicely bent at three places. This would do.

“That will never work,” said Amit.

At first, it didn’t seem to be long enough. So I got down on my hands and knees and reached in as far as I could. It was long enough, provided I didn’t fall in headlong. I hooked one of the nicely-placed convolutions of the pipe around the showerhead and tried to manoeuver it up, out of the water.

“Here, gimme that, you’re hopeless,” said Amit.

Well, his arms are about a foot longer than mine, so it made sense. I got up and relinquished the pipe. He managed to get down on all fours and pushed the pipe into the tank. And a moment later he let go of it and it slid with a quiet splash into the gray water and disappeared out of sight.

Great! Now what?

“We need a ladder,” said Amit.

If you look carefully at the picture of the reed bed that does our phytoremediation, you’ll see a long, long ladder lying along the length of it. So, we picked up the said ladder – him with his broken leg and me with a still not very strong shoulder – and lowered it into the tank. In case you’ve never had the opportunity to lift one of those bamboo ladders, let me tell you – those bamboo ladders are bloody heavy! Anyhow, we got it into the tank without breaking anything, but, since the ladder is about 20 feet long (allowing for some slight overestimation on my part) and since that the tank is now known to be only about 6 feet deep, it stuck out like the proverbial stairway to heaven.

Amit took off his shoes and emptied the pockets of his shorts.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

He pointed down at the tank.

I pointed up at the ladder.

“You know what’s going to happen when you come back up? It’s going to flip over like a see-saw.” I started to get out of the way yet again. The thought of being hit with a spray of flying gray water was nothing compared to the thought of being hit by a flying limb of my better two-thirds.

“Ok, then you better go down,” he said. “I’ll hold the ladder.”

Uh-oh. I hadn’t bargained on that.

But in the end, it wasn’t that bad. I went down and fished out the pipe and then used it to fish out the showerhead and I didn’t fall off the ladder and I didn’t get my feet wet (though at least one arm got a gray water dousing) and I didn’t go flying through the air on the way up. In fact, there was nothing exciting about it whatsoever. All quite simple and straightforward. Afterwards, we managed to lift the ladder out and though it came within inches of Amit’s car, we managed not to break anything. And after that there was time enough to plant an orange bougainvillea, have a quick white water shower and head to work no later than usual.

Quite a colourful start to the week, I’d say.
The reed bed that does our phytoremediation

Making the Grass Grow Greener

February 8, 2013

Throughout much of the time that we spent building the house – or rather, getting it built – we argued violently over the outdoor areas. Initially, we had agreed that Amit had sole responsibility for the house and I got to design the outdoor spaces (in addition to furniture and furnishings, of course). Naturally, as we came closer to completion, the boundaries got fuzzy. I wanted grass everywhere, and Amit wanted all sorts of things – vegetables on the terrace, a papaya plant, lots of other fruit trees, and at least one neem to ward off the mosquitos. He also argued vociferously against grass – our water-conservationist architect had pointed out that grass is expensive on water.


You’d think they’d have had the same problem in Chandigarh, which is certainly no oasis and gets much hotter and drier in summer than anything Bangalore can aspire to. I don’t recall any such problem, but that was thirty-odd years ago and everything was simpler back then.


Still, I had my heart set on grass, so we continued to argue until well after we’d moved in – which might explain why it took us three months to get the grass (but in fact, that delay was mostly due to the contractor’s tardiness).


We did take some concrete steps, apart from arguing. We had a water recycling system put in place. This is great, actually. All the water we use in our house for washing and so on (gray water, that is, which excludes water used for flushing the toilets, which is called black water), goes into the recycling system. What we have is a phytoremediation system. So there’s this long pit along the side of the house, looks a bit like a long flower bed, not very wide, covered with a bit of silty soil and a layer of pebbles on top. There are reeds planted all along this pit, the sort of leafy thing that grows by lakes and ponds. The gray water flows in one end, has various detrimental chemicals absorbed by the reeds, and flows out the other end into a deep tank. When the tank fills up, it overflows into the storm water drain outside the house. It doesn’t need to go into the sewage line, because it is pretty clean water, really.


How clean is it? Well, you wouldn’t want to drink it. We’ve been using this water on the plants, and, like I said, they are still alive – most of them. I wouldn’t use this water for cooking or even for bathing, though. Last time I turned on the pump, the initial burst of water that came out was dirty yellow in colour and I certainly didn’t want to touch it – it reminded me inescapably of… well, what’s warm, watery and yellowish? (Remember, toilet water isn’t supposed to be coming into this recycling system – or that’s what they say. I’m not entirely convinced about the skills of our plumber guy, but I’m just going to hang on to that thought.) Still, warm, watery and yellowish thought it was, it went into the grass anyway, and doesn’t seem to have done it any harm. In fact, a few weeds that had emerged have gained six inches in height since then. Hmmm.


