The Flowers will survive


October is here and anyone who has a garden in Delhi is busy. My ‘garden’ is just a collection of flower pots on the terrace and a strip of earth near the paved entrance way to out flat, where I try year after year to grow sweetpeas. Each cool October morning I wake up with a pleasant feeling of busy-ness. The flowers will soon be here, I think. There is so much to do, and Nature won’t wait. The roses have been pruned and manured, and the flower seedlings transplanted and potted. But then there is still the question of the survival of the sweetpeas. For in October the birds are busy too. The few precious sweetpeas that still have the courage to poke their heads cautiously through the soft earth, are in constant danger of being gobbled up by the voracious birds. Each morning as I inspect the damage and devise new methods of chasing them away, I think of Sadiq, my mother’s gardener.

I remember Sadiq, a rather dejected figure in a soiled shirt and narrow pyjamas too short for him, twisting his cap in his hand as my mother delivered the morning lecture over the list of things he had not done. It was some time before my mother realized this daily scolding was a waste of breath because Sadiq was quite deaf. Sadiq was not lazy, he was just slow. For him October should have had ninety days. There was just too much to do in this month, so he concentrated on the flowers he liked best – roses and sweetpeas. When the roses had been pruned, the sweetpeas took up all his time. If my mother berated him about Hollyhocks plated too late, or seed beds that needed his attention, Sadiq did not hear – or if he did, he didn’t take much notice. He just stood there, his bony knees sticking out of his torn pyjamas, his hand locked behind his back, and his head nodding a vigorous and ready “Accha-ji.”

Sadiq knew that a gardener’s working hours cannot be fixed. He was there whenever he was needed. In the summer during Delhi’s recurring water shortages, we would see him at night, a shadowy figure in the darkness, watering the lawn when the pressure in the hydrants was at its maximum. We found him hovering around when the children had a party. He knew that little boys could not resist plucking the little golden Chinese oranges and pelting each other with the fruit. Without Sadiq as chowkidar, the trees would have been quickly stripped bare, and my mother deprived of fruit for her favourite marmalade and squashes. But throughout the day, during October and November Sadiq stood by the sweetpeas bed, chasing the birds away, pinching the tendrils to ensure bigger blooms, and trying each stalk to its supporting stick.

Sadiq’s care of his favourite flowers was made increasingly difficult by two people, – my son aged two, and my grandfather aged eighty-two. The little boy was easier to handle. He plucked flowers ruthlessly, but he could be chased away by Sadiq’s angry bellow. Or he could be enticed away from the flower bed with a colourful weed or a branch from the hedge. But my grandfather loved birds, and in deference to the Bada-sahib’s age, Sadiq said nothing. Every morning and evening grandfather strolled on the verandah, his walking stick tap-tapping on the floor. The sound of the stick was a Morse-call to dinner, and the signal for a wild delighted chorus as innumerable birds swooped down to where he stood scattering birdseed. As he fed them he talked, coaxing the timid ones, admonishing the greedy and chasing away the quarrelsome ones. As he watched them, Sadiq muttered dire threats at all feathered friends. He knew that after dining with grandfather it was only a short hop to the sweetpea trellis for dessert. In a last despairing effort to keep the birds away, he fixed little glittering paper windmills to the trellis, and left for home commending the flowers to God.

The New Year arrived and the garden was alive with colour. Sadiq filled several vases with all the colourful winter flowers, and our home and our hearts were brightened. When the sweetpeas which had miraculously survived all vicissitudes, stood nine feel tall, so also proudly, stood Sadiq.

This year, as the last flower crumpled under the early summer winds, my parents packed their belongings to shift to another house in Delhi. Sadiq was sad at parting with a memsahib who loved flowers as much as he did. This was their common bond of friendship. He helped transport some potted plants to the new house, and looked at the neglected weed-grown garden with undisguised dismay. Trying to cheer up my mother he said, “ I will come back in September with a few days leave, and help you start your winter garden. You can plant your standard roses here, and your herbaceous border at the far end of the lawn. Your sweetpea bed you must have at the other side of the house away from the Bada-sahib’s room!”

But Sadiq never came back. He was stricken with an incurable illness in April, and in July when the first monsoon rains revived the parched garden, Sadiq was dead.

Every season the garden brings memories of Sadiq. When the children gather with their Divali sparklers in their grandmother’s garden we will remember Sadiq gently steering them away from his precious flower beds. In the morning he would gather the charred remains of the festival crackers from the lawn he tended. When Divali is over and the season’s first roses start to bloom, I shall think of him again. The lovely flowers will be as young and fresh as ever. They will return each year, a joy to those who are here and a memorial to those gone away. When Sadiq died, he left behind a host of flowers to smile and live.

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