I was backing out of my driveway on a recent afternoon, late for an appointment, when I felt something crunching under my wheels. Sighing the heavy sigh of a spoiled suburbanite who has encountered an obstacle in her perfect world, I climbed out of my car.
The object blocking my egress turned out to be a rather picturesque green and yellow bundle of bamboo, tied together with a red string. It had been left there by the Nepalese gardener whom I had hired to trim my overgrown stand. He had executed the task with a rusty machete, then cut the stalks into even pieces and arranged them artfully into equal bundles for disposal.
As I looked at his handiwork my anger melted into admiration for the lovely orderliness with which he had performed his task. It brought to mind all the remarkable cargo I had seen in my days of traveling to India and Nepal.
I don’t recall ever observing a junk pile on the back of a donkey, villager, or pedal rickshaw, no matter what was being transported. Each bundle of goods, whether telephones or twigs, appeared to have been assembled with a great deal of care. Perhaps this dedication to task derived from religious teachings: the Hindu concept of dharma, or duty; the Buddhist doctrine of mindfulness.
Whatever the source, the aesthetic with which the Himalayan gardener had cut down the bamboo and bundled it into a pretty package was a rare sight in my neighborhood, where the usual style of yard work is a rushed and ragged ritual known as “mow, blow and go.”
It was in India where I learned, really learned, how to garden
My teacher was the grounds keeper at the Hotel Arya Niwas, an impeccably kept $10-a-night hostel at the heart of colorful, edgy Jaipur, where I lived for three months in the spring of 1989. With its cool marble floors, wide verandah and lovely gardens where peacocks called out in surprisingly human voices, the Arya Niwas was an oasis amidst diesel fumes, loud Bollywood music and noisy bands of young men who liked to grope Western girls.
I never learned the grounds keeper’s name. He was known simply as “the mali,” which is Hindi for “gardener.” He belonged to the Hindu caste known as Sudras, the servants.
The mali, who was tall and very thin, tended his flower beds more lovingly and patiently than anyone I have ever observed. Sitting or squatting, he would spend hours weeding with his strong slender fingers. As the weather grew hotter in late April and May, he removed each dry leaf with meticulous attention. Even when the plants were shorn, they looked beautiful, thanks to his ministrations. Outside of a pair of pruning shears he used only his hands. I do not recall all the flowers, although some were brilliant red roses, I am fairly sure he grew marigolds, and certainly there were bougainvillea. His only protection against the incinerating sun was a turban. Nothing distracted him.
That admirable focus was his gift. The mali showed by example that caring for plants requires total attention. One must surrender physically and spiritually to the task. Position onese on the level of grass and dirt. Put one’s hands, bare hands, in the soil and feel. Learn to let one’s fingers and eyes read the needs of the plants. Afterwards, restore order. Sweep, gather up the clippings into neat piles. Return tools to the shed.
Then take a moment, as I did in my driveway, to stand back and admire the beauty of mindful gardening.
Note: The photograph at the top of this post is of a mali at the United States Ambassador’s Residence in New Delhi. He is tending his flowers while perched in a planter suspended from the roof of the verandah.