At one stage, Amit had weaned us off all sorts of chemical cleaning agents and we were using only organic solutions (based on saponin, also known as soap nut) for washing dishes, washing clothes… and even, for a very brief while, for bathing and shampooing. But eventually I weaned us off the organic cleansers and back onto the good old commercial stuff. This was aided by the architect’s assertion that cleaning agents do not harm plants and might even do some good, by providing them the same essential ingredients as commercially-available fertilizers. I’m not sure of that, but what I can say is that when Amit had tried to re-use water that had saponin in it on his vegetables, some of them promptly withered and died. Our phytoremediated water hasn’t done that to our plants yet.


But it’s not easy.


At first, when our grass was planted, our gray water tank was full and overflowing. But there was no way to get the water out! You could throw a bucket in and haul it out with a rope. We had some odd jobs still being done around the house at the time and we also had the grass contractor sending in men to water the lawn every day, but all of these hardy folk, despite bringing adequate muscle power to the job, absolutely refused to use that water. The cement mason went so far as to say that water wasn’t good enough for his work! I mean – it’s cement, how particular can it be???


I don’t think it was the effort of hauling the water out by the bucket that put them off, though – they just didn’t like the idea of gray water. These were, after all, some of the same people who built our house and I know they used a bucket to haul water up for months while they worked on the construction. Even the women did that. Ah, but that was white water – or at least, they thought it was. That was tanker water, of course, so it was more like a fairly muddy, rather dubious white water, hard, and full of all kinds of sediments and other undesirable matter. Tanker water, in Bangalore, is borewell water, which means it’s not river water, it’s taken straight out of the ground. It has even been known to contain heavy metals like, if I’m not mistaken, cadmium and mercury. Still, at least it hadn’t been used for washing vegetables, clothes, bodies, and dishes, so it was considered to be pure and clean and good.


This gray water tank goes maybe 15 ft into the ground and I clearly lack the muscle power to throw a bucket in with a rope tied to it and pull it out full of water. I’d probably fall in after three attempts (or sooner). Amit is a tall, strong guy, but I doubt he’d be able to do this either – not without breaking his back. And since he’s gone and broken his ankle ligament already, he’s conveniently out of the picture. Anyway, the original idea was to get a pump and pump the water out. Just doing that took a while, but eventually we did it. However, it’s not a submersible pump. It’s a small pump that sits outside the tank, with a long pipe that you toss into the water. You turn on the power and the pump sucks up the water and spews it out the other end, to which a hosepipe must be attached beforehand.


So now that the grass contractor has thrown up his hands and left, and with Amit still out of action, watering the lawn is a(nother) task that has fallen upon my tender shoulders. And what a task it is. After several sessions of watering, the level in the gray water tank has sunk pretty low. Consequently, I only get about 20-25 minutes of watering before the water runs out altogether. Now consider this. We obviously can’t leave the pump sitting there next to the tank all the time, because someone might well come in and flick it. So the pump is locked up in the gas chamber (an external chamber where we store our gas cylinders, nothing worse). So, to water the grass, I first have to get the pump out of the gas chamber, along with its pipe and it’s incredibly long power supply cord. And this pump is quite heavy by now, because the pipe, which is fat and about 10 ft long, is full of water. I have to lug this weighty and unwieldy contraption over to the tank. Open the tank cover, which is also quite heavy. Throw the pipe in. Take the power cord and plug it in. Then go all the way round to the back of the house and collect the 120-ft long, extremely bulky and unwieldy and somewhat heavy hosepipe, throw one end in the lawn and then unravel the rest of it all the way to the front corner where the pump is sitting. Attach the hosepipe to the pump. And then it’s safe to turn on the pump. If there is an airlock, I have to open the air vent and quite likely treat myself to a quick shower with gray water. And then, hopefully, if there’s nothing else that can go wrong, I’m in business.


After about 25 minutes, when about half the lawn is watered, the first gasp of air comes up the pipe, indicating that the water level has sunk to the extent that part of the pump’s pipe is now exposed to air. It’s time to turn off the pump and then reverse the entire set-up process.


Wait three days for another six inches of water to accumulate in the gray water tank, and then… rinse and repeat. Phew!


Right now, I’m  watering the lawn only once a week, hopefully giving the gray water sufficient time to recharge. The grass doesn’t seem to be too happy with that – it’s protesting by going yellow in patches. But, when I go for my well-deserved hot shower after all this hard work, it feels good to know that the water that’s going down the drain is not going waste – it’s all going to be put to work making sure the grass is greener on my side of the fence. So it’s ok if I run the shower just a little longer than absolutely necessary. Ah, bliss!

phytoremediation reed bed

our lovely lawn
That’s our reed bed that does the phytoremediation of our grey water. The underground tank is beyond it, in the background. And that’s our lawn, coming along nicely, don’t you think?

