“…and loads of primroses this year.” Five and a half hours behind, and five and a half thousand miles away, my mother’s voice floats out of the computer. The screen is a jagged checkerboard of yellow and green pixels. She continues perambulating round the garden, holding the laptop face-out in her arms like an offering.
“Tim’s magnolia’s doing well.” She stops walking long enough for the image to settle, so I can make out the waxy white blooms. We planted the magnolia stellata for our childhood friend who died of Hodgkins in 1986. She turns a couple of degrees to the left to show me the soft purple fronds of the smoke bush next to it, that has spent as many years on earth as my son, Roshan, now almost eleven.
She angles the screen upwards and my father’s face appears in the top left. “See the cherry tree?” he says, and then makes that quintessential Dad-like noise that translates roughly as ‘goodness, you’ll be amazed at its abundance,’ but comes out sounding like Carry On Up the Garden Path: “Phwoaar.”
Mum walks over to the little ornamental cherry tree that stands in the middle of the lawn. I’d bought it for her three years ago for her seventieth. Planting it involved hacking out the stump of the old robinia, a pretty tree with leaves like yellow pennies with a lilac clematis trained up its trunk, that had taken sick and succumbed to a long, lingering death the year before. The weeping cherry was little more than a bundle of twigs when we planted it. But now, covered in a cascade of white blooms, it is finally beginning to look at home.
Mum’s weeping cherry, Roshan’s smoke bush, Tim’s magnolia. Other possessive pronouns are less clear. The roses are mostly Dad’s, somehow, especially the butter-lemon one that has been trained over the rickety arched trellis that leads up to the lawn. The rambling white rose that dots the dense laurel hedge at the back is too wild and accidental to be anyone’s really, though it’s been sort of foster-parented by Mum, who still shuns the electric strimmer and teeters with her shears on a step ladder so that she can cut around it, weaving it into the dark green foliage along with the brambles that will reward us with plump sweet blackberries come autumn. (Besides, she doesn’t really trust anyone else to do it – properly.)
The computer bumps along following Dad into the greenhouse so that he can show me how the cosmos seedlings are coming along. I have never quite fathomed Dad’s enthusiasm for these cheap and cheerful annuals. Each year he sows trays upon trays of them, and every last seed germinates, and then he grumbles how many there are, and plants them haphazardly all over the place, so that by July every flowerbed is bursting with them. I think of them more or less as weeds, but I’d never say this to Dad, who treats them like children and shows them off to visitors: “Cosmos?” he claps a hand to his head, “phwoaar.”
The aquilegia on the other hand, are Mum’s, and give stiff competition to the invading cosmos. We started years back, with a few. They were simple and elegant, with five deep purple petals on the outside surrounding an inner ring of smaller, lighter ones, curled as delicately as mouse’s ears, around a central yellow stamen. The next year threw up a few new varieties – some had yellow petals, others were light blue with elongated tails like a frock-coat. This cycle was repeated the following year, and the next until, by some mysterious botanical alchemy, they scarcely seemed like the same species: some with petals as thin as blades, others puffed out like cheerleader pompoms. Each summer, my mother conducts a counting ritual – a single flower from each variety placed on a tray and arranged according to colour and number of petals like some devilish Victorian memory game or floral periodic table. I put it down to her early ambitions of a career in biology cut short by marriage to a homesick Bengali, and relocation to Calcutta in 1962, and the children – me and my twin brothers – that followed. Last year, she totted up thirty-seven varieties and looked as awestruck as Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: just life, you know, finding a way…
But the aquilegias are still underground right now, and the flowerbeds relatively bare as the screen follows my Dad’s back across the lawn and into the greenhouse for an inspection of the seed trays.
