THE GIRL IN THE GARDEN by Kamala Nair
idea for The Girl in the Garden came to me one night in the
winter of 2004, during a trip to India. I had just completed my first
term as a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at Trinity
College Dublin and had flown to Kerala, along with my parents, to visit
As a child, I loved the novel The Secret Garden. Leaving behind
the modern comforts of the West to enter the old-fashioned, culturally
confusing world of my father’s village, full of strange new discoveries,
I often felt like Mary at Misselthwaite Manor, except in Mary’s case she
was leaving the familiar world of India behind for an England she saw as
at first, cold and unwelcoming, and gradually, a place of magic. For me,
Kerala’s verdant jungles, wild and untended, were the perfect
environment for a curious child to uncover buried secrets.
We were staying in the rambling farmhouse where my father grew up and
one evening after sunset, a group of us headed to the village temple.
Unlike the bustling city where my mother’s family lived, my father’s
childhood home seemed untouched by time. We had only a few flashlights
to guide us through the dirt roads, which were surrounded by forests and
blanketed in an impenetrable darkness. Only able to see the few inches
of ground directly in front of my feet, the rest of my senses were
heightened, alive to the sounds and scents of deep India.
Like Rakhee, I slipped off my sandals when we arrived at the temple and
winced at the sharp stones underfoot, while my family walked about with
relative ease. The temple idols were bathed in the glow of flickering
torches, while bells rang and sticks of incense burned. One of my
cousins grabbed my hand, pulling me away from the swarm of worshippers
and guiding me toward the remnants of a stone wall, with a vast green
field just beyond, and an ancient-looking well at its center.
“People say that well is haunted by a yekshi,” whispered my cousin with
a smirk, “A ghost.” She was in her late teens, too old to believe in
such things, as was I, and while I knew that she was pointing it out
more as a curiosity than as something to be feared, the moment was
nonetheless arresting. I began to imagine that we were not two sensible
adults standing at the edge of that wall, but children, still imbued
with the innocence to believe in a world where ghosts and enchanted
wells could exist.
I lay in bed that night, thinking about the field and the well, and I
imagined into the picture a tree with branches covered in red flowers. I
dreamed of two little girls huddling under the tree and the petals of
the flowers showering down around them. I knew I wanted to write about
that image, so I began to think about who those little girls were, how
they got there, and why they were huddled under the tree.
The stirrings of a story growing in my mind caused me to see India in a
new way. The village, the paddy fields, the Ayurvedic hospital that my
grandfather had founded — they all became characters, as well as the
house. My grandfather had built it shortly after he married my
grandmother, and gradually expanded it to accommodate the nine children
that would eventually be born within its walls. It always seemed to be a
thriving center of life and activity, and even in my early visits there,
I remembered cousins, uncles, and aunts flowing in and out, and my
grandmother, the queen of the house, sweeping through the halls.
My grandmother had recently passed away, and this was the first time we
had returned without her. Her absence was palpable. The house seemed to
have degenerated. I noticed small changes—door hinges that creaked,
treasured photographs destroyed by age and heat, peeling paint. Most of
the farm animals had been sold and their stalls stood empty and
overgrown with vines.
I never had the chance to meet my grandfather, who died when I was ten
days old, but from stories I knew that he was a hero to his children and
a man with enormous compassion for his patients. My grandmother had been
the purest, most loving woman I had ever met. In their passing,
something incalculably precious was lost—a sense of family history that
having grown up thousands of miles away, I only rarely felt when I had
wandered as a child through those old rooms. The house had fallen, not,
like Ashoka, as a result of poisonous secrets, but from the inevitable
passage of time.
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