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!