The greenhouse has germinated more than just plants. It was here that I bashed out the first draft of my novel, among the trowels and spiders and bags of compost, tapping away at my laptop, a washing-line of gardening gloves hanging like severed hands at my back. And it was here, a few years previously, that I lay with my newborn baby on my stomach, soaking in sun, ripening him from the golden tint of post-natal jaundice to the coffee-colour glow that is his natural skin colour, while the hard green fruit on the tomato plants began to blush. The greenhouse was installed by the wonderfully mis-named Mr Handy. “Wouldn’t know a right-angle if it hit him,” was Mum’s verdict. She promptly dismantled the entire thing, reconcreted the foundations, and laid out the panes of glass and aluminium strips on the lawn. She and Dad then painstakingly put the whole thing back together, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, so that the sliding door actually slid, and the glass fit snug to the frames.
Behind the greenhouse is the wild bit of the garden. You have to pick your way through a jungle of nettles and cow parsley to get to the compost bins, two green Daleks overhung with rowan and elderflower. There are frogs in the dank recesses and slugs for them to feast upon; hedgehogs occasionally, and foxes that dash across the lawn at twilight in a russet blur. We’ve had pheasants here, and magpies almost as fat, and once, a pair of crayfish on the run from some local restaurant who lumbered across the lawn like mutant woodlice.
In 1979, when we first moved in, the garden at Number Five, Oldfield Close was a meadow. Our dog Chipper bounded out the back door and disappeared, the tip of his black tail cutting through a sea of yellow-green grass, like a shark fin.
When we first dug out the triangular vegetable patch, we had to use spades and pickaxes. After years of diligent composting, the fragments of flint, construction rubble and the thick, ochre Chiltern clay has been transformed into fruitcakey soil, full of fat earthworms and wriggling millipedes. There are radishes and strawberries, onions and peas. Potatoes multiply mysteriously beneath the earth, and runner beans clamber up the bamboo tepee that Mum builds each spring. The marrow plants yield a multiple harvest: first the flowers, golden-yellow trumpets that she dips in gram flour batter and fries like the expert Bengali cook that she is; then the courgettes, chopped in salad, julienned for dips, ratatouilled, curried, made into soups, frozen; until finally the last few are left, swollen like striped green zeppelins, ready to be scooped and stuffed and baked in the autumn.
George Orwell famously said that by the time a man is fifty, he has the face he deserves. The same could be said of gardens, reflecting the mood, outlook and the philosophy of its owners, just as laugh-lines and wrinkles etch a familiar face. Ours is a nice middle-class, Guardian-readers’ garden: modest, a little embarrassed at gaudy excess and unwarranted artifice, a little scruffy around the edges, with enough plain lawn to play Frisbee or kick a ball around, full of moss and daisies, comfortable as an old cardigan. Come the annual summer Open Garden Day in the village, the horticultural voyeurs flock next door to pore over Mr Lea’s exotics: orchids and alpines in neatly labelled pots. We lounge under the apple tree and drink tea and smile across the fence, while Dad tells us again that this year’s bumper crop of potatoes came from a single Sainsbury’s spud that he cut in half and bunged in the ground.
I look down at the garden in front of my flat. A fenced-in rectangle of green, overlooked on all sides by the municipal apartments that make up this housing colony. Hauz Khas Apartments (Self-Financing Society), to give it its full title, was built in the flurry of construction that preceded the 1982 Asian Games. Like many other housing complexes in Delhi, it is built on a grid. Each central square forms a communal garden surrounded by a shoulder-high metal fence and neatly quartered by concrete paths that intersect dead centre. The rigid geometry is at least partly informed by an idea of the Mughal char bagh, the Islamic ideal of a garden of paradise, with concrete paths instead of water channels, and a severely topiaried lantana bush instead of the central fountain.
The sounds of the eight-lane arterial road that rushes past the main gate are muffled to a gentle far-off roar and, shaded with neem, silk-cotton, gulmohar and ashoka trees, the garden is at least a degree cooler than the streets outside. Each garden is managed by a quango of retired gents of the Residents Welfare Association and tended by a team of malis, who arrive on their heavy, black Rajdoot bicycles each morning to sweep up leaves, to prune and water.