Planted… And Waiting for it to Start Growing

February 3, 2013

So last weekend I blogged about my first attempts at planting. But I’m not one to let the grass grow under my feet – though I wish it would, for once – and so… once the boug were looking healthier, we decided the time was right to expand our portfolio. Amit’s leg was still in the pretty blue fibre-glass cast when we went to the Lalbagh nursery one Sunday and came back loaded. We got:

    Two Neem trees (for Amit, obviously; he thinks they will keep mosquitos away)
    Four canna lilies (because our water-conservationist architect’s firm says they will help with phytoremediation and can be grown hydroponically – more on both topics in a later post)
    Two pots of petunias (because Amit likes pretty little flowers)
    A frangipani tree, which consists of two dried-up and rather dead-looking stalks in a pot (I don’t know why exactly we got these, but it appears we had all somehow agreed to get them)
    A lemon tree (again, Amit’s idea – don’t ask me why).

And a friend had casually handed me a curry patta sapling a day earlier.

Naturally, Lalbagh didn’t have any of the trees I wanted, so clearly another trip will have to be made at a future date.

Meanwhile, there was a full-fledged nursery in our back lawn now, which all needed to be given water and admiration on a daily basis. And most of them needed to be planted, too, which, since Amit was in no position to do such a thing, would have to be done by me. Me. With my own lilly-white hands that had never hitherto been sullied by common garden dirt, much less with gross things like compost. I mean, doing all that mucky stuff once is bad enough, but at least it was for my darling bougainvilleas, which I very much wanted. Do all that work for stuff I didn’t even want?

Well, at least by now I had a spade to help with the digging. And though Amit was out of action, I had two other pairs of hands, albeit small ones, that had not the slightest objection to getting into dirty and mucky stuff.

And so, incredible as it may seem to those who know me, and incredible as it seems to me, I did it.

The petunias went down first, and they were easy. They didn’t have a deep root, and in one place we had loose, sandy soil that didn’t need digging. We put one plant out in the blazing sun, and the other we put in a shadier spot where it gets little direct sunlight. The one in the shady spot looked hopelessly wilted and defeated when I planted it, but by the end of the day it was smiling happily and had new flowers to offer.

Then I planted the lemon tree. I have no idea how these things grow – websites mention mysterious things about soil types and pests and diseases which all leave me nonplussed. So I’m still more-or-less going with my “water it and leave it alone” approach. The lemon tree had small white flowers when we got it, but these fell off some ten days later. Is it unhappy or is this normal? No clue. But it has some new shiny green leaves and the browning of the tips, which Amit diagnosed as malnutrition, has reduced or maybe those leaves have fallen off. Whatever. To the untrained eye, it looks ok.

Then I planted the curry patta sapling. It’s a fairly tall creature, with several twigs ending in leaves, but it seems to be in a comatose condition. It doesn’t seem to be growing or dying. The leaves have not fallen off, nor have any new leaves come. The poor thing has a weak backbone and clearly needs some support, but even assuming I do eventually get around to tying it to something, will that help it grow? I’ve been watering it most days, and it’s not in a full-sunshine spot, and I don’t know whether I need to do something for it, or whether it’s just a slow-growing plant. I had a curry patta plant in one of those government bungalows my father was in just before I got married. All I remember about it was that it flourished, grew to be taller than me, and produced plenty of leaves. I don’t recall ever giving it any special attention or even watering it, but heck – that was 15 years ago and I was busy starting my career and planning my wedding, so I might just have missed something.

By the time I was done with those, I was exhausted. But I was also, surprisingly… it’s difficult to find the right word, but the closest I can think of is satisfied. Far from being yucky and mucky and gross, I found being in the dirt, digging, planting, even the compost sprinkling thing was all – satisfying. It gave me a strange sense of release. It was completely unexpected. I’ve never been a very earthy sort of person. The closest I’ve come to nature is when I trek, but, though I enjoy the earthiness of trekking, I’m still a city gal at heart. I have as healthy an aversion to dust, dirt, and creepy-crawlies as anyone else. Yet here I was, plunging my hands into soil, then into compost, then into water, getting truly muddy in the process, getting brown in my fingernails… and coming away feeling satisfied with it all.

There’s still lots to do. I have to figure out the hydroponics of canna lilies. I have to figure out how to get two dead-looking stumps to grow into an actual flower-bearing frangipani tree. I have to throw some chickoo (sapota) seeds into the ground and see if I can get a sapota tree out of it. Likewise for various other plants that I’m now willing and eager to try. I’m even game to get some more flowers and have little patches of colour in our lawn. Growing plants in our garden is clearly going to be a whole lot of work. That much I was prepared for. What I hadn’t expected was to actually enjoy it. Even the fact that there are two neem trees, four canna lilies, and two dead-looking frangipani stumps waiting to be planted – none of which was originally on my wishlist – doesn’t seem so bad any more. It might even, just possibly, be something I’m looking forward to.


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