She puts up a hand to shield her almond-shaped eyes from the sun and deftly hoists herself up, stepping on the creepers that form a cascading green veil around the hut she calls home. Her slight frame leaves a small dent in the thick twines that double as a makeshift rope ladder. Atop the roof dotted with plump produce in varying stages of ripeness, the view is special. It's a treasured patch of something that's just her own.
Monika Barman, a teenager from Cooch Behar, tends to her 'terrace garden' with the dexterity of an old hand who understands herbs. Her prized garden yields produce quite unlike the shrivelled greens we shell out a whopping 80 bucks per kilo for. At the chaotic marketplace in the village, an insistent shopper haggles over a mammoth bottle gourd fresh from her garden - bringing it down to 20 rupees. The measly amount doesn't dampen her spirits; she's thrilled by her first sale. Passersby gather to ooh and aah at the modern equivalent of the wondrous turnip as it changes hands.
Poignantly captured by award-winning director Megan Mylan, the documentary After My Garden Grows lends a peek into Monika's life. Her individual story of triumph brims with the fire of self-reliance and independence. In a world where gendered norms are a way of life, granting women access to land has the potential to open up roles for women beyond the kitchen and home.
Monika's terrace garden is an analogy; it takes after its gentle keeper. Pushing against their straitened circumstances (here, the paucity of land), the creepers have climbed the mildewed walls of her house and spread out their bounty on the roof. Monika, whose humble garden was started under the centrally run SABLA scheme in association with NGO Landesa, wants to finish school, delay her marriage and, hopefully, set a precedent for her peers and juniors. Her father wants to get her married off while she's still young, but she's happiest when tending to her garden and bantering with friends at school.
Summoning truckloads of hope and patience, she has grown pumpkin, gourd and has plans to diversify more. They say the therapeutic effect of a lovely patch of lushness peppered with flowers, fruit or vegetables (depending on your preference) is supposedly worth every bit of squatting in the mud. For Monika, it wasn't so much a hobby as a way out of the rut of early marriage and childbirth. But, now it's become a passion and source of a modest measure of pride.
She's just one of the many successful cases that have flowered under The Girls Project. Kitchen gardens have sprouted in many homes and, to acquire a better understanding of their purpose, the young women attend interactive classrooms that delve into the importance of land rights. Having been resigned to secondary roles from a tender age, they are sceptical about the benefits but are more than willing to take the plunge and soar. And it's evident in the unselfconscious way they talk about problems at home, bringing about a shift in family dynamics.
As she tours Mumbai and Delhi and even gets a private audience with Aamir Khan, Monika is starry-eyed yet clear-headed. While giving interviews, she tucks away details of every encounter, which will be turned into stories shared with friends and ruminated over in her garden of hope.