A flower growing on a bush was the amazing discovery of my childhood. We lived in the old city then, where flowers were wilted things wrapped in leaves and sold outside of temples. Or they were strings of jasmine or chrysanthemums draped into women’s hair.
They were not objects that one simply looked at for pleasure.
Until, at age five, DinooKaka—Uncle Dinoo—took me riding on his bicycle. Aai, my mother, had woven the ends of my long tresses with a red ribbon, the ends of which were tied atop my head. Thus I rode the crossbar, nestling into DinooKaka’s arms.
Soon, the narrow gullies gave way to mansions and boulevards. We rode into the wind, faster and faster, until we came upon a tiny bungalow surrounded by a yard. This too was a novelty, for in the old city, houses encompassed courtyards, not vice versa. A young woman welcomed us. Even at that young age I could tell that DinooKaka was romantically interested in her. To leave the young lovers alone, I wandered the yard and discovered a flower on a bush.
That was my entrance into the Garden of Eden, made even more memorable by the fact that afterwards, we ate forbidden ice cream served in stemmed glasses at a restaurant. By the time I got home, my hair was a mess. But I didn´t care. I had discovered nature.
From that day, I began to dream of gardens. The gardens of my imagination were so very colorful, no real garden would ever come close to them.
When we moved to the outskirts of town, I discovered garlands. Every year, during the Ganesh festival, our school organized a garland-making contest. I picked flowers off fences and strung them with needle and thread. But when I got to school, I discovered that my entry paled in comparison to other entrants’ broad, multi-string creations with large pendants.
Later, when my father built our bungalow and planted a rainbow of zinnias, I chased after the butterflies they attracted. But my favorite plant in that garden was the Lajalu plant, the Shy One, whose leaves closed upon contact. It was by the side of that Lajalu bush that I would play house with my little brother, or later, shed tears over a heart break.
For decades, I longed for that Lajalu bush, until a little girl in Argentina brought it to my attention while strolling in the el campo.
I continued dreaming of gardens, long after my mother’s nervous breakdown. I would be walking inside a conservatory of flowers in my dream, when looking down, I would see blood and flesh oozing out of my insides. Aai would be sitting on the edge of the lily pond, smelling a rose. I did not need Freud to interpret my dream; it spoke of Aai’s failure to help me with my adolescent dilemmas.
In India, Mughal Gardens were considered the very essence of paradise. When I finally saw the Shalimar Gardens, on a college trip to Kashmir, its soaring poplars, its cascading waterfalls, its terraces, its tranquil ponds, and its Son et Lumiere show at dusk, seemed like poetry. But the gardens were geometrical, not quite what I had fantasized.
At the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, my friend Bakul taught me Ikebana, with stalks of cherry blossoms sheltering a trio of buds. Here was a new esthetic, of balance and asymmetry. It was then I began to dream of Japanese gardens. But I did not see one until San Francisco. Alas, that Japanese garden, like much of Golden Gate Park, was functional, not surreal.
My longing for gardens continued.
In California, I had expected gardens, like everything American, to be larger than life. So I was disappointed to discover that they mostly consisted of greenery. The only exception was the Berkeley Rose Garden, where arcades of rose vines descended down terraces overlooking the blue bay. But groping around its steps in the dark with a group of Indian students, I never saw its charm. Instead, I watched my friends plunder roses for our rooms in I-House. I know. Only the Indians, right?
In New Zealand, gardens were a mix of tropical and temperate flora. There I found the garden closest to my imagination. It was an English garden, wild, full of colorful bushes competing for space. You could smell the musty earth here, as stalks of phloxes and irises reached for the sun from a dense undergrowth. It was this garden I would visualize years later, as I would read The Secret Garden to my sons.
The Hawaii Botanical Garden in Hilo was a dream, although not quite my dream. Plants like birds of paradise and ginger soared against the backdrop of the blue sea here, while the birds sang in a chorus, and the air smelt of my childhood.
But the best garden I have ever seen was on a hike in the Trinity Alps. I was lagging behind on a ridge when I came upon a hillside covered with wildflowers. The mountain was a panorama of colors, arranged so esthetically, no human could have conceived such a fantastic design.
It is this garden I see now in my mind’s eye whenever I think of gardens.
Recently, I had a chance to visit the Huntington Gardens of Pasadena. They were so dreamy, they looked like palettes painted on the ground. There were cactus gardens and Australian gardens and jungle gardens and lily ponds. But what mesmerized me the most were the Japanese and the Chinese gardens, with waterfalls and ponds and bridges and pagodas stretching as far as the eye could see. The air was misty, the smell of a different world.
I have always had a garden. And be it in New Zealand or California, it has always had a strawberry patch. I remember the lushest peach blossoms in my garden the year my older son was a baby. I recall the first crop of persimmons so large and custard-like, people from all over the Bay Area drove by, begging to eat them. Now I have a Fuji apple, a plum, and a pear tree, waiting to fruit. The most blissful time of the day for me is when I sit in my garden soaking the sunshine and watching the hummingbirds hovering all around.
I wish people treated gardening as the prime and sacred art that it is.