Home & Garden

How an Indian family brought flavors of home to Columbia

Provided photo

I may be making too much of this, but maybe not.

Several weeks ago, I received a message from a reader. She is a mother who recently was driving her son back and forth to baseball practice in Columbia.

“I have been driving a route this spring that takes me beside the VA Hospital. I have watched the transformation of a plot of land behind a motel next to the Hardee’s. It appears that a group of immigrants have built a garden. I have seen them working from time to time. Their ability to create something from nothing has impressed me. The arrangement of sticks and watering buckets shows incredible resourcefulness. I do not know if these are motel employees or guests or people who just asked to use the plot of land … I am intrigued about what must be their story.”

I was intrigued too.

So, I went in search of the garden behind the motel.

Several trips up and down Garners Ferry Road, which runs in front of the VA, turned up a lot of people in cars who were headed somewhere and understandably less than patient with my search.

I turned off on a side street and there I found a Hardee’s advertising the new “Aporkalypse Biscuit”.

A short way beyond that, I saw a tall blue and white sign that said, “AMERICAS BEST VALUE INN.” No apostrophe in Americas.

The motel is a two-story affair with red doors leading into each of the rooms. From the looks of the trucks parked there, it’s a place where working folk – on the road, doing what needs to be done – catch a night’s sleep before setting out again the next day.

The motel is surrounded by several back roads and at the place where two of these roads intersect is a robust, roadside garden growing in and out of several ditches and, frankly, thriving in a place where most people probably wouldn’t think to raise their summer bounty.

But here, despite the din of I-77 nearby, despite the traffic, the commercial clutter and the lack of anything the least bit pastoral, is the garden.

Green bean vines shimmy up tree branches which have been cut and trimmed, tied together with cotton strips, and turned into the needed framework for climbing vegetables. Other small crops make no fuss as they wander down into a ditch and up the other side. A variety of elephant ears, which I later learned can be floured and sautéed, flourish under the shade of a sycamore tree.

There is hardly much land here, so every inch of it is claimed and cultivated.

Impressive? Yes.

Incredible resourcefulness? Yes.

But whose work? Whose resourcefulness? Whose determination to glean something from this gnarly spot?

The office at Americas Best Value Inn is around the side of the building. A sign on the door shows an arrow pointing right to the “NIGHT WINDOW”.

But it is early afternoon and the office is open. It’s a small place with several tables and a few places to sit. On a nearby shelf, there’s a sign that says a continental breakfast is served for several hours in the morning. Two canisters of cereal – Raisin Bran and Corn Flakes – sit there too. From through another door inside the office, the smell of something cooking - curry - rolls through and makes me really hungry.

Dixita Patel is working the desk. She smiles when I ask her about the garden.

We do our best to communicate with one another.

It’s not easy but that’s OK.

Here’s what I learned. Several years ago, Dixita and her family moved to the United States from “a place near Bombay, India.”

It’s a large, multi-generational family and most of them live at the motel. Hence, curry cooking in the back. Dixita says the family leases and operates the motel, and eventually hopes to purchase it. Among the Patels – “We all Patels,” Dixita laughs – there are children attending Columbia public schools and the University of South Carolina.

So why did the family come to America?

“We like the country. You know, all this? Everything good. We are happy together. That’s why.”

And what about the garden?

“We had a big farm in India. This is a little garden. We like to fresh cook in the home. The family work together in the garden. She put in the beans and they grow and she feel like they are all her children.”

“She” is Savita Patel, matriarch of the family. Her long hair is graying. Her eyes twinkle. Her smile grows big when the conversation is about the garden.

She talks to me through Dixita.

“We grow up with how to cook. We garden. We are just born with this.”

Savita and I visit the garden together. Carefully, she walks though the pathways of young vegetables. She reaches for a cucumber, one of “her children.”

Before I leave, Savita gives me a bag of them to take home.

I thank her.