Nanak was a humble man, reliable as the cycle of the seasons. Browned like the earth with deep gentle eyes, tall, lean, and soft-spoken, he would come to the screened front door when he needed to discuss some matter with my parents. In the warm season, he often worked barefoot all day long, only occasionally wearing simple chuppals (sandals).
But it is the garden at our home in Lahore (in what was then West Pakistan during the late ‘50s and early ‘60’s) that I remember best. We had two flower beds across the dusty gravel driveway in front of our verandah. Always planted with annuals, pansies – my favorites – marked the end of the scorching summers. As new buds unfurled, I crouched on elbows and knees with my sister to study their frilly faces pondering the choicest colors.
“We got tremendous pleasure out of these aesthetic discussions prompted by Nanak’s handiwork.”
We got tremendous pleasure out of these aesthetic discussions prompted by Nanak’s handiwork. She and I visited every rose planted along the length of the drive assessing the virtues of their heady blooms. I recall, we finally settled on a luscious dark black-red and a vibrant sunset hued blend as our particular favorites. Never a thought of aphids, rust or blackspot to spoil our pleasures.
Another summer delight were the waist-high dahlias. Masses of them filling the hedged circle of the round-about at the end of the drive. Crowning the center was a peach tree, I believe. I used to wade through the dahlias (though I shudder to confess it), carefully picking my steps as not to topple any of the flowers. Arms held aloft, I used to peer at their layered, multi-petalled faces delighting in their loveliness.
The back of the grounds, behind the round-about, was the least explored area of our garden. But there was a small vegetable patch nestled near a majestic evergreen. Near, or in, the vegetables was a small cemeteery of deceased pets and assorted road casulties I insisted on bringing home for a proper burial.
Another well-appreciated feature were the sturdy lawns. Seemed like acres of them to my young eyes. Enclosed by dense, tall hedges, they spread broadly on both sides of the driveway. My sister and I played for hours on those grassy expanses. I can’t imagine the time it must have taken Nanak to keep them so beautifully.
Watering was done by flooding irrigation, a common practice in third-world countries. Everything was edged with small raised berms to hold the water, allowing it to soak through to the roots. The excess would be channeled off through a system of small canals that intersected the entire college campus where we lived. After saturating the soil and letting it dry to a certain point, it would be time to roll the surfaces smooth. I remember once watching him guiding a patient white bullock hitched to a heavy water-filled iron roller, walk up and down the lawns, a strip at a time, until they were perfectly groomed. One year our family went on a two-week driving vacation to Kashmir, we returned to find the grass up to our armpits. My sister and I galloped gaily through it snorting and shaking our heads, pretending to be wild horses, before Nanak groomed the lawns again.
The trees were magnificent! A row of tall eucalyptus stood like sentries in front of the long hedge. I used to watch their leaves and branches sway in the wind, awed by their stately grandeur. One spring, I gathered armfuls of eucalyptus bark, which was shed in great ragged peels. I kept a diary for an entire year written on the smooth inner side of eucalyptus bark scraps.
There were two broad banyan trees, planted like hefty doormen on either side of the drive, announcing the front of the house. They were our palaces, forts, forested tree tops or sailing ships, depending on the day. We had tea parties and other adventures embraced in their limbs.
Gardeners, in the social structure of that time and place, were the most modestly paid of the permanent household help. Ranking third, behind the cook and the bearer. Yet it is Nanak’s loving care of those beautiful surroundings that I try to emulate in my own garden so many decades later.
Readers may email Cynthia at: cynthia@FarewellTheWinterline.com