From where I am sitting I can see two gardens. One, through the window, is a square of scrubby green, framed by a paved walkway, green iron railings and bounded on all sides by three-storied buildings made up of flats like mine. Neem trees and kari patta bushes are beginning to don their bright green spring make-up, while the tiny leaflets at the tops of the gulmohar seem to shiver and sparkle in the breeze. The saptaparni in one corner looks rather the worse for wear after its annual pruning, bare boughs jutting out that look like they’ve been chewed off by monster molars, its splayed leaves strewn about like severed hands. The lawn is divided into quadrants, each square edged with flowerbeds, and in the centre, in place of a fountain, is a frangipani with deep red-pink flowers just coming into bud.
The other is a pixelated mess just now—my mother is perambulating around the back garden in Buckinghamshire, Skyping across a distance of 5,000 miles. She stops to let the image settle and her surprisingly clear voice floats out of my computer: “Tim’s magnolia’s doing well this year, look.” I look, and yes, the bare branches of the tree are topped with white, waxy blooms, like votive candles on multi-armed candelabra. It’s next to the smokebush, as old as my son is now, planted when he arrived on earth. She takes the laptop over to the weeping cherry that we’d bought for her 70th birthday a few years back, a little waterfall of white blossom, like a bridal train. The image disintegrates again as my dad jolts over to the greenhouse to show me how the cosmos seedlings are coming on. Each year he plants tray upon tray of these cheap and cheerful flowers; is aghast when every last one germinates, then grumbles as he spends days shoving them into any available space in the garden until every flowerbed is bursting with yellow, orange and pink.
Two gardens. Two cultures. And me, betwixt and between.
The garden is itself an in-between thing, a darker (leaf-shaped) area made by the intersecting circles of nature and culture. A place where nature is defanged and civilisation loses its hard edges. Paradise—in so many cultures—is a garden: a place of harmony and peace, of integration. An Old Testament Eden, where differences are reconciled, where the lion lies down with the lamb and God is the benevolent gardener. Or the paradisiacal charbagh of Islamic cosmology, with its rectilinear patterns, parallel water channels and sublime
geometry. It’s no wonder that guided meditation is often a mental journey to one’s “inner garden”.
But here, now, with these two specific gardens in my field of vision: the Indian municipal housing colony park and the suburban back garden in deepest, darkest Little Chalfont. Parakeets vs blackbirds. Topiary vs rambling rose. Semi-public vs highly private. Both dear to my heart; both, in a literal and metaphorical sense, “close to home”. Looking from the screen to the window and back, I feel like Dr Doolittle’s double-headed llama—a push-me-pull-you tugging in both directions.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,” Audrey Hepburn supposedly said. A few years back, when I believed that all my tomorrows would be Delhi ones, I decided that I better put down some actual non-metaphorical roots. A gulmohar seedling that had sprouted in one of my plant pots was rapidly outgrowing its container and I decided that it needed to be set free. I bought a spade and found an empty corner of the garden where I thought a young treelet might flourish. Smashing the terracotta pot, I liberated the tree: I could almost see its roots stretch and wriggle with pleasure. I had scarcely begun to dig when an elderly man came tottering out of one of the other flats, brandishing his cane. He looked like an apoplectic robin. “What are you doing?” he spluttered. I wondered if this was a trick question.
It appeared that I had inadvertently violated an unwritten but sacred housing society rule about who could plant what and where. I protested my ignorance, pleading Englishness as a mitigating factor—and was (eventually) forgiven. The self-appointed Guardians of the Garden—a quango of mainly retired military gents—decided that I would be allowed one small rectangle of earth, providing I promised to stick to a plan and not to “mix things up”. I tilled the rubble-strewn soil and scattered packets of seeds hopefully, unsure when to plant and how. As ye sow, so shall ye reap, the Bible tells us, and the few seedlings that managed to raise their anorexic heads before giving up the ghost were evidence enough that this amateur English gardener was simply out of her depth. After a couple of months, I threw in the trowel and handed the patch back to the colony malis, who had viewed my pathetic attempts with that specific mixture of scorn and amusement reserved for the misguided upper classes.
It wasn’t just that the plants eluded me, I didn’t get the seasons either. Instinctively, I know when to plant things in England—bulbs, seeds—how to propagate, when to prune, when to transplant, how to distinguish between weed and non-weed. Here, putting things in the ground in January just seemed foolish and doomed. Then spring comes and goes in about a week, and before you’ve had time to blink, it’s scorching summer. As for monsoons—what was that all about? Plants in India have a different relationship to the seasons, they seemed to me to bloom and die and sprout on a whim. It made no sense.