The two malis who work in our garden come for two hours every morning. They are paid 1,200 rupees – that’s about fifteen pounds – a month. The residents mutter and complain about the lack of upkeep, the laxness of the work, the unbeautifulness of their particular park. Photocopied circulars turn up regularly in my mailbox reminding people to keep their ‘domestics’ out of the parks, where they tend to mess things up. Children playing ball are also kept out – banished from the genteel gardens of the inner colony to ‘jhoola park’ out front, where there are swings and a metal climbing frame that can singe flesh after a morning of Delhi sun. Every gate bears a hand-painted sign exhorting the residents to “Contribute generously for the park maintenence and it’s further improvement [sic]”.
When I first moved in, I was filled with enthusiasm for gardening. With all the misplaced zeal of a mad Englishwoman, I bought a spade and trowel and packets of seeds. I sought permission from the quango, and received it with a degree of scepticism: ‘gardening’ for the residents of Hauz Khas Apartments was a managerial passtime. But I wanted to pull out weeds and clear beds, to dig and to plant, to see those seedlings grow. “To plant a garden,” as Audrey Hepburn supposedly said, “is to believe in tomorrow.” Perhaps, ran my fuzzy logic, if I believed in the garden’s tomorrow, it would make my todays more real. Perhaps I could shake off this nagging feeling that I could be shrugged off this patch of land like a dog shaking off a flea. “Where do you belong to?” is the way they ask it in India, not “Where are you from?” I turned the earth hoping to plant that sense of belonging.
I sowed seeds by the fistful – in direct contradiction to my instructions to make sure that flowers were planted according to a strict plan, purple here, yellow there. I wanted to break the rules, jazz it up, improvise. But in the tropics, nature is invasive and must be kept in check. Gardening is a top-down affair in which there is no higher art than topiary. (The municipality regularly ‘beautifies’ gardens by trimming privet hedges into animal shapes – a short-necked giraffe, or possibly a long-necked horse, some quadruped herbivore, anyway – of which our colony has several mournful specimens.)
I gave up my little gardening project before a season was out. I simply didn’t understand Indian plants, I didn’t – I don’t – instinctively ‘get’ the seasons. I’ve no idea when to plant or what to prune. Things sprout or fruit or flower or die in ways that seem to me random, whimsical, at times even perverse.
From my window I can see another sign, tacked up on a tree trunk. “Seek to Listen,” it reads. “Success comes from listening, not hearing. Seek to Listen and be Listened.”
In the early hours, before the fierce heat of the day, the old men sit in the garden, rustling their newspapers and bemoaning the state of the world with its corrupt politicians and match-fixing cricketers. Their womenfolk make their presence felt with a symphony of hisses as pressure cookers go off in kitchen after kitchen. Platoons of green parakeets screech across the sky and pigeons mate violently on the tops of air conditioning units while the little striped squirrels send alarm calls from tree to tree, their tails flicking madly at the colony cats. From somewhere high in a tree nearby, a bird calls – a series of regular percussive toks, like a one-note wooden xylophone. Sparrows are busy in the raat-ki-rani, dodging around among the little star-like flowers that will exhale their intoxicating scent only once the sun has finally sunk, exhausted, below the smoggy skyline. Gangs of jungle babblers stare down the other birds with their hard yellow eyes, and muscle in on the grain that’s been scattered at the base of the hibiscus bush. Crows perch on the tops of the streetlights, their beaks open, looking aghast. The mynah nesting in the roof of my outer room is narrating a complex story to its family in tourette-like bursts, like someone rapidly switching from Cockney to Portuguese to Xhosa.
As my parents grow older, there’s talk of practical considerations. The house is really too big for the two of them, the garden’s getting too much for them to handle on their own. “Why don’t you get someone in to help?” we ask. But Mum’s not one to give up easily. Fifteen years down the line, she’s still flushed with victory over the right-angle-challenged Mr Handy.
We wonder about moving to a smaller place down the road. Oakington Avenue is lined on both sides with perfectly suitable bungalows: manicured lawns and hydrangeas to match their owner’s blue-rinses. People can move. Things can be moved. But gardens? My parents’ roots are now too deep, I’m not sure they would survive transplanting.
The mynah at my window shrieks itself hoarse trying to be understood, while I listen for blackbirds on Skype.