Sunday, September 23, 2007
Idylls in the Park
Anyone who has access to a garden or a park is lucky.
I think of a garden as a thing of wide open spaces, trees, shrubs and flowers. Only a lucky few own such places. A walled patch of grass with a few rigid flower beds is no substitute. An ideal garden should not be perfect. The mind must be as free to wander in a garden as a body is. A garden must nudge the wanderer’s imagination, and not overwhelm the mind with impressions. It must not aim for perfection, or it loses its individual character.
Jane Austen uses the analogy of gardens most effectively to illustrate her ideas on morality and human nature. In Pride and Prejudice, the gardens at Rosings, the stately home of Darcy's forbidding aunt Lady Catherine de Burgh, are monumentally artificial and reflect both snobbery and sterility. On the other hand, Darcy's home, Pemberley, is a place where the natural order prevails and where Nature takes precedence over design. Pemberley becomes a metaphor for all that is good in England and in society. Jane Austen abhors artifice in natural surroundings as much as she does in human nature. In all her books, a perversion of the natural order reflects a perversion in human nature.
Of course, there are anomalies inherent in the very idea of a garden – it is something cultivated after all, and it requires skilful cultivation to preserve the appearance of the natural. In all fairness, human nature must be similarly 'cultivated' with education and good manners.
A good garden should have nothing artificial in it. Fountains, bridges, walkways, arched gates, and so on simply ruin a good garden. I would exclude ponds from this list if they are water-lily or lotus ponds and are in use as such. A garden, I feel, should follow a strictly natural course; that is, it should have in abundance the vegetation that is natural to the region.
Experts who have studied the trees of Delhi have discovered that a large number of alien species were imported over time by successive rulers. However, the 'sarkari' roundabouts, gardens and parks of Delhi are good examples of sensible selection and planting.
All of North India has a cold season, the season of flowering annuals. Gardens everywhere display bright and beautiful blooms, starting with chrysanthemums from mid-November, and going on to dahlias, calendulas, asters, pansies, phlox petunias, and sweet peas, that bloom till March. I stop with a few names because I could go on in a breathless litany. When I was younger, I lived for the cold weather season, when I could start planning and planting my favourites, including some flowers I remembered from my childhood home like hollyhocks, sweet sultana and verbena, and linums and Californian poppies that reminded me of the gardens in school.
As the years have gone on, I have begun to appreciate the true value of 'native' vegetation in profusion in the ‘off’ season – say during the height of the monsoon when flower beds are empty. Ixoras, hibiscus, musandas, cannas, ground orchids, arum lilies, portulacas, coleus, begonias and sanchezias, stray balsams and crocuses in huge batches of pink, white and yellow simply grow without any assistance. The 'common’ variety of gardenias that are used for Puja fill the bushes with white blooms and we don’t miss the hibiscus and frangipani that grow only when there is sunlight. Heliconias and tiny ornamental bananas grow like a small forest without any help at all.
Unseasonal chikoos were the sweetest surprise of this year’s monsoon, and huge green limes added colour and flavour to dull grey days. There were guavas, but the parrots in our garden are as bright and lovely as the fruits, and they get to them before we can. I like the idea of the garden being a home to birds and other creatures, as well as a refuge and source of delight to human beings.