I found myself increasingly gripped by some sort of seasonal malaise—for which there’s probably a specific German term: Saison Schmerzen or Seelenherz Krankheit, perhaps, a soul-sickness brought on by a befuddlement with the weather. At the risk of sounding like a bad Country and Western ballad, I was, at heart, a temperate girl in a tropical land. I was beginning to realise that my inability to “settle”, to always feel like a bit of an outsider in India lay, ironically, “outside”: it was the natural world that seemed to be rejecting me, not the human one. Thinking back on the last two decades among the humans of New Delhi, I can’t shake the phrase “like a duck to water” (Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA), notwithstanding).
The flower-lined roundabouts of New Delhi, or the herbaceous borders of Lodhi Gardens are beautiful, of course, but I found myself increasingly alienated by the aesthetics of the Indian garden, whether municipal park or Mughal charbagh. The obsessive neatness and paved pathways; the duranta hedges clipped into cubes, or caged into wire-meshed animal shapes; the flowers regimented by colour, or heightwise: little lobelias at the front, a line of marigolds behind, backed by taller hollyhocks, like some school group photo.
It was a top-down imposition of order on the chaos of nature. But then, what else can one do in a climate like India’s? It’s a high-maintenance affair, living here. Newly built apartments look derelict after a year or two, dusting is not a weekly or monthly chore but a near-constant state of being, window-frames warp and buckle, garbage becomes compost within hours. Leave a garden untended and it will revert to its natural wild state within hours. No wonder the New Delhi Municipal Corporation employs over 600 malis to maintain the 980 CPWD and 124 NDMC parks, 50 roundabouts and 137 roads and lanes within its jurisdiction, not to mention miles and miles of roadside dividers and verges. It’s an army, marshalled to keep nature firmly in its place.
It’s a different game in England—although it hasn’t always been that way. In her book Plants in Garden History (1997), garden designer Penelope Hobhouse pointed out that “whereas the first decorative and useful gardens had been made as redoubts against threatening nature, gardeners in the 20th century struggle to preserve some element of natural life in their gardens to insulate themselves from increasingly hostile man-made environments”. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, you might say, the garden is its moat, keeping the concrete, the traffic, the city at bay.
In the UK, the trend these days is towards low-maintenance, natural gardens: with bee- and butterfly-friendly wildflower patches, fruit trees and vegetable plots. Partly, this is in response to the recent financial crisis and the stresses of living in what has been termed a “de-developing society”. Partly, it also reflects a general environmental concern—as people look for ways to make modern life less damaging, healthier and more sustainable.
Mark Lutyens—a contemporary landscape architect himself and descendent of Edwin, whose legacy has shaped my own urban landscape these past 20 years—sees in these recent trends a backlash against what he calls “power gardening”, a rejection of the idea that the garden is a “physical expression of the subjection of nature to the will of man”. Writing in The Spectator, Lutyens looked back at the High Victorian age when the Empire was at its peak as an era of “cultural bloat … everything [was] bigger and better; carpet bedding by the acre; grotesque statuary; bright new plants from the New World”.
Citing examples of modern London architecture (the Shard, the ArcelorMittal Orbit at the Olympic Park) as examples of contemporary “cultural bloat”, he predicted that the reaction will be to “reject clutter, ostentation and needless extravagance … The kitchen garden will rejoin the main garden; animal husbandry will experience a renaissance; as well as all those rural skills we love but are losing.”
Wishful thinking? Not really. In recent years whenever I have visited England, I have noticed a massive change in how people are living their lives vis-à-vis the natural world—not just in rural villages but in the heart of every city. And you cannot get more urban than the Southbank Centre on the Thames.
The garden on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, opened in 2011, is an unexpected oasis amid the blocks of 1960s concrete: it has olive trees, herb planters, wild strawberries, vegetable plots and wildflower beds and nettles—even bees. In the heart of London, it’s an amazing breath of fresh air.
