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The Jaipur Mali

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.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2010 in Garden, Meditations on Nature

 

Lessons of the Garden

Everything is budding and blooming in the small hidden garden behind my house. Purple jasmine flowers droop decorously from delicate green vines, shedding their sweet smoky fragrance. The last of the white cherry blooms float soundlessly to the earth, while tender green sweet woodruff and lilies push upward. I am grateful to see that most of the bamboo and the Japanese maples survived the snow.

Today, the warmest so far this spring, is dedicated to repairing and restoring the corner fountain, a stair-shaped structure of multiple basins set into the ground and framed by a stand of bamboo. This task, an annual spring ritual, tends to be frustrating because the winter ice and snow usually break one or more parts of my water feature.

This afternoon I have to replace a pump, and then attach its hose to a larger hose coming out of the fountain. Changing pumps is a delicate business because the placement of the pump determines how effectively it will circulate the water. Hoses must be leak free, straight and positioned so that the stream of water flows correctly and does not splash too much or spill over the sides of the fountain.

I set everything up, certain that I have it right the first time, turn on the pump and stand back to admire my work. No water emerges from the spout. There is a leak at the juncture of the hoses. I have to replace two hoses with one, which means foraging in my basement for a longer length of rubber hosing, finding something to cut it with and fitting it correctly.

Finally I get the water to flow. Problem now is that it isn’t filling the first basin. Something is causing it to drain out. I get down on my knees for closer inspection and find that there are two little rubber plugs in the basin, like miniature bathtub stoppers, that have been dislodged during the winter. I reinsert them, turn on the fountain and soon water is flowing prettily in my garden.

The whole thing takes two hours. What a lesson there is in the process!

Learning to tame water and get it to flow in a contained and recirculating fashion takes patience. It also takes studying the ways of water: how it moves, what pushes it, what stops it, the angle at which it flows and strikes things. If you study it, if you get it right, you can create a fountain and fix it every time without any special degree in landscaping or engineering or plumbing. You just have to be observant and patient.

Not only does the garden teach patience, but it also teaches one to respect  life forces outside of oneself. To work with water you have to learn how it thinks, so to speak, you have to learn its ways, and forget about your own, and, especially, your wishes for how it is going to work. Plants are the same. You have to learn what pleases them, what beckons them to grow, what hurts them. You have to be flexible enough to move them if they are unhappy, give them more water or less, turn off your pretty sprinkler if they don’t want it.

If you learn the ways of plants, trees, soil and water and work with them, they will give back to you astonishingly. Vines and trees will emerge from initial dormancy and present you with the sweetest most brilliant flowers. Bulbs will multiply. The jasmine, rose and honeysuckle will return with their fragrance. The flowering shrubs and bamboo will rustle prettily for you in the wind.

You will understand not only patience and empathy but also gratitude. You will find magic, find God, in the gifts of the garden.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2010 in Garden, Meditations on Nature