IF someone were to ask me to choose between writing an essay on the Taj Mahal or on the last rose of summer, I'd take the rose - even if it was down to its last petal. Beautiful, cold, white marble leaves me - well, just a little cold.
Roses are warm and fragrant, and almost every flower I know, wild or cultivated, has its own unique quality, whether it be subtle fragrance or arresting color or loveliness of design. Unfortunately, winter has come to the Himalayas, and the hillsides are now brown and dry, the only color being that of the red sorrel growing from the limestone rocks. Even my small garden looks rather forlorn, with the year's last dark-eyed nasturtium looking every bit like the Lone Ranger surveying the surrounding wildern ess from his saddle. The marigolds have dried in the sun, and tomorrow I will gather the seed. The beanstalk that grew rampant during the monsoon is now down to a few yellow leaves and empty bean pods.
"This won't do," I told myself the other day. "I must have flowers!"
My friend Prem, who had been down to the valley town of Dehra the previous week, had made me even more restless, because he had spoken of masses of sweet peas in full bloom in the garden of one of the town's public schools. Down in the plains, winter is the best time for gardens, and I remembered my grandmother's house in Dehra, with its long rows of hollyhocks, neatly staked sweet peas, and beds ablaze with red salvia and antirrhinum. Neither Grandmother nor the house are there anymore, but surely there
are other beautiful gardens, I mused, and maybe I could visit the school where Prem had seen the sweet peas. It was a long time since I had enjoyed their delicate fragrance.
So I took the bus down the hill, and throughout the two-hour journey I dozed and dreamt of gardens - cottage gardens in the English countryside, tropical gardens in Florida, Mughal gardens in Kashmir, the hanging gardens of Babylon! - what had they really been like, I wondered.
And then we were in Dehra, and I got down from the bus and walked down the dusty, busy road to the school Prem had told me about.
It was encircled by a high wall, and, tiptoeing, I could see playing fields and extensive school buildings and, in the far distance, a dollop of color that may have been a garden. Prem's eyesight was obviously better than mine!
MADE my way to a wrought-iron gate that would have done justice to a medieval fortress, and found it chained and locked. On the other side stood a tough-looking guard, with a rifle.
"May I enter?" I asked.
"Sorry, sir. Today is holiday. No school today."
"I don't want to attend classes. I want to see sweet peas."
"Kitchen is on the other side of the ground."
"Not green peas. Sweet peas. I'm looking for the garden."
"I am guard here."
"No garden, only guard."
I tried telling him that I was an old boy of the school and that I was visiting the town after a long interval. This was true up to a point, because I had once been admitted to this very school, and after one day's attendance had insisted on going back to my old school. The guard was unimpressed. And perhaps it was poetic justice that the gates were barred to me now.
Disconsolate, I strolled down the main road, past a garage, a cinema, and a row of eating houses and tea shops. Behind the shops there seemed to be a park of sorts, but you couldn't see much of it from the road because of the buildings, the press of people, and the passing trucks and buses. But I found the entrance, unbarred this time, and struggled through patches of overgrown shrubbery until, like Alice after finding the golden key to the little door in the wall, I looked upon a lovely little garden.
There were no sweet peas, and the small fountain was dry. But around it, filling a large circular bed, were masses of bright yellow California poppies.
They stood out like sunshine after rain, and my heart leapt as Wordworth's must have when he saw his daffodils. I found myself oblivious to the sounds of the bazaar and the road, just as the people outside seemed oblivious to this little garden. It was as though it has been waiting here all this time, waiting for me to come by and discover it.
I am fortunate. Something like this is always happening to me. As Grandmother often said, "When one door closes, another door opens." And while one gate had been closed upon the sweet peas, another had opened on California poppies.