This roof garden was conceptualised and overseen by the pioneering Eden Project, but it was built and is maintained by a team of the most unlikely volunteers. In a filmed interview, one of them explained that he was “a heroin addict, had mental health problems and I was physically dying”. Recruited along with other crackheads, junkies and alcoholics sleeping under bridges and on the streets of London to work on the garden, his life has been transformed: “The best thing for me has been getting my hands in the earth, working hard … and there’s nothing more beautiful than walking around watering the plants that you’ve planted.” Emily Hegarty, another member of the team, had been studying to be a doctor when she had what she called a “major depressive episode” that left her hospitalised, and then on the streets. For her, the Southbank garden was not just about having a job to do: “It’s also taking care of things, rather than being told by other people that you need to be taken care of yourself, actually. You’re perfectly capable of taking care of other things, of making them grow.”
On the other side of the world, in South Central Los Angeles, Ron Finley and his team of “guerrilla gardeners” have been busy transforming that city’s vacant lots into vegetable gardens. Looking around at a community plagued by obesity and diabetes, literally dying from the food they were eating, Finley realised, “Food is the problem and food is the solution.” His dream is not just to change the look of the city, but to fundamentally change the people, to transform their lives. “To change the community, you have to change the composition of the soil … Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do … If kids grow kale, they eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes … What I’m talking about is putting people to work, and getting kids off the street, and letting them know the joy, the pride and the honour in growing your own food … So I want us all to become ecolutionary renegades, gangstas, gangsta gardeners.” He is no armchair philosopher or theorist. “If you want to meet with me,” he ended his 2013 TED talk, “come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some shit.”
It dawned on me that here in India, the chances of my “planting some shit” were slim to none. I found myself hamstrung not only by my own horticultural incompetence—surely that could be overcome—but by the social hierarchies that pervade every aspect of life here. Planting shit, getting your hands dirty, shovelling earth—these are not things that the upper classes can or should do. This is manual labour, for the workers. This is what you tell someone else to do. The people who were pointed out to me as the ones who looked after the garden in my colony, essentially directed the malis to do their work: put that there, dig this, sweep up those leaves, clear that patch. Did they ever get their hands dirty? I doubt it.
The irony that the very people who did the gardening were barred from enjoying the “fruits of their labour” seemed to be lost on the good folk of the RWA. Circulars regularly turn up in my mailbox, exhorting home owners and tenants to ensure that their domestic helps, their car cleaners and their malis are kept out of the gardens, where they tend to “mess things up”. But what stake do they have in keeping the gardens “nice”? Who do these green spaces actually belong to? Not the people who make them green, that’s for sure.
Therein lay a level of alienation which I found myself, horribly and ineluctably, party to. I want to grow things and I love being surrounded by plants. Who doesn’t? But in ceding the care of the plants on my balcony to another person, I was also losing any sense of meaningful connection to them. “My” plants weren’t “mine” any more than I belonged to them. I love my mali, and I want him to have a job, to earn money. Even my smallest attempts at gardening felt furtive, almost underhand, like I was breaking a picket line: was I doing him out of his livelihood? In growing my own vegetables, would I be taking food from the mouths of the farmers and their children? Could I deal with that level of guilt?
In short: no, I couldn’t. I can’t.
In my parent’s back garden there is a vegetable patch. We grow our own courgettes and potatoes, beans and peas, strawberries, spinach and onions. In the greenhouse there are tomato vines and chilly plants. There’s an herb garden with mint and parsley, chives and oregano. Leaves from the bay tree next to the front door go straight into the bubbling cookpot, and we season the roast lamb with sprigs of rosemary, fresh from the bush. The peelings from the potatoes and carrots go back into the compost bins to rot down and be spread every autumn to make more soils for next year’s potatoes and carrots to thrive on. It feels not just sustainable, but right.
Nourishing, in all senses of the word.
When I was a stroppy teenager studying for my A Levels, one of the (many) things that made no sense to me was my French teacher’s insistence on the importance of the final words of Candide: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” It seemed to me a hopelessly lame end to the spectacular catalogue of disaster and misfortune that Voltaire had inflicted upon his main character. At the end of the day, you have to do the garden. I mean, really? That’s it?
Thirty-two years later, I’m beginning to get it. Perhaps it was time to take Candide at his word, and get back to the garden. To that private-public patch of cultivated nature or civilised wilderness where I can get my hands in the soil; where the plants have personal pronouns—Tim’s magnolia, mum’s weeping cherry, Roshan’s smokebush—and are part of our family tree.
I’ve booked my ticket. I’m going home.
An earlier version of this essay appears here.
This version was published in The Indian Quarterly, June 2015