This year, winter seemed to have fallen in love with Delhi and refused to leave, as spring hid among the trees waiting for the unseasonal clouds to pass. For days, I entered the park looking around hopefully for the first signs of basant — the first peony and snapdragon; the shahtoot tree dropping the green mulberry flowers on the walking path or the starry white flowers sparkling among the leaves of the tree with tiny sour oranges. Then one sunny, mellow morning, the ring doves welcomed me with a triumphant double-toned chorus and the squirrels joined in with their ticking call; everyone was singing, “Basant is here!”
The same evening my left knee, which can predict winter rain better than the Met department, began to ache and then with a malicious roar, the showers moved in. Next morning, the park had gone silent in dismay. The flower beds were strewn with broken petals, the oranges lay squashed on the ground and the dogs looked damp and miserable. So, my park has now officially joined the campaign against climate change. In Delhi, you mess with our precious spring at your own peril. How will we face summer if you take away our single month of basant?
Spring begins with Basant Panchami when Bengali children pray with extraordinary fervour to Ma Saraswati because examinations are near and who can save them from failing in Hindi but the coolest of all the goddesses? The same morning, people wander into the lanes of Nizamuddin, carrying bunches of mustard flowers, remembering Amir Khusrau serenading his mehboob-e-ilahi, Nizamuddin Auliya: “Sakal ban phool rahi sarson/ Ambwa boray, tesu phulay/ Koyel bolay daar daar (The fields are covered with mustard flowers. The mango buds are opening and the flame of the forest blooms, as koyels sing from every branch).”
Every time I go past a roundabout stacked with flowers, I remember all the gardeners in my clan, ranging from expert to inept. There was my grandmother, Thakuma, labouring over a patch of barren earth at our Daryaganj home, building bamboo fences around her precious flower beds against wandering cows. During Partition, when riots raged in Chandni Chowk, neighbours turned to her for help. She dug up the potatoes, cut off the lauki and pumpkins and gave it all away. Of course, her ungrateful son, my Baba, often said that Thakuma’s potatoes could win a prize for the “smallest potatoes in Dilli”, and I have to admit they really were tiny. After all the digging in the mud, if you tried to peel them there would be no potatoes left. Ma would leave the skins, just scrub them clean and make a delicious aloo dum to go with puris.
An uncle, who grew up in an upstairs flat in Connaught Circus, shifted to a ground-floor home with a patch of bare earth in front. Books were bought, packets of seeds collected as he decided to dedicate his retirement years to the joys of gardening. His conversation was now sprinkled with the names of exotic flowers — calendula and hollyhock, petunia and sweet pea; and, occasionally, he would drop their Latin names to impress us. The real work was done by a poker-faced gardener who did exactly as he pleased as Uncle flapped around him, giving incoherent instructions. Soon, there was a grassy green lawn; the wall boxes overflowed with peonies and phlox as chrysanthemums bloomed in pots. We all sat in the verandah, admiring the flower show and congratulating Uncle, who had not planted or watered a single flower.
Among family green thumbs, Rati Ram was a class act. He was my grandfather’s peon who transformed into a mali when Dadu retired. His uniform was a shapeless bush shirt over huge khaki half-pants and sneakers so dirty it was impossible to guess their original colour. The L-shaped garden had flowers in front and vegetables on the side with bananas, a guava and a drumstick tree along the border. My memory is of Dadu’s broad back bent over the flower beds, which were always a riot of colours, while Rati Ram sat crouched in a corner picking his teeth after the breakfast supplied by my Didima. Dadu never admitted that Rati Ram knew nothing about gardening; all he could manage to do was attach the water pipe to the garden tap.
Traditionally, basant ends on Holi with the sweet, half circles of gujias, the tangy red carrot kanji and, if you have the inclination, bhang pakoras. By then, many of us would have wandered through the Mughal Gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan and admired the impossibly large chrysanthemums at the YMCA flower show. By March, the jacaranda tree at the end of the lane is covered in a mass of mauve flowers and the bare branches of the laburnum are dotted with tiny green leaves. Soon it will become a cloud of golden blossoms and the semul’s scarlet blooms will announce the arrival of the first hot breeze of summer.
Already, the sun is warmer across my shoulders as I sit on the verandah and it turns light by six in the morning. Our spring is also a time of fall as the peepal and banyan shed their leaves; they crackle under my feet, and, soon, those exquisite, near transparent new leaves in shades of pale vermillion will appear. Once again, the two kites have started building their nest high on a tree, calling to each other in that piercing cry. They swoop down to drink from the water bowl on my terrace and then, raising their heads, they turn their imperious faces to stare at me. Soon, a chick will learn to fly after a wobbly take-off from a branch.
My most cherished memory of basant has nothing to do with birds, flowers or food. One March evening, I was sitting at that marvellous amphitheatre of the revived Sunder Nursery. Tahira Syed, daughter of Mallika Pukhraj, had come from Pakistan to sing the songs of Amir Khusrau. As the sun dipped behind the trees, the air chilled and I drew my shawl closer around me. The sky went dark as the stars began to sprinkle the dome above with silver. The birds chattered as they flew into the trees to nest for the night.
Then from afar, the azaan came floating from the Nizamuddin dargah and Syed paused in her singing, the tabla and sarangi fell silent. We let that eternal, echoing call to prayer fill our hearts with gratitude for such an unforgettable moment. And then the azaan faded away and she began to sing again; a Sufi paean to kindness and love blending into the night air like perfume.